"I've never seen a more flawed process," says Bill Segal, real-estate developer and member of the mayor's Parramore Task Force. "It was like I looked through the looking glass." He's right. The task force, convened in November by Mayor Dyer to fix the blighted Parramore neighborhood, looks to be producing a whole lot of nothing.
The board was troubled from the beginning; only one of 23 panelists actually lives in Parramore, a signal to residents that they don't matter. "It's the same old thing," activist Betty Gelzer told the Orlando Sentinel. "The city is doing what it wants to do and getting people from the outside to speak for us. We still don't have a voice."
Attendance at meetings was astoundingly poor. Several members almost never showed up for committee or subcommittee meetings, particularly Ed Timberlake, Bob Carmichael and Cari Coats. On several occasions, only one or two members of a subcommittee bothered to attend the meetings, rendering the proceedings moot due to lack of a quorum. When committee members did bother to show up they often ignored Robert's Rules of Order and didn't bother with trifles such as posting meetings times to comply with the state's Sunshine Law.
Not to mention that meetings were driven by city staffers rather than the task force members. "They ran the whole thing," says Segal, who is a candidate for Orange County Commission, District 5. "They pushed everything toward the finish line they wanted them to be at." The task force, he believes, was all about preserving city staffers' job security and promoting the status quo.
For what seems like forever, the city has struggled with revitalizing Parramore. Despite numerous studies, and good money after bad, the nut hasn't been cracked. Crime -- and the perception thereof -- has kept potential businesses at bay. Combine that with low home-ownership rates, a terrible mismatch of residential and industrial zonings, a surplus of social service centers, lax code enforcement and vision-less leadership from city commissioner Daisy Lynum, and you've got a recipe for stagnation.
There's hope, if you're inclined to be optimistic. The Hughes Supply building, the upcoming Florida A&M Law School and federal courthouse all point to the area's potential. But these are all government projects (Hughes Supply was subsidized by the downtown Community Redevelopment Agency). That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the true test of revitalization is the degree to which private businesses thrive without government subsidies. Anything less is window dressing.
Turning Parramore into Thornton Park West will almost certainly displace the neighborhood's poor, mostly black, population. On the other hand, doing nothing isn't an option either. There lies the failure of Dyer's Parramore Task Force: no sense of what a revitalized Parramore should look like.
But City Hall grows impatient. The fruitless studies and committees and task forces -- three in recent memory -- are starting to wear at the administration's resolve. Meanwhile, Dyer's campaign rhetoric (last year he told me that if he did not fix Parramore, he'd consider his administration a failure) has set the bar high. So, it's now or never.
Last week, I got a chance to peek at the machinery of Parramore revitalization. The March 17 task force meeting started out most unsmoothly; it was never legally posted, and had to be delayed for a week. But since task force members were there anyway, chairman Brian Butler convened what was, officially, an "executive committee" meeting in which subcommittee chairs made presentations. And even that wasn't done properly. According to the legal posting, the proceedings were to be held on a different floor of City Hall a half-hour earlier.
Much of what came out of the haphazard meeting is obvious: Parramore needs better crime control and code enforcement. Others ideas were retreads, including moving the Coalition for the Homeless and continuing the city's moratorium on expanding social services in the district.
Two things struck me as noteworthy: a suggestion to "halt all public and low-income housing projects until current codes are enforced and crime is reduced so as to mirror the east side of I-4" (which is to say for a long, long time); and rezoning parts of Parramore to AC-3A/T, the most development-friendly classification the city has. Doing so would allow skyscrapers and other megadevelopments to blossom in Parramore. All of the east side of downtown is AC-3A/T; none of the west side is, save for the anomalous Holiday Inn near Colonial Drive and Garland Avenue.
Nothing would do more to reshape Parramore quickly. Property values would soar and developers would, if the market so dictated, come calling. Property owners could sell their shanties for 10 times what it would be worth today, and new, presumably richer, developers would keep buildings up to code and lean on the cops to do a better job, which in turn would lure more investment west.
The downside is gentrification, and upzoning would swiftly displace Parramore's poor renters. But if the city expects Parramore renovation to be perfect or bloodless, it's in for a world of hurt. Upzoning is the best path to a better Parramore.
Some landlords would boot their poor tenants and sell to the highest bidder, but others wouldn't, at least not right away. Poor homeowners could keep their properties as long as they like, and would be under no obligation to sell. Recall that under state law, taxes on homesteaded property can't increase more than 3 percent a year.
When the megadevelopments did come, the city, through the Community Redevelopment Agency, could use tax incentives to create affordable housing in the new condos, and could use the increases in its property tax base to help the dislocated poor.
For Parramore to improve, you have to take chances. The alternative, as we saw throughout Glenda Hood's administration, is to waste money on studies and get nothing in return. Maybe this time the city has learned from its past mistakes.