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Talk is cheap



When the city hosted workshops this summer to study a small subdivision in the Parramore neighborhood, they went to great lengths to find people to comment on the 60-acre area.

They invited churches and business people. They made sure government employees took off several Saturday mornings to attend the workshops. Joe Gray, a county employee turned consultant who was paid $30,000 to complete the study, even traveled to interview residents and developers who couldn't appear in person.

At the same time Gray was gathering information, community planners at one of the city's favorite firms, EDAW, were completing a $60,000 Centroplex Master Plan for the two-block area around the T.D. Waterhouse Centre. The O-rena, as it is more affectionately known, is separated from Gray's study area by a single street, Parramore Avenue, the main corridor of the low-income Parramore neighborhood, named after Orlando's 14th mayor, J.B. "Buck" Parramore, who died in office in 1902.

Only in the EDAW plan, the people invited to take part in the plan -- the "stakeholders," as city officials like to call them -- were mostly government representatives, such as Orange County School Board members and Centroplex management, and officials of the Marriott Corp., which owns a hotel across the street from the arena.

You didn't have to look too deeply to see the reason for the difference in the city's two approaches. In the Gray study, the city was up against nine property owners who controlled 17 acres of industrial-zoned land on West Amelia Street, a main thoroughfare in the middle of the study area. Those landowners want their property rezoned for high-rise development. City officials, on the other hand, have given up on the idea that Amelia Street would one day become a residential avenue and were hoping for a residential-retail mix. They were hoping that residents -- even residents outside the study area -- would share that outlook, and help beat back the high-rise push.

In the EDAW study, the city was mostly involved with its pals. There was no reason to make things messy by asking the average citizen for his opinion. That might lead to changes and other headaches.

City officials have a host of reasons why they don't want high-rise buildings on West Amelia. But it's important to remember that developing the street will not displace low-income residents or cost taxpayers a dime.

Things aren't that easy with the EDAW plan. For one thing, city officials are unable to say how much it will cost, though they did point out they anticipate that private dollars will fund much of it. That's good, because the plan looks like it will cost a lot. The city wants to demolish public parking lots around the arena, close off two roads, build six multi-level parking structures, extend four streets, dig a retention pond, move the Nap Ford Community School (which the city spent $1.6 million this year to build) and the city's main recreation center as well as construct a new Expo Center and add another hotel.

There's also a sketch of a new arena, which raises a number of questions. Is the city saying that we need another arena in spite of overwhelming opposition to it? No, says Tom Kohler, executive director of the Community Redevelopment Agency, the city agency that commissioned the two studies. Instead, he says, if voters decide it's time for a new arena, then at least the city has a designated place to build one.

The West Amelia group wishes the city would be as prescient in planning for high-rise development. Just as the city expects to complete the Centroplex Master Plan over the next 20 years, West Amelia property owners expect they'll build high-rises on their 17 acres in the next two decades.

Joe Gray said that's unlikely to happen. He unrolled a number of graphs and charts that were used in the workshops to show that land values per acre in the study area would be worth much more if they were residential than if they were zoned industrial or commercial.

But that assumption is disingenuous for a number of reasons. If you build a $100,000 home, the most you might expect in rent is $1,000 a month. Landowners, meanwhile, could make $60,000 a year off a single warehouse in Parramore.

That bit of misinformation was typical of Gray's presentation. He also said the Amelia Street group wanted to turn all 60 acres of the study area into commercial uses. Not so. The group said it wanted to see high-rises on West Amelia and suggested that if homeowners on two streets in the northern part of the study area didn't want to look at tall buildings, their homes could be converted to small offices like those in Thornton Park.

The West Amelia group also suggested the city might build a park to the south of Amelia on what is vacant land owned by the city. A group of Parramore residents also offered that suggestion. But city officials quickly dismissed it because they want to build houses on the property.

Given the back and forth between the two sides, it's curious that city officials claim to be puzzled by landowners' resistance to City Hall. Mayor Glenda Hood said the landowners' failure to buy into the city's plan was her "biggest frustration."

Commissioner Daisy Lynum, whose district includes Parramore, made the landowners seem greedy, saying that their idea to "industrialize" the area had led to a confusing battle against the Nap Ford Community School. (In fact, only one property owner, David van Gelder, publicly opposed the school.)

In what had to be the strangest confession at City Hall this year, Lynum said, "Because I represent that community, we haven't been able to get consensus. I don't know why it is so difficult. When you know a community well `like she apparently does`, nobody believes what you say."

Lynum went on to say that the recommendations from Gray's study were a "no-brainer" and that the study probably wasn't necessary except for "credibility's sake and consensus."

Unfortunately, it's doubtful the Amelia Street study will give the city either. The landowners plan to fight it as it winds through the various city boards. They've threatened to take it to court.


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