Picking a plan
The duel between two developers seeking Eatonville’s prized property is reaching its conclusion.
Eatonville residents got their first look Monday night at what could be built on a 94-acre piece of land surrounding the old Hungerford Prep School – a development that could reshape the town for years to come.
The Eatonville Town Council heard from developers UP Development and Essian Construction LLC before a crowd of residents this week as part of an ongoing selection process to see who will build out the coveted piece of land along Kennedy Boulevard.
The property is one of the biggest vacant pieces of land available for development in all of Central Florida. The Hungerford School that anchors the parcel was founded back in 1889, named after Dr. Robert Hungerford, a white physician from Maitland who taught African Americans how to read and write. It was a private vocational school until 1950 when it was obtained by Orange County, but was eventually closed down in 2009. The building has since served as a community meeting place for residents.
The fate of the land has long been a topic of discussion in the town, but the coming weeks could very well decide the destiny of the property.
Eatonville Chief Administrative Officer Roger Dixon said the town hopes to see it become a mixed-use project composed of residential, retail and office development, along with a new state-of-the-art elementary school promised by Orange County Public Schools. Though the property still belongs to the school system, it’s been placed in Eatonville’s hands to sell and develop the land.
Essian Construction presented a project that included a new vocational school, roughly 240 affordable housing units, a museum, an events/sports dome that could seat up to 12,000 people, office space, commercial and retail space, the preservation and renovation of the existing Hungerford School buildings, and 72 additional fee-simple – for purchase – affordable housing units on a separate plot of land west of Interstate 4 along Kennedy Boulevard.
Many of the structures, such as the museum, are depicted in renderings with a late 1800s architectural style, modeled after old-timey black-and-white photos of the original Hungerford School.
“It was our view, and remains our view, that the face of Eatonville will respect the history of Eatonville, the scale of Eatonville, the character of Eatonville,” said Bob Koch, the architect for Essian Construction LLC.
UP Development presented a plan to build a new vocational school, between 800 and 1,000 housing units, a museum, a new elementary school, a baseball stadium seating around 6,000 people, office and retail space, a memorial park in honor of notable Eatonville residents, a second park dedicated to the civil rights movement, and the preservation and renovation of the existing school buildings.
That project was also supported by former Eatonville Mayor Abraham Gordon, who had been pushing his own vision for the property over the past year through Eatonville Cultural and Growth Corporation.
“This is vitally necessary,” said Gordon, speaking of the project’s ability to create a tax base for the town. “They have come in and shown us the things that can be placed on that property that can bring revenue into the town of Eatonville.”
Besides differing visions for the property, the two firms also presented drastically different offers to purchase the property itself, which has been appraised at roughly $10.4 million.
Essian Construction made an offer of $4 million, Dixon told the Observer, but the proposed project in realty offers a value of $8 million, said Richard Shassian of Essian Construction. That’s because the existing land where the Hungerford School buildings sit is being given back to the Town of Eatonville, Shassian said, essentially leaving land on the table for the developer. Essian also explained on Monday that it’s what goes on the land that should determine the price. The lower bid reflects the project’s goal to focus on workforce and affordable housing, said Scott Culp from Essian Construction LLC.
“Appraised value comes down to what you decide you want the use to be,” Culp said. “We think affordable housing and workforce housing is important to a community.”
UP Development meanwhile went in the opposite direction, making an offer of $20.25 million. A pending agreement between the developer, Orange County Public Schools and the town of Eatonville would divide the excess money between the new school, the town and the Hungerford Chapel Trust, which grants scholarships to Eatonville students.
An RFP (request for proposal) committee recommended UP Development to the Town Council last month, due to the firm’s high bid, experience and the proposed project itself.
The Town Council will continue to discuss the two options at a future workshop. Dixon said he hopes to see the Council make a decision on a developer at some point this month.