The first annual Alden Arts Happening is, in fact, happening this Saturday, Oct. 23 -- despite a hurricane of controversy along this stretch that parallels Mayor Glenda Hood's proposed arts corridor.
It began in March, when Hood and her Business Assistance Team dropped in on tenants along Alden Road, one block east of the North Orange Avenue antique district between Princeton and Virginia avenues. During chats with vendors who include a smattering of artisans, the idea for a street arts festival was spawned, and subsequent meetings with business and property owners and the city proceeded apace.
Well, not quite apace.
Carolyn J. Roberts, who owns much of the property along Alden -- including all of the festival-minded venues -- protested. Enter David Allen Webster II, her son-in-law attorney, and Jane Webster, her property-managing daughter.
Attorney Webster wrote Hood in July that "city planners agreed that Alden Road was inappropriate ... [and] that the festival should be held in the Lake Ivanhoe Park." He implored the city to reverse its decisions, including one to post permanent signs directing the public to the suddenly christened "Alden Arts District."
"It made sense to include the Ivanhoe shops," says Jane Webster, who attended the meeting with the planners. "[Except that] our tenants, the people who have a vested interest in having it at Alden Road, argued that visitors would not come to them from the Ivanhoe shops," located across railroad tracks and around the corner from Alden on North Orange Avenue. After a member of the mayor's business team agreed that it made sense to focus the festival on the Ivanhoe area ("In fact, it was her idea" ), Jane Webster says she "left that meeting thinking the [Alden] festival was a dead issue."
"It all boils down to the issue of the landlord having a different vision than the tenants," says festival sponsor Wes Bailey, a partner with his wife, Marcelle, in James Marcelle, their furniture design business at 1611 Alden Road. "The land's been family-owned since the late 1940s. The buildings are pretty dilapidated. They haven't put dollars into maintaining the property because most of their large clients are commercial distribution warehouses."
Indeed, the street is dominated by light manufacturing and distribution, with heavy truck traffic. Yet in the last few years, as Roberts has leased some of her space to folks like the Baileys and others of an artsy bent, a trend began. The festival, to these people, was a positive step, especially given Hood's inclusion of the neighborhood in plans to designate an arts corridor through downtown.
"We thought this would be a good opportunity to get a festival started," says Bailey. "The owner had always been supportive of our smaller, invitation-only shows. We were very surprised when we had resistance from her."
It's true, says David Webster: Carolyn Roberts and her family are supportive of the arts. Rather, their objections are focused on property use. And although Roberts took no legal action to stop the event this year, sponsors fear similar problems if they promote a second festival next year.
"That reality has put a real damper on this," says Bailey. "We've had people drop out from participating. ... We even received a letter threatening to terminate the lease if we did it [the festival], but the lease cannot prohibit it. It's done on a city street, with proper permits, proper insurance -- everything done above-board."
His hunch is that the landowner has long-range plans to sell the property for medical, office and high-rise construction, perhaps to nearby Florida Hospital. He knows that any change in an area's use -- in this case, the infusion of more art spaces -- can force a change in zoning, thus jeopardizing development plans. In fact, David Webster raises concerns about that very scenario in his letter to the city.
"Listen," Bailey adds, "when I play devil's advocate, I have to say that I can understand their view. They've owned the property for 50 years and they want to cash in on it."
As for his future on Alden Road, because of the festival fury, he says, "I don't expect my lease to be renewed next year."
Next door, the Flying Turtle Gallery keeps its "Wholesale Only" sign in full view, to avoid legal rumbling from the Roberts' camp for its decision to join in Saturday's festival. (The property is zoned for high-intensity mixed-use, and provides for residential and commercial, public, service, recreational, institutional and conservation uses. Ironically, the adjacent industrial businesses remain only because of grandfather clauses.) Among about 30 local artists who get exposure through gallery owner and wood artist Sandy Schoenberger's shop are those who work in mediums from watercolor, charcoal, oil and acrylic to ceramics, photography and glass.
"This has all been so upsetting," murmurs one of the painters, reading the notices found beneath the gallery's door. The first, addressed to festival organizers from Jane Webster, advised that her non-artist tenants would be open on Saturday -- transport vehicles and all -- and planned to access their businesses as usual. The second was a disclaimer to those other business, advising that cooperation with the event -- scheduled to operate from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., with 30 artists, bands, and food and drink -- was up to individual discretion.
Across the street at Castlestone, which produces designer stone and plaster ware, the McCulloch family is working feverishly to prepare for the festival. Watching his son hoist a parachute to the ceiling to soften the warehouse's interior look for Saturday, patriarch Alexander McCulloch is philosophical.
"If it goes, it goes. We want to change this road to an art district; the owner doesn't," he says. "However, the reality is that this is ideal for the city's light-rail to come along, what with the buildings being adjacent to the existing track.
"The way I see it," he says, "we stay as long as we can and work to establish ourselves, make some money.
The festival should be a good thing for exposure. It could do a lot for people -- designers, architects -- to come in and see that they could use Castlestone as a showroom. It should be a good thing."
His daughter, Hayley, stops work long enough to opine: "Yes, a good thing. It would have been nice had the landlord given support, not negativity."