Central Florida: Stepping Into Deep Density

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Florida is on track to break the 20 million population mark by 2016, or possibly even this year. The Sunshine State will displace New York as the third most populous state in the country, just behind California and Texas. Nationally, rural counties absorb a lot of newcomers of modest income or fixed income seeking affordable places to live. Here in Orlando, however, banks and developers are betting big on a newfound taste for the urban lifestyle, beckoning new arrivals with hip-looking apartments and parking garages, often coupled with shopping plazas full of pricey, name-brand retailers. This is a gamble of huge proportions. Regrettably, it's just another bubble waiting to burst.

North of downtown Orlando, two commercial corridors wind through various towns. Orange Avenue is Orlando’s version of Main Street (below: high density housing with a view of Interstate 4, Orange Avenue, and Highway 50 in Orlando, the three busiest roads in town).

Six new multifamily projects here are open or nearly completed. These are mid-rise buildings, four stories or greater, taking advantage of downtown’s proximity. Of course, each of these structures sports a new parking garage, acknowledging that our love affair with the car is still going strong.

US 17-92 is an even larger, 4-lane commercial strip running from downtown all the way up through Winter Park, Eatonville, Maitland, Altamonte Springs, Longwood, and beyond. It’s an Orlando version of Broadway, linking multiple neighborhoods and districts. It's also a traffic-choked crawl, best to be avoided at certain times of the day. Nevertheless, three mid-rise apartment blocks loom over the cars, a high-rise senior living building is open for retirees, and several more are in the works (see below, at a rare, quiet moment. Still, this mock-historical apartment complex holds the street line).

Each one of these developments ventures deeper and deeper into urban renewal territory, looking for the market’s edge. A recent proposal will displace warehouses along Orange Avenue, but is still firmly entrenched on the more profitable side of the railroad tracks. All of these developments take old or underperforming suburban sites and convert them into new, higher density blocks. The city, it seems, has finally triumphed in the battle for the hip and the cool.

And it is a victory of sorts, at least for the short term. Each lender who funds a suburban infill project saves, for the time being, a greenfield exurban parcel that might otherwise have been chosen for the project. Florida is a state with a remarkably stressed natural environment, and these projects keep people close to the action, reducing the need for future corridors in the wilderness.

Before the closing credits roll, however, the long-term impacts of these developments bear a closer look. While cities clap their hands for urbanism and the tax dollars it brings in, local citizens quite sensibly ask certain pointed questions… like, 'what about traffic'? None of these new residents will do without a car, and at least one local development, approved blithely by municipal officials, now frustrates drivers for blocks around. More of the same is coming.

Symptomatic, perhaps, of the current economy’s consumer weakness, most of these projects displace local producer activities. Instead of protecting home-grown businesses, municipal power has hastened their demise, driven by a real estate market which judged that they were not contributing to the economy at a high enough level. Gone are local commercial artists, two local sawmills and lumberyards, and a local hotel, all of which were net producers in the local economy.

What has come in their place are yet more grocery stores — the adjacent grocery store is always a part of the formula — more hair salons, and name-brand apparel shops. Minimum-wage workers, many working for tips, now stand at cash registers where once business owners and entrepreneurs stood. These local independent businesses close down, or scatter to the more affordable periphery, which is becoming home to a new sprawl of producers. Shipping giant Amazon, for example, just completed a large facility in Florida. Near its customers in a metropolitan area?

Nope: in rural Ruskin, locally famous for its beefsteak tomatoes. Elsewhere, local entrepreneur Carola Seminario, manufactures cosmetics in suburban Plantation, Florida, inland from Ft. Lauderdale. These businesses are far away from the dense urban core that traditionally hosted new business ventures. Like England, lampooned for becoming a “nation of shopkeepers” in the expansionist Victorian era, Florida’s urban population is becoming a reef of retail clerks and restaurant servers laboring for franchise bosses.

In the meantime, Office occupancy rates are at a ghastly low in Central Florida, so urban development of office space is anemic. Instead, our oversupply of retail outlets just seems to keep rising. The multistory apartment stack, perched over a retail/restaurant base, has become a copy and paste routine. None of the tenants are local, independent retailers, either; the triple-net lease is only affordable to big national brands. Density is a game only the big boys can play, it seems.

With Central Florida’s new commuter train rolling through town, the density might make some sense. But land value around rail stops has spiked in anticipation. Instead, development is occurring in the soft pockets of town, places where older, overlooked properties can be assembled with a minimum of fuss and cost. The result is that none of the new multifamily locations are really walkable to a train station. Hence, huge parking garages.

After the applause has died down, a flush of new apartment dwellers may soon find out that a mortgage payment outside of the central city wouldn't have been much higher than the monthly rent in town. Most people with kids, or planning for them, believe that raising them in apartments isn’t much fun. Grass, literally, is always greener. Meanwhile, Orlando cannibalized its local economy in a rush to approve these places, and became just another bland, warm commercial amalgam not much different than anywhere else in the southeast.

By the time the city's changes are fully visible, the transformation will be complete. Central Florida will have lost independent businesses to a miasma of ubiquitous name-brand franchises. A few service jobs will have been created, but the real careers are in corner offices of the chains’ corporate headquarters, way beyond the reach of Orlando's residents. Rental rates will decline as growth stretches the market for a limited number of connoisseurs of the high-density lifestyle, and a gradual, insidious wealth disparity creates a new urban poor.

The only vision, however, may be hindsight. After the bubble has burst, high density housing will remain. City planners have already begun rearranging infrastructure around this supposed densification: school boards, for example, are consolidating K-8 schools in anticipation of this new population. Urban planning, however, has to be measured in decades. School district planning, a long, slow, consensus-driven political process, takes years to implement. By the time a new school might open for the children in these places, the demographics might have shifted once again.

Density is good in principle. It can breed efficiency, intensify business, and make a town throb with life. But in practice today, it seems to hollow out parts of the city. Dad doesn’t work on the ground floor of the apartment block; he drives to work, just like in the suburbs. Mom doesn’t hang around all day watching the kids and baking cookies; she drives to work also. The sidewalks aren’t filled with pedestrians on their way somewhere, cars slip in and out of garages, silently activating gate arms, and the kids are safely ensconced in front of electronics, not playing outside down below.

The pricey tenant space on the ground floor doesn’t house local bakers, tailors, or professionals that live up above. Instead it houses a few minimum-wage store clerks scanning merchandise. The building form resembles this turn-of-the-century dream state — often stylistically, as well as functionally — but it’s a monstrous hybrid of the old and the new. Localism is traded away, and in its place a new feudalism, where remote landlords control vast segments of the urban realm, takes its place. With Florida’s population growth, there will still be places to prosper, but they seem less and less likely to be in the metropolis.

Richard Reep is an architect with VOA Associates, Inc. who has designed award-winning urban mixed-use and hospitality projects. His work has been featured domestically and internationally for the last thirty years. An Adjunct Professor for the Environmental and Growth Studies Department at Rollins College, he teaches urban design and sustainable development; he is also president of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture. Reep resides in Winter Park, Florida with his family.

photos by the author

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All good points

Development always drives out small producers since rents and taxes are necessarily higher on new construction vs. aging property. The same thing happened when farmers had to sell when tract homes and strip malls rolled down the new highways.

I like to ask a different question. Where are the new opportunities as this process unfolds? Not "Where is the next hipster urban core" but "Which cheap undesirable chunk of aging suburbia is about to get reinvented but the displaced little guys who can't afford luxury condos."

Personally I think we're coming to the end of debt driven "shopping" as the engine of economic growth, especially when everything Americans buy is manufactured abroad. This model will soon to be replaced by towns that actually produce useful things locally -and it won't be Fendi handbags. And remember, today's luxury buildings will be tomorrows affordable housing. It has always been so.

Central "Florida"

I think it is fair to argue that density and economic development can be served on separate plates. As Richard Florida (I'm still not sure that is his real name) argued, cities that are more dense will eventually attract more economic development.

The argument goes that knowledge jobs like engineering, math, arts, and entertainment can only thrive in areas where the density was already there. Although his analysis leans heavily on examples from New York and California, the statistics are pretty good, and the argument might be accurate. (Might be.)

If Central Florida approves high-density housing, it certainly won’t hurt. The alternative is to continue building development further and further away from downtown, in the hopes that jobs will eventually follow the scent out into the boondocks beyond UCF. Such businesses would need new roads, new fire (and police) stations, new sewer facilities, new schools, and so on.

There are a surprising number of empty lots downtown that could easily hold yet another polite apartment building with yet another trendy Mexican restaurant. Even if we were to subsidize the soy-latte hipsters downtown, it is still cheaper than building new roads out into the wilderness.