What to do About Church St. Station
Early last year I met Bob Snow shortly after he reopened Cheyenne Saloon on Church Street. It was a Wednesday nickel beer night and I was assisting a photographer I had assigned to shoot portraits of Snow for our June 2008 cover story on his return to Church Street Station.
Snow had come full circle, betting once again that he could resurrect the historic but formerly decrepit area he converted into a themed entertainment district 35 years earlier.
The photographer wanted to get a shot of Snow standing on the dance floor while patrons two-stepped around him, but there was a problem: There couldn’t have been more than 20 customers in the whole place and no one wanted to be the first on the dance floor. Finally a few couples hit the floor and we maneuvered Snow into the center of it. Click. Shoot over.
Surveying the scene, the photographer and I looked at each other and shook our heads. “This place is not going to make it,” I said. Less than a year later Snow closed the Cheyenne, citing the ailing economy, parking problems and road closures on Church Street.
None of those issues, however, killed Cheyenne Saloon, nor did they force Church Street Station’s owner, Cameron Kuhn, into bankruptcy. The problem is that this themed district has become the wrong concept for the wrong city.
Church Street Station represents the past, and Orlando cannot afford to live in it. St. Augustine and Savannah can but not our city.
The complex has been languishing for years, with each new owner failing to revive it as a premier entertainment destination. People stopped coming because there are better things to do and nicer places to do them in than the old storefronts of Church Street Station.
And don’t believe for a second that the opening of the new arena on West Church Street only a block away will be the elixir for the merchants still hanging on in Church Street Station. I have no doubt that the arena will be a stimulus for downtown, but Church Street Station will not be a beneficiary. The arena actually will exaggerate the half-block area’s obsolescence as Magic fans and concert-goers bypass it on their way to bars and restaurants east of the railroad tracks.
So what can be done to Church Street Station? Simple: Encourage a developer to tear it down and build a modern, glass-encased, commercial low-rise on the site. I can envision space for offices and boutique retailers, with patio bars and restaurants overlooking I-4 and looking into the new, glass-encased Amway Arena on the other side of the highway. What a beautiful pair of bookends the buildings would make.
It’s not like the city hasn’t aided the demolition of an outdated piece of property before. The city expedited approval of Kuhn’s request to bulldoze the old Jaymont block in 2003. Mayor Buddy Dyer made that happen. Today a beautiful, albeit financially troubled, three-tower, commercial-residential condo development called The Plaza stands on Orange Avenue between Church and Pine streets. The old department store it replaced sat there for 60 years, the last two decades derelict. Does anyone really miss it?
I didn’t think so.
The Plaza will enjoy better days once the real estate market rebounds, as will another new condo building, 55 West on Church Street. But Church Street Station has seen its best days, and they are all 20 years in the past.
It’s time to face facts about the entertainment district Snow built. Honestly, it’s not worth saving.