It Could Take a Creative Village

My misgivings about the project are its west-of-I-4 location and its reliance on grants, which are, after all, taxpayer-funded.

Scott A. Miller

Remember when Mayor Buddy Dyer said the city would get $90 million for the sale of the Centroplex property, site of Amway Arena and Bob Carr auditorium?

You and I knew, and I can only guess that Dyer did, too, that no one would pay anywhere near that price for an arena sitting less than a half-mile from a brand spanking new Taj Mahal of an events center, not to mention a woeful music hall that would be worth even less once the new performing arts center was completed.

The $90 million sale of the Centoplex doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, even though the city borrowed that amount against the property on the assumption (so we were told) that it would pay off the note once the site was sold. The borrowed funds went toward the downtown venues, Orlando’s Jabba the Hutt of debt spending.

OK, so we got played, but I’m going to let this one slide because the so-called Creative Village that downtown developer Craig Ustler and a unit of Bank of America want to build on the site has possibilities. We just might have to wait 10 to 15 years before we know how their plan plays out and if the city makes its $90 million after all—presumably from the sales of developed parcels that would make up Creative Village.

But the potential payoff of the Ustler-BofA plan is worth the wait because the people behind it aren’t shaking down Orlando for city-backed incentives, which seems almost too good to believe. Plus, the University of Central Florida is committed to it, and that all but ensures a level of success.

If UCF builds on it, they will come. The University of Florida and Valencia Community College are other likely educational anchors in the Village, a compact vertical development integrating digital-technology education, tech businesses, retail spaces and parks. The development also would include mid-rise rental apartments positioned to draw mixed-income and mixed-age tenants, so students wouldn’t be the only residents.

Among the details that make the Creative Village enticing is the line in the proposal that says the developers assume all the risk—about $500,000 to them—for pursuing about $100 million in federal and state grants to fund development costs. BofA has a good track record for landing grants to build urban infill projects, so that’s a point in the Creative Village’s favor.

Ustler’s involvement in the concept is a plus, too.

He has a knack for taking calculated risks that pan out, like his developments in Thornton Park, and he’s committed to developing environmentally responsible communities. The Creative Village would be built to become a LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Neighborhood Development, a green designation that practically assures federal funding, in large part because of its proximity to mass transit. Just on the east side of I-4 is the Lynx bus depot, where SunRail trains will stop once commuter rail service begins in a couple of years.

My misgivings about the project are its west-of-I-4 location and its reliance on grants, which are, after all, taxpayer-funded.

Lots of money already has been spent on trying to revitalize the predominantly black Parramore district. So here we go again, but this time with a much more ambitious feel-good plan to turn Parramore into a neighborhood that would draw white residents.

And here’s the other thing about grant funding: You might get a lot less than you requested or nothing at all. What happens down the road if federal and state governments cut funding altogether?

Still, the Ustler-BofA proposal makes a strong case for the Creative Village’s success based on similar projects that the bank has worked on in other cities. At the very least, developing the site would create jobs. And, who knows, maybe the Village would spur organic renewal on the west side of I-4.

The Village’s potential payoff to the city’s tax base could be much greater than Dyer’s inflated price tag on the Centroplex. We just won’t know for many years to come.

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