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Orlando

5 Steps for Enhancing Downtown Orlando's Northern Gateway

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5 Steps for Enhancing Downtown Orlando's Northern Gateway

Cities are places to enjoy being in the presence of other people, creating with others, sharing ideas and transacting business. Those all depend on easy access and connectivity, comfortable and attractive public space and inviting gateways, which are key elements of Project DTO, Orlando's downtown vision and new redevelopment plan. A key part of the emerging Project DTO vision is of an "awesome outdoor city with highly connected neighborhoods and districts; a city with an iconic visual identity, built for the future so that open space supports recreation, air quality, tree canopy cover and water quality needs." Downtown Orlando's relationship with its lakes, a signature feature of the City Beautiful, is a centerpiece of that vision.

Downtown Orlando's northern boundary offers a wonderful opportunity to support the vision. It lies along a series of small to mid-size man-made lakes, known collectively as Lake Ivanhoe, created for fill as part of the 1960 construction of I-4 from Lakeland through Orlando, and used for stormwater retention for most of the downtown basin. Interstate 4 bisects Lake Ivanhoe, bringing commuters and freight to and through Downtown Orlando. Across its tranquil shores lie the tidy neighborhoods of College Park, Orlando's 1920s and 30s first ring suburb, and Ivanhoe Village, a dynamic mixed use district of bungalow homes, industrial uses, warehouses, specialty retail, bars and restaurants along North Orange Avenue. Gaston Edwards Park, on the lake's eastern shore at the intersection of Virginia Drive and N. Orange Avenue, offers a boat launch, an Italian restaurant with outdoor dining, exercise trails, volleyball courts and a fishing pier.

The boat launch at Gaston Edwards Park serves many types of users.
The boat launch at Gaston Edwards Park serves many types of users.

The lake is in the Lake Jesup drainage basin, a part of the Middle St. Johns River Basin, drawing from some 16,000 acres in central Florida, from Lake Dot in Downtown Orlando to Lake Jesup in Seminole County. The basin, principally Lake Jesup itself, is trying to recover from decades of growth. Each rainfall flushes lawn fertilizers, motor oil and other contaminants into the streams and lakes, fostering undesirable, mucky sediments that degrade habitat quality and reduce sport fish populations. Efforts to restore Lake Jesup occur through the Lake Jesup Interagency Restoration Strategy, of which the City of Orlando is a participant to improve water quality through its Greenworks Orlando sustainability initiative.

The turn on I-4 at Lake Ivanhoe is the first opportunity for southbound travelers to take in the full grandeur of Orlando's lakeshore skyline. Lake Ivanhoe also offers a scenic vista for those able to take the slower surface street routes, such as along North Orange Avenue linking Florida Hospital Orlando's Health Village and the Ivanhoe Village Main Street District with Downtown, or Edgewater Drive and Lakeview Avenue, connecting Orlando's venerable College Park neighborhood to downtown. Their confluence is at the mini Statue of Liberty, amid a sea of flowers. Gaston Edwards Park shimmers under a canopy of Live Oaks and other trees, a winding path offering convenience and comfort through the park to connect offices, hotels, antiques and restaurants.

The historic Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center building - a former OUC plant - is in dire need of a rehab.
The historic Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center building - a former OUC plant - is in dire need of a rehab.

But Downtown Orlando's northern gateway could be so much more. The I-4 Ultimate makeover will offer some opportunity to brighten up the dark and dreary overpass above Lakeview Street, but it really feels like Downtown Orlando has turned its back on its front door. Letting a disjointed convergence of interstate highway ramps, one-way surface streets, discontinuous off-road paths, disconnected commercial buildings and impenetrable flora dominate the landscape hinders the creation of publicly accessible and visible space that could serve as an iconic gateway for Downtown Orlando. Stemming from mostly unintentional actions, there is a significant barrier to access and connectivity of adjacent northern neighborhoods to Downtown Orlando.

The Ivanhoe off-ramp creates a visual and physical barrier to Downtown Orlando.
The Ivanhoe off-ramp creates a visual and physical barrier to Downtown Orlando.

The enjoyment of Downtown Orlando's iconic Lake Ivanhoe should not be limited to those who live along the lake or who can launch a boat to fish, paddle around or ski across its surface.  It should also welcome those who want to experience the lake habitat from the shore. There are more than 30 acres of publicly owned land, including right-of-way, on Lake Ivanhoe's shoreline. It may be time to open up access to Lake Ivanhoe as part of an overall strategy to better connect Orlando's neighborhoods with Downtown, create an awesome outdoor city, celebrate Orlando's iconic visual identity, and sustain the city and its natural resources for future generations. With the idea that more visibility and access goes hand in hand with better understanding and sustainability, here are five ideas that could help further that vision:

Lilly pad flowers blooming adjacent to I-4.
Lilly pad flowers blooming adjacent to I-4.
  1. Expand Gaston Edwards Park to include a lakeshore beach and public swimming area.Bring back a prime public spot for beach blankets, wading, kayak launching and swimming, drawing people from surrounding neighborhoods. Perhaps Winter Park's Dinky Dock shoreline provides an example. Access from nearby hotels, residences and businesses would make this a popular draw.

2. Re-new efforts to create a shared use path around Lake Ivanhoe. 

This city initiative died about 10 years ago amid vociferous neighborhood opposition, but maybe it's time to try again. The linkage between College Park and Downtown Orlando is difficult at best, and the lack of well-defined and comfortable path around Lake Ivanhoe is a huge missed opportunity. A growing retail, jobs and entertainment destination on the east side of the lake is an increasing draw for residents of all parts of the city and visitors. Creating continuous linkages between neighborhoods, retail and downtown, with Orlando's Urban Trail as the spine, is critical for shared success.

3. Create interpretative wayfinding signage to convey habitat and resource information.

Providing interactive visual and informative clues about natural character, distances to other destinations and a display of  historic and cultural or artistic resources is the connectivity lubricant of a city. This could help create an emerald necklace among all Downtown Orlando parks and natural areas, from Lake Ivanhoe to Lake Eola, Lake Davis and Lake Lucerne.

A Florida Snowy White Egret feeding among the shore grass.
A Florida Snowy White Egret feeding among the shore grass.

4. Establish public access/fishing areas underneath I-4 as part of the Ultimate I-4 makeover.

A fishing pier underneath I-4 linked by a walking path would be amazing.
A fishing pier underneath I-4 linked by a walking path would be amazing.

Lake Ivanhoe is a stocked lake and part of Fish Orlando! intiative of Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Walking/cycling paths to enable people to fish under the I-4 bridge, perhaps with a pier out into the lake, would add destination appeal.

5. Encourage and support events and festivals along the shore.

Opportunities abound for surprise and delight. Acoustic concerts beneath gangly Live Oaks and Cypress trees at the water's edge; rehabbing and repurposing the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts building for performance and recording space; restaurants showcasing their menus with an "A Taste of Ivanhoe Village" event; water craft and ski shows on select days and times, and street parties on N. Orange Avenue between Ivanhoe Row and the lakeshore with the street closed could make this a more visible and attractive downtown destination.

The future is beckoning. Let's make it happen, Orlando!

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A Tale of Two Retail Districts

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A Tale of Two Retail Districts

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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

[For regular news and updates, be sure to follow Renaissance on Twitter @CitiesThatWork]

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