In many ways, Lake Mary represents the juxtaposition of Florida’s evolving development pattern. Case in point: how does a suburban community in sprawling Central Florida with the headquarters of the American Automobile Association (AAA) as its signature corporate presencesuccessfully create Transit Oriented Development?
It takes thoughtful planning, perseverance and a long term view. But with the opening of Station House, a residential mixed-use development at Lake Mary’s SunRail commuter rail station, the vision is becoming reality. Lake Mary is a model for other communities seeking to create TOD from scratch.
Located in Seminole County, the City of Lake Mary’s population is about 14,000, with a median household income of $83,000, making it one of Central Florida’s more affluent communities. In the 1980s and ‘90s, the portion of Lake Mary adjacent to Interstate 4 experienced an office real estate boom as the Heathrow International Business Center and other campus-style corporate office parks sought prime regional access and proximity to a well-educated workforce with renowned quality public schools.
Long before the approval and opening of SunRail’s first phase in 2014, Lake Mary had transit plans to connect its eastern residential areas and historic town center with the rapidly growing employment center located west of I-4. Those plans have yet to materialize, but its 2001 Downtown Master Plan set the framework for development around a future passenger rail station along the CSX railroad once built. The Lake Mary SunRail station, completed in 2013, features 300+ free parking spaces, which is a reflection that the station is several miles removed from the City's primary employment areas and much of its population base.
The Downtown Master Plan set the template for connectivity and development in the traditional town center, platted around a traditional grid in 1926 with a railroad station as the anchor. It is a small but walkable and diverse downtown, with a collection of mostly single story retail shops, restaurants, a prominent park, some offices and City Hall. City staff attribute the existing sense of place as a big contributor to the station's success.
Creating TOD Readiness
John Omana, the City’s Community Development Director, likes to say “we set the regulatory table” to guide desired downtown redevelopment. The City threw out its conventional zoning code because of setback provisions and other requirements that precluded compact development. It adopted performance zoning to guide the development form and character, providing relief on setbacks, which were established at 0 in some cases, and enabled a high level of flexibility relative to site requirements, such as provision of parking. The City completed streetscape plans to enhance the walking experience and provide on-street parking.
The key to the TOD’s success is an innovative Transfer of Development Rights program involving “density banking.” The City’s Downtown Master Plan set a base density of 18 dwelling units per acre for the downtown area, so the City converted the development potential of all city-owned property in the downtown area into an aggregated pool of “unused dwelling units.” This resulted in a TDR pool of some 400 dwelling units, available for purchase by developers to increase a project’s density and yield.
Through a public-private partnership Station House developers, Epoch Properties, purchased land adjacent to the station from the City, which established a Planned Unit Development overlay for the property. Epoch used the TDR program to purchase additional density, resulting in a four story, 200 unit residential development yielding 71 units/acre. To enable construction of a parking garage on site, that needed to encroach into a public right-of-way, the City issued a 99-year lease to access the right-of-way rather than vacate the ROW and be forced to divide it equally among adjacent property owners. That cooperative action enabled the project to move forward on the site.
A Development Catalyst
Epoch is marketing the Station House to millennials working down the SunRail line in Orlando at the Florida Hospital Health Village station, the two downtown Orlando stations and the Orlando Health station. Only 13 of the units include three bedrooms. Nearby shared public space amenities include the heavily programmed Central Park, and its Farmers Market, the Cross Seminole Trail, a Community Center and other trails. A variety of retail is just a short walk away.
The area surrounding Station House and the SunRail station is poised for additional development. A number of properties next to the development include For Sale signs, signifying that initial success will be a catalyst to further development of the area. According to City staff, lenders are still balking at the zero on-site parking provisions, making office development unlikely in the TOD area. It will likely remain primarily residential with small amounts of retail for the foreseeable future.
While Lake Mary's station area is coming to reality in a positive way that builds on its historic sense of place, there remains a disconnect between the City's SunRail station and the regional employment center located 3-4 miles to the west along I-4. To address that situation, Lake Mary is working with office owners and tenants to experiment with privately operated shuttles, but time will tell if it will prove successful. In the meantime, the City is focusing on enhancing the SunRail station area through additional development as a strategy to strengthen its downtown identity and offer people additional housing and workplace choices.