On Winter Park's west side, residents fear development squeezing them out

Orlando Sentinel (FL), 2014-06-16


June 16 --In Central Florida , " Winter Park " is shorthand for a certain image -- large homes, luxury cars, lunch along Park Avenue .

But that image reflects only the eastern part of the city. The west side, the less affluent, historically black area of town, is Winter Park too. And residents there are worried that development pressures brought on by a hot property market are squeezing them out, and altering their community.

Upscale restaurants and shops now line major roads on the west side, also known as Hannibal Square . In recent years a parking garage and four-story senior-housing complex have been built along Denning Drive . A four-story apartment building is going up now, just across Denning from quiet streets of single-family homes.

But the latest catalyst for residents' unhappiness is a request by developer Dan Bellows to rezone several single-family lots to allow construction of multifamily town homes on West Canton and North Capen avenues. If approved, it would replace eight single-family homes with residences for 20-32 families.

"If you bought into an area and all of a sudden you got a 400 percent increase in density, that's a huge change," said Bob Cambric , 51, an urban planner who grew up in Winter Park . "The changes they're requesting are things that undermine the overall community character."

Winter Park's planners defend their efforts at balancing development and preservation on the west side, and note their influence is not limitless.

"We have no ability to step into the free market of property [sales]; that's not an arena that the city can get into," said Dori Stone , the city's economic-development director. "What they can do with it after they buy it, that's where the city enters the arena."

"We have been trying to bridle this horse in the direction we want it to go, because the development community would want it to go anywhere and everywhere," added Jeff Briggs , the city's planning and zoning manager. Briggs said the city has played a major role in improving Hannibal Square , including rehabbing more than 130 homes and establishing a community redevelopment agency in 1994 to lift the area out of blight and neglect.

"In those days, in the '90s and '80s, those were not attractive, safe places," he recalled. "Nobody remembers New England Avenue when it was rooming houses, day laborers and four bars. And no one remembers Morse Boulevard with the folks around the 50-gallon drum with a fire burning in it playing checkers all day."

But longtime resident Mary Daniels , 69, said many west-siders feel their concerns are not adequately addressed by the city. A former member of Winter Park's planning and zoning board, she recalls being on the losing end of plenty of 4-1 votes over west-side development.

"A lot of people feel it doesn't do any good, that people really don't listen or care about our community," she said. "Who do you value, the developers or your residents?"

Daniels acknowledges that change is inevitable, but the rise of higher-density buildings bothers her.

"In other neighborhoods there have been tear-downs to build bigger homes, but they're still building single-family homes," she said. "We are concerned about keeping this a single-family residential community."

With the blend of 1940s concrete-block homes and larger new construction dotted around the west side, incongruous sights are not hard to come by.

On West Canton Avenue , an 8,410-square-foot behemoth sits empty and for sale, with metal security gates rolled down over doors and windows. The asking price for the five-bedroom, 71/2-bath home, which is so large it looks like a municipal building, is $2,995,000 .

It sits on what used to be three lots, and serves as a lesson learned for city planners. In its wake, they tightened restrictions on lot consolidation.

On West Lyman Avenue , eight two-story "luxury villas" with an Italian theme are under construction on another block of otherwise modest single-story homes. They don't blend with the rest of the neighborhood, and that doesn't seem to be the idea. The home builder's website boasts "private, gated alley access to garage and fenced-in private space."

Some of the projects that have upset residents, such as the apartment complex under construction on the former site of a Department of Motor Vehicles office, are in areas that have been zoned accordingly for decades. It's just that no builder had chosen to take full advantage of that zoning until now, Briggs said.

"It's a function of the metropolitan growth and demand, and it's a function of, if you're going to pay the maximum for the land, you're going to have to maximize your building yield," he said.

Rollins College assistant professor Julian Chambliss has seen plenty of change on the west side since he arrived at the school in 2003. He's taught classes on urban history dealing with the process of gentrification.

He notes that the west side's status as something of a separate city within a city goes back to Winter Park's founding.

In the 1880s, the area was set aside as segregated housing for black residents, many of whom worked as servants for the city's white residents. Whites pushed to de-annex the area from the city in 1893. It was reinstated in 1925.

Segregation was the norm well into the 1960s.

Changing demographics, including an aging and declining population, have altered the area too, he said. And as redevelopment accelerates, its long and sometimes painful history makes for what Chambliss calls "a really complicated story" that can't be reduced to just the law of supply and demand.

"You can see the extension of the Park Avenue experience moving into Hannibal Square , helping bring the look and feel of the east side to the west side, but also accelerating the process of gentrification," he said. "You can argue about the morality, and rightly so, when there's the legacy of race and Jim Crow on the west side," he said.

Cambric, the urban planner, said residents will continue to advocate for a small-town, single-family feel as Hannibal Square moves into the future. The proposed town-house project comes before the city's planning and zoning board July 1 .

"We want to be part of the conversation about what happens in the community," he said. "You've got this domino effect of increasing density block by block. Where does it end?"

dbreen@tribune.com or 407-420-5189407-420-5189

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