It was sink or swim for a development proposal to put nearly 300 apartments next to Maitland’s SunRail station on Monday. A belabored and begrudgingly unanimous vote befell the Council as they sent Maitland Station bounding downstream into reality.
The development, called Maitland Station, will be built on the old Parker Lumber site bordering SunRail on the north. The 293 apartments will be built around a filled-in sinkhole, its layout like a doughnut with parking in the middle, said Rebecca Wilson representing builder Epoch Properties. Due to the difficult schematics of the property, she said, two developers had previously walked away from redeveloping the site. Epoch’s plans, she said, are the best option the city could hope for on the encumbered property.
But despite a unanimous vote of approval for the plans, the majority of City Council members said the apartment complex isn’t at all what they had in mind for the area.
“I’m neither pleased nor proud,” said Mayor Dale McDonald of the plans, upset that no retail was worked into the project.
City Attorney Cliff Shepard advised Councilmembers that they could only vote no on the project if they could find discrepancies with the proposal not meeting city code.
Councilwoman Bev Reponen said that’s why at the end of the discussion she found herself voting yes for a project she didn’t want to vote for.
“I’m only voting yes because I can’t find a good enough reason not to,” she said. “I certainly feel that an injustice has been done. Our residents really wanted more out of this.”
Reponen said she envisioned the lot being utilized as a high-activity area drawing people into Maitland and down U.S. 17-92 into the city’s downtown district.
“This was not my idea of how we were going to go about this,” she said. “…I was told that this was supposed to be an area of high activity, high retail. The basic premise then has not been achieved in my mind in making this area very active.”
A handful of residents spoke up against the development during the meeting, wishing for restaurants or coffee shops to be brought to the development’s ground floor to serve as a destination for SunRail riders and the local community.
“I thought this would be a great way to jump start the city of Maitland as a destination point … a reason to get off the train instead of continuing,” said resident Leona Owens. An apartment complex, she added, even if it’s a pretty one, doesn’t do that.
A year after the commuter rail system’s launch, Maitland’s SunRail stop is consistently ranked in the bottom two in ridership numbers out of 12 stops. In March, 4,949 riders hopped on at the Maitland station. Next door, Winter Park led all stops in ridership, with 21,533 passengers — more than four times as many riders as Maitland.
Winter Park’s numbers were influenced by free rides on certain weekend days in March, funneling passengers to, and from, events in the city and nearby. But even with the free rides removed the Winter Park stop saw more than double the ridership of Maitland, which hosts comparatively fewer large-scale events and has far fewer retail stores and restaurants nearby to lure passengers.
Winter Park’s SunRail station stands in the middle of the city’s popular mixed-use shopping and dining district, boasting more than 100 businesses along Park and New England avenues, with apartments located on higher floors. By comparison, the closest businesses to Maitland’s station, along busy U.S. Highway 17-92, are an automotive repair shop, a bank and a Mercedes-Benz dealership.
Wilson said a study by independent consultants shows that the lot next to the SunRail station isn’t suitable to sustain commercial business if built under the constraints of city code.
“Nobody’s getting off of SunRail for coffee,” Wilson said. “You’re going to be getting off SunRail for an activity.”
The complexities of the land mixed with the rules about parking and sidewalk-fronted buildings, she said, make the city code unfriendly to retail on the property.
Resident Hank Wolf, a member of the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission, said the Maitland Station proposal makes the best of a difficult situation.
“I think the developer here has brought a very creative solution to a very difficult project,” Wolf said, adding that even though the city may like to see retail on the lot, it doesn’t mandate that they should get it.
Councilman Ivan Valdes agreed as the only Council member speaking fully in favor of the development.
“Dooming this property is leaving the property as it is for the next 40 years,” he said.