In cities such as Winter Park — steeped in rich history and full of charm — the ultimate struggle for leaders is how to retain its unique feel as it grows.
Those landing on the pro-development side see the benefits of the added tax revenues that come with new businesses and residents. Conversely, preservationists fear every square inch of open space lost is an assault on the small town they know and love.
Dirt soon will begin moving on the construction of its new library/event center. Furthermore, the city has several properties leaders are looking to sell, including the Progress Point property at the six-way intersection of Orange Avenue, Denning Drive and Minnesota Avenue.
But what is the perfect balance between charm and growth?
Mayor Steve Leary
The City Commission is always cognizant of both sides, Mayor Steve Leary said. Winter Park has taken numerous steps over the past few years to manage the growth, including removing the high-density R-4 zoning category from the Comprehensive Plan, he said.
“We want to maintain the current balance, look and feel of the city,” Leary said. “That’s something that’s been important to us. Commissioner (Pete) Weldon made the suggestion, and I think it was a good one.”
Leary said Winter Park has invested in its green spaces as well. The $1.2 million renovation of the city’s nine-hole golf course at the Winter Park Country Club included fresh greens and fairways, along with a reconfiguration of some holes to give golfers more of a challenge.
The city also purchased 55.6 acres of wetlands surrounding Howell Creek just north of Howell Branch Road earlier this year. The $305,000 purchase gave the city a chance to remove invasive species along the creek, allowing the water to flow freely and thus preserving it as a wetland.
Winter Park commissioners have carefully vetted each project that has come before them and will continue to do so this upcoming year, Leary said.
“Development is here, and development is allowed where it’s allowed,” Leary said. “It’s pertinent to just be judicious in allowing variances and modifications. That’s where you can’t have everything be 100% prescriptive — society doesn’t work like that. You need the ability to make reasonable decisions. We denied three fairly significant projects between the (assisted-living facility) on Howell Branch, the Orchard Supply on Aloma and the project downtown on New England. We’re pretty good at managing things.”
Commissioner Carolyn Cooper
There’s plenty to keep an eye on during the new year when it comes to development, Commissioner Carolyn Cooper said. It starts with the city’s ongoing discussions about the medical arts district first proposed in Winter Park’s new Comprehensive Plan.
“We are considering some major changes in our land-use development codes and the allowances within the city,” Cooper said. “The important thing that people never seem to understand is that they need to be involved in the process of actually putting the laws and the entitlements in place. When they wait until after the laws are on the books, then it’s very difficult, because we’ve established entitlements. People need to be very much involved in the development of the new mixed use codes and in the development of the new medical arts district.”
With the city entertaining the concept of medical arts district and mixed use projects, Winter Park residents should have their say now more than ever, Cooper said.
The city will be deciding what density and intensity of land use these different codes will allow, along with where it can be built, Cooper said.
The economy is strong, and people are ready to develop, so the city needs to get in front of it, she said.
“If we really want Winter Park to maintain its character as a very unique and charming and cultural community, then we need to be very present and active during the entitlements that are put in place in the codes,” she said. “I would say that it’s a huge, pivotal year for Winter Park. If people don’t get involved in those decisions, the die will be cast.”
Cooper added that one of her biggest priorities is the interconnection of green space and making it visible and unobstructed to residents.
Commissioner Greg Seidel
Although there’s certainly such thing as good development, it’s all about working with everyone to find the best compromise, Commissioner Greg Seidel said.
“We can always get better at it,” Seidel said. “That’s what my goal is — better for the developers and better for the residents.”
Seidel said the city likely will continue to accept new redevelopment projects, which is always a benefit to the city.
“Do I think anything is going to go crazy development-wise? No,” Seidel said. “We’re going to develop how we have been. You’ll see a lot of redevelopment, which is great. … It means people are spending money on construction and their spending money on permits. They’re taking care of their property. I go to a lot of towns in Florida where there’s a lot of property for sale and no one wants to do anything. We’re very fortunate.”
One critical area is how the city manages its green spaces, Seidel said.
“One of the things I said we need to be doing is this green-space plan, looking at our corridors and tying in our green spaces so that when you drive through the city of Winter Park you feel like you’re in an open green area,” Seidel said. “How do you hide your density? That’s what it’s about. How do you maintain the small-town feel but hide your density?
“I’m all for density in the right places,” he said. “I would rather us build in town instead of wipe out wetlands out in Volusia County. For me, it’s how you make it work for everybody. That’s what we’re getting smarter at.”
Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel
There’s a lot more to Winter Park than just charming buildings, Sarah Sprinkel said.
New families continue to move in and shape the future of the city. Whether you are a new resident or someone who has lived in the city for decades, it’s those Winter Parkers who give the city its character and charm, Sprinkel said.
“I live in an old house, and I live in a settled community,” Sprinkel said. “I’m probably like 99% of the people in my community who do not embrace new houses. That’s just the way it is, and yet once they get built and one of these wonderful families move in, they add to the community.
“We’ve done a pretty good job of keeping it in good stead, and I don’t think you’re going to change the character of Winter Park,” she said. “The character of Winter Park is in the people and not just in the buildings.”
Regarding city-owned properties such as the old Progress Point site, it’s going to be a community effort to decide what gets built, she said.
“I don’t think the city should be in the business, to be very honest with you, of owning a lot of property that’s not being used by the citizens,” she said. “The Progress Point property had bothered me for a very long time because it’s so unattractive. I go by it every day, lots of people do, and I still see that old building sitting there.”
Winter Park certainly has succeeded in acquiring a good amount of green space, Sprinkel said.
“How many acres did we have last year?” Sprinkel said. “The most we’ve ever had ever? Fifty-five acres. I think that’s pretty darn good. I think we did a great job with green space last year. ... Do I want to continue adding green space? Where it makes sense, sure.”
Commissioner Peter Weldon
Although Commissioner Peter Weldon declined a direct interview, he referred the Observer to his blog, Winter Park Perspective, for his views on development and growth.
In 2014, Weldon supported amendments to the city’s Comprehensive Plan that would change the rules for planned developments, allowing property owners to propose developments of a higher density and intensity.
“In summary, the PD changes are proposed to create the opportunity for property owners to add value for Winter Park,” Weldon wrote in a post dated June 7, 2014. “PD is not an entitlement. PD is only an invitation to negotiate a satisfactory mixed use value proposition for the city as an alternative to conventional strip center, apartment complex, office and retail use entitlements we get by default under existing zoning.”
The City Commission denied n those changes to the Comprehensive Plan following a large push by residents sporting “no density” signs in their front yards. Many residents objected to projects that had recently surfaced along Denning Drive and U.S. 17/92 as well.
Weldon, who served on the city’s Planning and Zoning Board at the time, wrote the city had allowed the recent projects under its existing codes and that Winter Park needs to shape its rules to in turn shape the landscape of the city.
“It is constructive for each of us to ask, ‘What does “no density” mean?’” Weldon wrote on Jan. 21, 2015. “Does it mean that we elect people to the commission who will refuse to approve development that is allowed by our zoning rules and thereby subject all residents to the attendant legal costs and consequences? I don’t think so.
“I think ‘no density’ means that we want commercial development in Winter Park to complement the residential character of our city and add to the amenities and quality of life we each seek in choosing (to) live here,” he wrote.