Florida: The Music Has Stopped


And those without chairs will be standing for an awfully long time

By Richard Reep

Florida real estate, which boasts a notorious tradition that dates back to Ponce de Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth in 1513, has recently exceeded even its own flaky reputation. Quality of life here will suffer in the near term. In the long term, Florida’s economy will recover its viability, but in a new form.

The immediate future will be difficult. By referendum, Florida enacted multiple property tax cuts in a state already known for low taxes. Now, with declining property values, the state legislature has drastically less money to spend on infrastructure, services, and capital improvements. Business, mostly tourism and land development, suffers from the economic turmoil. But it is the nonprofits who probably struggle the most. Floridians, known as the least generous donors to nonprofits, have now even less to donate, causing more holes in the safety net, reduced care for the needy, and reduced funding for the arts. It’s going to be a tougher state, particularly for the poor.

Consider the Gulf coast town of Sarasota. Once known for its high-net-worth retirees, Sarasota diversified and prospered in the 1980s and 90s. Sarasota sported world-class public art along the waterfront, terrific galleries, and an affinity for contemporary architecture rare in the Southeast. Downtown was surrounded by a necklace of authentic, unique neighborhoods ranging from the Ringling School of Art in the north to Towles Court in the south. Sarasota County also boasted a mix of marine/industrial, agricultural, and tourism economies.

Little of this has been sustainable in the current boom/bust cycle. Florida’s growth management dictates that each county submit a Comprehensive Plan for development. Once submitted, this Plan may be amended by the county Planning Commission if a landowner has sufficient cause to challenge it. Sarasota County’s Comprehensive Plan historically focused on coastal development. The pressure to add massive tracts of subdivisions, however, amended the Plan multiple times, diluting this concentration and allowing eastern inland regions of agricultural land to be rezoned for single-family houses. “It’s as if a company’s business plan could be changed at will by any employee of the company”, commented one county staff member recently, “making this Plan totally meaningless.” Sarasota threw away its own special sense of place, to its own detriment.

As a result, the cultural life of Sarasota has perceptibly declined. Art galleries are closed, the public art venue is vacant, and waterfront redevelopment has stalled. In an effort to chase high-tech jobs, the county ignored the needs of a major local employer, causing the employer to relocate thousands of jobs out of the county. No high-tech companies were recruited in the process. Sarasota will need a great effort to pull out of this dive.

Orlando, in the northern center of the peninsula of Florida, is a quintessential Ephemeral City, supporting private, world-class family entertainment. Orlando has suffered from similar issues as Sarasota, but somewhat less dramatically. Unlike Sarasota, Orlando can expand in all directions and has earnestly done so, encompassing three counties and two million people.

Orlando seems to live in Disney’s bright shadow. Getting to know the older, denser parts of Orlando in more detail takes time. This mostly-ignored area offers an authentic and beautiful place that is relatively livable in terms of affordability, access, and social life.
When the music was playing, downtown politicians were giving tax incentives to unique arts-oriented businesses that moved downtown. Today, they offer similar tax breaks to big box retail. Like downtowns of many primary and secondary cities, Orlando has sprouted multiple – mostly empty – condominium towers, but the city escaped the egregious situation of Miami (20+ empty towers). Nearly all surrounding communities have emulated this condition, with even sleepy Sanford (population 39,000) displaying an empty downtown condominium.

Spreading out from downtown Orlando are older suburbs – including College Park, Thornton Park, and Old Winter Park – where marvelous pockets of sustainable mixed-use streets are interlaced with lakes and diverse residential neighborhoods. The saddest counterpoint to these jewels is the half-brownfield efforts of developers from Texas, North Carolina, and Atlanta. Large tracts of older building stock in these neighborhoods have been bought and scraped clean, with billboards advertising bland, residential-over-retail “town centers.” Without residential buyers, these projects have stalled, leaving empty wastelands of sand poignantly anchored by lonely sales trailers likely to remain dormant for years.

Central Florida is also the breeding ground of garish New Urbanism developments, most notably Celebration and its facsimiles. These form-obsessed developments issue patternbooks for architecture, hoping that front porch control will instill community values and social order among those able to afford their mortgages and community association dues. Planners of these neighborhoods seem to find the industrial-era “streetcar suburb” to be the best America has had to offer. Every advance or innovation since then is regarded as too ‘modern’.

At the same time, the social dimension of New Urbanist development has been very disappointing. Promoted in its early phase as a way to integrate multiple income levels into one community, New Urbanism is instead an excuse to ratchet up home sizes, lot sizes, and property prices to the highest possible threshold. There may be far more diversity in post-1950s suburban tracts than in these Celebration look-alikes.

Further out, Orlando’s more conventional new subdivisions are in a similar condition to those of Phoenix and parts of California. All these trends make for a mixed prognosis for the livability of this region, and the State of Florida overall, after the unsold inventory is finally distributed and occupied.

Yet despite the global factors working against them, both Orlando and Sarasota still have areas of interesting, special, and authentic quality for which locals and visitors express genuine affection. People who care about the quality of their built environment always seem to find a way to improve it, whether by overt investment in downtowns or in more covert fashion by staging cutting-edge art events in abandoned warehouses. The spirit of a good community seems to be alive, despite the uncertain future of Florida. Due to the intrinsic appeal of warm weather and beaches, a broad cross-section of people will continue to relocate here.

Florida real estate will certainly continue its colorful tradition, but who will profit in the long run? I think communities that invest in the basics – good education, good jobs, and well-planned infrastructure – will find themselves leading the state’s next resurgence.

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.