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As a planner whose professional experience has been focused on market analysis and real estate, I have a healthy appreciation for how the market influences the outcomes of even our best-laid plans in all sorts of ways. I often find myself needing to balance my enthusiasm for a planning vision with what my gut tells me is the market reality. For this reason I’ve been interested in the dynamics surrounding two business districts here in Orlando. The Baldwin Park Village Center is a prime example of a walkable, mixed-use town center developed as part of a very successful New Urbanist community that replaced the former Orlando Naval Training Center. The homes in Baldwin Park fetch high prices, the town center boasts lakefront views, and the neighborhood as a whole has a “just right” feeling about it that has led some here at Renaissance to call it Pleasantville. It’s a very nice place to be.

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But all is not happy in the Village Center. It has struggled to find and keep retail tenants from its start in the early 2000s, and was repossessed by the bank just a few years ago. Both local real estate experts and residents alike have weighed in on how it could be turned around but it still is trying to find sustained success. While the real estate crash and recession certainly didn’t help things, the Village Center suffers from being kind of buried back in the neighborhood away from major roads, and probably has too much retail space to fill for its location and the trade area it is trying to serve.

But one thing that Baldwin Park did succeed in was bringing a lot of new affluent and well-educated households to this part of Orlando. Check out this map of the percentage change from 2000-2012 in adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher. It’s shaded by census block group, with the darker purple shades meaning higher numbers and the tan shades meaning lower or negative numbers.

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The big dark purple area in the upper right is Baldwin Park proper. But the smaller dark purple area roughly in the center of the map is part of the established Audubon Park neighborhood. The east-west street that forms the northern edge of the dark purple block group is Corrine Drive, and along this stretch of road are two strip malls that form the heart of what is called the Audubon Park Garden District. This small business district has blossomed over the past several years and has been officially designated a Main Street in the City of Orlando’s program that follows the structure and process laid out by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. While the marketing, programming, and organization provided by the Main Street approach has obviously contributed to the district’s growth, I think that the course of its revitalization has been fairly remarkable given the physical environment. We planners have gotten used to thinking that you need to have quaint walkable streets and attractive mixed-use buildings to create a successful shopping alternative to conventional auto-oriented retail. But that’s not the case here in Audubon Park.

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The two strip malls were built in the 1950s and while they’re in decent shape, they’re not going to win any architectural awards. Parking is all in the front and landscaping is minimal if not totally absent. Corrine Drive is wide, traffic moves pretty fast, and the sidewalks are marginal at best if they even exist. But this area is one of the most vibrant retail districts in Orlando. The street view photo above shows Red Light Red Light, a widely known bar with an epic craft brew selection (and a favorite haunt of noted Renaissance blogger Whit Blanton). Other distinctive businesses in this two-block stretch include Orlando Outfitters, Park Avenue CDs, Bikes, Beans & Bordeaux, and Bluebird Bake Shop. People come from miles around to shop at these unique businesses, along with others in the district like Stardust Video & Coffee and the recently opened East End Market. But it’s not all hip retail here: there are two gas stations flanking the intersection with Winter Park Road, as well as a 7-Eleven, auto repair shop, real estate office, and animal hospital among other businesses.

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So what we have here is a vibrant mix of businesses that any town center would kill for, located in a decidedly non-town center environment. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that the Audubon Park Garden District has essentially become the place that the Baldwin Park Village Center wants to be, at least from a shopping perspective. Baldwin Park has the beautiful buildings, walkable streets, and lakefront views that make it a high quality place, but you can bet that higher lease rates come with that. Audubon Park offers cheaper space, better visibility, and an engaged business community (through the Main Street program) in an emerging district that still has a ways to go in terms of its quality of place. One district’s challenge is the other’s strength, and vice versa.

There are a lot of lessons to take from a case study like this and I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of the history and dynamics that shaped both of these districts. But one that stands out for me is that if the demand for the “stuff” that occupies the buildings (i.e. unique local retailers) exists, then it will naturally find places where it can thrive. And those places might not necessarily be in the well-planned town center where you want the demand to go. Baldwin Park helped bring in the target customer base for specialty shopping, but the Audubon Park Garden District is reaping most of the rewards so far.

–Dave Stamm, Cities That Work Blog

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