Town centers, mixed-use developments gaining popularity in West Orange
| 7:01 a.m. September 17, 2015
West Orange Times & Observer
HORIZON WEST — Sometimes, on his way to work at the restaurant he owns with his wife, Matt Landis forgets his glasses.
A small problem that could be a real inconvenience — the Landises’ 33 & Melt Grilled Cheese Bar is an increasingly busy establishment, after all — Landis opts to return home and retrieve his glasses rather than to go without.
He’ll run home even if he has arrived at work.
Of course, considering the Landises live in an apartment at The Retreat at Windermere in Summerport Village, directly above their restaurant in a mixed-use development, running home isn’t too arduous of a task.
Indeed, living in the luxury apartments located in a suburban — and longtime rural — part of West Orange and being able to have a lifestyle reminiscent of that in an urban area is one of the reasons Landis and his wife, Carrie, have been so taken with their living situation.
“It’s the benefit of city living and a suburban setting,” Carrie Landis said.
A manifestation of a decades-long trend away from malls and sprawling shopping centers with large parking lots, mixed-use developments such as the one in Summerport — sometimes called town centers — are increasing in popularity.
For a master-planned community such as Horizon West, the vision for which dates back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, this idea was always part of the equation, said Dr. Bruce Stephenson, a professor at Rollins College in Winter Park whose research and teaching focus on the intersection of regional planning, environmental protection and urbanism.
“When the (Horizon West) plan was put together, the idea was not just to let it sprawl out,” Stephenson said. “It would be coherent and create centers and defined places where the idea would be that, within a certain pedestrian distance, you’d have the idea of live-work-play.”
Already in Horizon West, that vision is in the process of manifesting itself in the Summerport Village, which is not complete yet and includes plans for office developments, and in the Lakeside Village, further down County Road 535; which is significantly further along and also features apartments and town homes in close proximity to its Publix-anchored development.
The planned Hamlin development envisions another town center for residents of its neighboring residential developments, with the twist of being located alongside a lake.
The phenomenon is not limited to Horizon West in Orange County, either. The Rialto development in Dr. Phillips incorporates luxury apartments, dining and office space, and the Ocoee City Commission has approved plans for City Center West Orange, a massive mixed-use development along State Road 50 and Bluford Avenue.
Branching farther into Central Florida, there are popular developments including Avalon Park in east Orange County, Baldwin Park (Orlando), Oviedo on the Park, the Winter Springs Town Center, Laureate Park in Lake Nona and SoDo (Orlando).
All have enjoyed varying levels of success, with Stephenson suggesting Avalon Park as being similar, if not further ahead in its development, to Horizon West and noting that Laureate Park, with its myriad employment options tied to its proximity to the “Medical City” (including UCF’s Medical School, the new VA, Nemours and other medical and research facilities), has done particularly well.
Of those mentioned, nearly all incorporate elements of what is often referred to as new urbanism: a movement that champions walkable neighborhoods with retail, dining and employment destinations as part of the neighborhood as opposed to being sectioned off. Being able to walk and retrieve groceries is one of the biggest practical ideals of the movement — although that is not always the case in some of the developments — as is an entrepreneurial atmosphere that favors independent shops and eateries.
After decades of suburban areas being defined by unchecked sprawl, many of the mixed-used developments that are making headway into West Orange are taking cues from urban principals of the past — and nearby successes — that de-emphasize the importance of cars.
“I had a piece on ‘why Winter Park works,’ and if you look at the original plan for Winter Park from 1883, they show the train station with circles to show five minute walks — the whole town was designed to be a 15 minute walk from the train station,” Stephenson said. “All these plans are designed on historical precedent from a period when the auto was an option, not a necessity.”
As is the case with so many things, ideas such as mixed-use developments usually come to fruition only if there is a market demand for them. To that end, Sharon Voss, president of the Orlando Regional Realtors Association, said the driving forces here are not new.
“Even before this (trend came about), people always wanted to be close to church, school and shopping,” Voss said. “The builders have gone into building these Baldwin Park-type of areas and they find that they are convenient. People want to be out. (Some) don’t want to be in the city, but if they put this whole thing together, then I think that goes over pretty big, too.”
Proximity to such developments is usually important to younger home buyers, Voss noted, but added that it can also be a factor for older buyers in an area such as DeLand.
Speaking as an academic, Stephenson suggested younger generations — Millennials, in particular — have new home-buying habits and preferences.
“Generationally, younger folks, they’re not moving to suburbia,” Stephenson said. “There’s a percentage of the population, I’m guessing 35%, who want places where they can live and walk to things and not have to get in the car.”
The notion that suburban developments such as the villages in Horizon West provide the best of both worlds — safety and an urban feel — is already a huge lure for some young families.
AN IMPERFECT VISION
Although areas such as Summerport and Lakeside Village in Horizon West provide a stark contrast to suburban developments of decades past, incorporating some facets of new urbanism, they are not necessarily perfect fruitions of the vision.
Moving toward true walkability always has been difficult in Florida — a state known for housing many of the most dangerous places in the nation for pedestrians to walk (the Metro Orlando leads the nation in pedestrian deaths).
Jim Ward, Orange County’s coordinator of sustainable development, also notes that although many of the developments around the county have been successes in terms of number of units constructed and the occupancy of those units, the village center part of the ideal is sometimes lost in the shuffle.
“(Developers are) looking for the low-hanging fruit, the chain commercial companies, and they want to be next to a road with big traffic,” said Ward, who has worked for Orange County for 12 years and helped put together one of Horizon West’s recent code updates. “Those neighborhood-embedded locations don’t have that drive-by volume they’re seeking, so, inevitably, the pattern that we’ve witnessed is the (development) owner coming and asking to move the commercial area from the center of the neighborhood out to the arterial, so that now the last remnant of walkability is gone.”
Summerport includes both an example of the good and the shortcomings of these newer developments. Although The Retreat offers one of the core tenants of urbanism — residential units built vertically over retail space on the ground floor — it also has its Publix-anchored shopping center detached from the village’s center and located at the arterial intersection of Country Road 535 and Ficquette Road.
Follow-through, then, is another important element of this trend and something of which folks such as Stephenson are cognizant while remaining optimistic.
“I’m hopeful,” he said. “I think all the new urbanism stuff is great because they’ve taken all the historic knowledge that we had and threw away after World War II and reclaimed it. They’re taking those principles and applying it to new urbanism.”
Indeed, developers are drawing from lessons learned not only from decades past but also even years past. As newer mixed-use centers pop up, those developers and planners have the opportunity to look at other recent developments in Central Florida to see what has worked well.
“The downfall of town centers around Central Florida (such as) Celebration and Baldwin Park has been on the retail side,” Kevin Meredith, Boyd Development’s sales and marketing specialist, said in an earlier interview pertaining to the Hamlin development’s town center. “But what Hamlin has that those don’t is accessibility by roadways from State Road 429. (A consulting firm) helped us get comfortable with that idea that you can do an urban town center as long as there’s that accessibility in a suburban setting.”