Central Florida: On the Cusp of Recovery?


Central Florida is poised at the cusp of a major turnaround, and its response to this condition will either propel the region forward, or drag it backward.  This cusp condition is brought about by a train and a road; neither of which have begun yet but both of which appear imminent.  Sunrail uses existing 19th century railroad tracks as a commuter spine through Orlando’s disperse, multipolar city.  The Wekiva Parkway completes a beltway around Orlando, placing it with Washington DC, Houston and other ringed cities.  Before either gets built, the region deserves some analysis on their combined effect, and how they can be nudged onto a pathway to make the region better.

Sunrail brings with it mythology  about how trains affect cities.  In what has now become the standard, tired kabuki dance between developer interests and municipal ones.

Not surprisingly, heavy regulation has entered the scene, with the avowed goal of creating dense urban pockets along even largely rural  train stops. This has sparked rising property values which may end up  frustrating the dream of transit-oriented development (TOD).  Affordable dwellings and meaningful employment within a half-mile of a train stop must be created in order to make this development work, but unless Central Florida can spark this, the new train will likely suffer from the same fate as the vast majority of its sunbelt counterparts:  low ridership and increasing tax subsidies.

Inserting TOD into 17 locations in Central Florida is a bold experiment. In order for it to work, the rising costs of housing will need to be addressed, and Central Florida can take advantage of this ambition to succeed.  Orlando home sales are coming back, thanks to the mild climate and desirable lifestyle. That is very different, however, from guaranteeing that the economics of the rail commuter will make it worth discarding the single-family detached American Dream in favor of a relatively new model that has an unproven track record.

Orlando also seems to be blithely going about the business of creating another ring of traffic around itself, descending into the same level where Atlanta’s Perimeter, the DC Beltway, and other like-kind roads live.  The Wekiva Parkway, long considered unneeded, is now being designed to complete the ring around Orlando, and will cross 25 miles of pristine wetlands that is a vestige of once-vast water resources of the region. 

The Expressway Authority proposes this ring as an alternative to existing roads to serve the “growth needs of this area,” it conceded recently that this road segment made little economic sense except as a toll road accessing a new suburban single-family home development carved out of the swamps by one of the Governor’s chief fundraisers .  The asset value of this ring road may be more private than in the public interest.

Traditionally agricultural land interlaced with wetlands, The Wekiva area to the northwest of Orlando has avoided large-scale Florida style bulldozing.  All this will change if the Governor is successful in eliminating water management regulations , freeing up much of Florida, including this corner of Orlando, for speculation.

The local press, quick to criticize Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere and always ready to jump on environmental issues, meekly ponders  the need for this $2 billion highway.  Maybe the elevated design, intended to be more ecologically friendly, makes it OK, despite the safety problems and high maintenance associated with this design.  Florida’s history is littered with the drawings of many other elevated highways eventually built on grade to save cost.  Once approved, the Wekiva Parkway may quickly be brought down to earth as well, displacing wetlands and agricultural land.

The Wekiva Parkway will open up land supply which indeed will allow for more growth.  Done right, the asphalt will make land available that could be useful to the area’s economy.  It will bring traffic to historic, but presently lonely Sanford, potentially infusing the economy of this once-vibrant rail town.  Using principles of scarcity, land values could reflect people’s high desire to live in rural areas with all the services and guarantees that 21st century suburban life offers: fire and police protection, state-of-the-art infrastructure, and free pizza delivery.  It could invigorate neighboring towns that are currently struggling for survival.

The risk is that such a road will simply allow more investment into Florida real estate without giving Florida much back in exchange.  Florida, already strained to meet its current population needs, should not simply trade another commercial strip for water resources that benefit many species and contribute to the region’s resilience. Rather, development models should emulate the best of America’s conservation development happening in states where water rights are scarce.  Connecting local employers with residential areas will enhance the value of both, and strategically keeping rural agricultural areas intact will preserve the region’s present land use diversity.

Well managed development that conserves resources and balances broader needs with private interests will elevate the state’s prospects at this critical juncture.  One more bit of the original subtropical wilderness represents an asset for both present and future generations. With the right approach, the Wekiva Parkway can provide an enlightened model of low-density development that respects the value of open space.

In town, Sunrail presents denser development as an alternative.  The normal pathway, however, seems to pit the profit-seeking real estate developer against ever higher regulatory burdens, which eventually make his product unaffordable to those coming here to escape high costs and regulations in other cities.  Keeping both employment and housing affordable are critical to achieving success with any of these projects.

Moving product down the value chaindoes not do well current system, which leaves out the very people who Sunrail supposedly will benefit.  Density is one of those characteristics that seems to be about good timing: if you have it today, like San Francisco or New York, this is largely the result of history;  if you do not have it today, like Orlando, it is risky and probably a dubious proposition.

The road and the train open up land that must be carefully stewarded to create opportunities for meaningful employment and affordable housing, both of which are presently scarce commodities.  The concept of transit-oriented development needs a success story, and Sunrail provides 17 opportunities to find one; meanwhile, the road presents a danger as well as an opportunity for Florida’s wetlands.  As the region slowly recovers from the recession, the two projects together should be carefully considered by the region’s citizens and leadership to truly redefine Central Florida’s identity for the 21st century.

Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.

Photo courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com.

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great post


As a born and raised Floridian, I have heard both of the Wekiva Parkway and Sun Rail for years. Sun Rail I can see as a feasible choice to give us for long commutes. What I'm directing the "Really??????" at is what I read to be your stamp of approval on the parkway. First it was 1.6 billion, then 1.8... now you say 2 billion! A ridiculous amount to pay, but let's take money out of the picture, if only for a minute. Think of the wetlands that will be destroyed, not to mention the rural atmosphere of Sanford and the smaller towns the WP will plow through. I read one very comprehensive study that projects the amount of traffic that will use it is well below the capacity of a 4-lane expressway. S.R.46 could be 4 laned with a turn lane in the middle and it would do the trick. Seems the EA is bound and determined to have WP's design the same as 408 and 417, keeping it separate yet also keeping 46. Roughly ten lanes of traffic? Displacing residents and for what? It all comes back to money. I am not meekly pondering if the Wekiva Parkway is needed. I live on S.R.46; I see the amount of traffic. It definitely is not necessary, especially with all the repairs and expansions needed to I-4 and existing roadways. Just my opinion. I still hope the Expressway Authority and the State come to their senses.