Small Wonders

Beyond the big city are tightly knit communities teeming with congenial charm.

You don't have to travel far from Orlando's urban core to find pockets of small-town America. Whether it's green pastures with grazing cattle or a rolling scenic highway framed by granddaddy oak trees, these rural scenes unfold, hinting that just beyond is a small town with its very own main street. 

Then there are the other small towns where urban development has infringed, but somehow the communities have managed to keep their charm. So authentic are all these neighborhoods that they could easily be the setting for any Americana-themed movie from the early 20th century—as well as great places to live.

Winter Garden
Marked by a historic water tower, a vintage caboose and a railroad station-turned-museum, Winter Garden’s downtown has the charming touches any history buff could appreciate. But take a stroll down Plant Street—the main thoroughfare named for railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant, who brought his Orange Belt Railway here in 1887—and you’ll fall in love with the handsome brick buildings, some dating back to 1910. Today they house an eclectic mix of independently owned shops and restaurants that include a bicycle store for renting wheels, a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint and a quintessential barbershop with its red, white and blue-striped pole. 

In 2003 the brick-paved, tree-lined downtown was spruced up with a streetscape that includes a clock tower, a fountain and a pavilion with swinging benches—all designed to complement the vintage brick architecture and mark the city’s centennial. Turn down the side streets, and newer additions like a splash park for kids and a pavilion for the Saturday farmers’ market draw regular crowds. 

Located west of Orlando on the southern edge of Lake Apopka, Winter Garden sprouted up in the late 1880s and gave birth to a booming citrus industry that thrived through the 1980s. Today, farms can still be spotted in the surrounding landscape, and downtown Winter Garden even has the Feed & Seed store where you can buy grain for your livestock. But several of the farms are now home to horse-riding schools, and the railroad tracks that transported the harvest to market are now part of the West Orange Trail.

According to  Christy Clark-Weber, broker and owner of Southern Heritage Realty, the West Orange Trail is a big draw for locals, especially bicyclists and athletic enthusiasts. Lots of families and retirees enjoy living in Winter Garden, she points out, and it’s not only the trail; Lake Apopka, one of the largest lakes in Florida, is a terrific boating lake.

For those who want the small-town lifestyle, the blocks north and south of Plant Street have a wealth of homes, ranging from bungalows to Craftsman-style homes alongside larger houses with front porches designed for rocking chairs and hanging flower pots. A few more blocks north leads to Lake Apopka, where homes boast views of the water. And if you go northwest, you’ll find Lake Cove Pointe, with newer lakefront properties that go as high as $600,000.

“The houses go quickly. When it comes on the market, it’s gone,” says Clark-Weber, a 19-year veteran Realtor. You can find family homes priced from $60,000 to $200,000 and up, she says, citing a three-bedroom home two blocks from Plant Street that recently sold for $206,000. Some of these homes are historic, while others are newly built but have the characteristics that maintain Winter Garden’s past. 

Nora Farrell, who owns the Tack Boutique that’s stocked with equestrian apparel, has lived in Winter Garden for 11 years. It was the historic appeal that first attracted her to the area: “I love the older homes; I love the quaint living. I love the historic buildings and the theater.” Although her 1920 house has been upgraded, “We still have the original hardwood pine floors.”

But one of the most important points Farrell makes is that you can walk everywhere. A Saturday night out might start on Plant Street with a play at the Garden Theatre, an atmospheric venue built in 1935 in the Mediterranean-Revival style, and lead to dinner a block down at Chef’s Table at the Edgewater, where farm-to-table dining is popular. A brisk walk to the Plant Street Market, a new artisan complex anchoring the west end, turns up the Crooked Can brewery, where craft beer drinkers mingle and listen to live guitar music on the Well Taproom’s patio. Inside, a handful of vendors sell candles, jewelry, teas, coffees, chocolates and even chair massages. 

But for someone who grew up in Winter Garden during the 1950s, the hustle and bustle along Plant Street on a Saturday night is still surprising. “As a kid, I never thought I’d see traffic jams in downtown Winter Garden or that I’d have to wait an hour and a half for a table at a restaurant,” says Marina Gosselin. However, she’s not complaining. Despite all the things for her to do here, Winter Garden still has its small-town charm.

The people who live in Sanford’s Historic District want everyone to know just how great it is, and what better way to shout the message than by posting yard signs in front of their homes that read: “I live in Sanford, I work in Sanford, I play in Sanford, I ™ Sanford.” 

The blocks just south of the tidy downtown, where historic buildings have been faithfully preserved, are lined with giant live oaks that cast shade on stylish Florida vernacular houses. American flags fly, wreaths decorate doors, and rocking chairs on porches invite neighbors to drop by. Crisp gardens and blooming jasmine add to the picture-perfect setting, and pocket parks with children’s playgrounds pop up every few blocks. Located in Seminole County, just northeast of Orlando, Sanford is one of Central Florida’s oldest cities.

“I’ve lived in Sanford for 15 years now, and I’m seeing a real shift where people have become much more Historic District-centric. Even though there are other neighborhoods, people have become focused on the District because it has become walkable,” says Maria Shreve, a broker/associate with RE/MAX Town Centre.

The idyllic setting that comprises the Historic District today didn’t happen without serious planning and civic commitment on the part of residents and city officials, who set strict building codes. Historic homes, including some that are 100 years old, are still standing today because of such dedication. “Forget about getting anything demolished,” says Linda Hollerbach, who with her husband, Theo, owns the Willow Tree Café and lives in the Historic District. “So there’s not a lot of [new] building going on here.”

Instead, residents are focused on retaining the character of the neighborhood during its heyday. That means proper exterior paint colors and maintaining existing trees, among other guidelines.

Nathan and Jenn Clark, owners of the Wondermade marshmallow shop on East First Street, are a 30-something couple with four kids and a fifth on the way. They  discovered downtown Sanford 10 years ago. What convinced them to move here was that people knew each other. Residents had been here a while, and there was a nice generational mix. 

“It feels like a small town where people look out for you,” Nathan says. “We love that it’s economically, socially and racially diverse,” he adds.

Two years ago the couple bought their historic home, and Nathan concurs with Shreve that the neighborhood’s walkability is a real plus. It’s hard not to find time to walk, bicycle or bring the kids downtown, he points out.

 Brick-paved East First Avenue is the downtown’s main thoroughfare, where meandering along a cityscape of recently planted trees and vintage-style lampposts is part of the lifestyle. A stop at the Jeanine Taylor Folk Art gallery turns up not only colorful art, like paintings of red polka dot guinea hens by artist John “Cornbread” Anderson, but also working studios where artists can be spotted painting and sculpting. 

Magnolia Square, with its bird-carved fountain, is where the farmers market is held each Saturday. The established Willow Tree Café has been serving German cuisine since 2001; the owners believe so strongly in Sanford’s future that they recently opened the new Magnolia Square Market around the corner. Plans for a rooftop café may be next. 

Nearby, Washburn Imports is jam-packed with antique furniture, and The Imperial, a bar selling craft cocktails, is tucked in the back—just like its sibling on Ivanhoe Row in Orlando. In fact the owner, Mike Smith, created a bar crawl that starts with The Imperial and stops at craft beer bars like Celery City and Buster’s Bistro. 

However walkable the downtown may be, there are more opportunities for strolling, jogging and bicycling a couple of blocks over on the RiverWalk that skirts Lake Monroe, part of the St. Johns River system. This is where, in 1879, Henry Shelton Sanford planned to create a transportation hub. By 1884, Sanford had wharves, a railroad and a large hotel. 

Today, a wide paved path provides benches and pavilions with hanging swings for watching the water traffic. The path winds past Marina Island, where sailboats are parked in slips at the Sanford Marina and a big stern-wheel paddleboat offers tours of the waterway’s docks. Further down, fishermen on folding chairs seem to be a constant fixture on the shore, waiting to hook their catch of the day.

But what might be even more attractive to would-be residents is that Sanford is affordable. Shreve sells to empty-nesters who love that everything is within walking distance and that there’s a senior center downtown. But she also sells to young families who see the benefit of raising kids where neighbors know each other, and to singles who are finding properties at price points that work for them.

“While the Orlando market is kicking up and its prices are going up, we are still affordable,” Shreve points out. You can find a bungalow with less than 2,000 square feet priced from $150,000 to $250,000. Larger two-story homes are $200,000 and up. There’s even a good selection of fixer-uppers priced from $75,000 to $125,000, and even though you have to abide by the city’s building codes, Shreve says resale prices are often 11 to 15 percent higher. 

But, residents agree, the biggest selling point for Sanford may not be its romantic aura or its affordable homes, but its strong sense of community. 

In one of downtown DeLand’s parking lots, Rufus Pinkney set up his shoeshine business in a box-shaped shed back in 1970. Today the 83-year-old longtime resident with his head of white hair can still be found at his landmark spot, waiting for attorneys from the nearby Volusia County Courthouse to come over for a shine.

Anyone who has sought out a small town to call home knows that it is people with deep roots to the place, like Pinkney, who preserve a town’s spirit.

Surrounded by parks, spring-fed lakes and farms where cows and horses graze, DeLand is an unexpected find. Poke into any of the shops on Woodland Boulevard, the town’s main street, and you’ll meet others just as eager to share their stories with you as Pinkney. 

Many are transplants, drawn here by recreational offerings at the nearby natural surroundings—Blue Spring State Park, DeLeon Springs State Park, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge and the St. Johns River. Others work in Orlando or Daytona Beach (both an easy drive from DeLand via Interstate 4), but find the slower pace refreshing. And mixed in are students and faculty from Stetson University, which is walking distance from the town’s center. 

“It’s a friendly place to live,” says Don Sproat, a CFO who works in Orlando but has lived in DeLand for the past three years. “There’s an energy from Stetson University. I just came from Boston Coffeehouse, where I go for my gourmet coffee, and there are always students there.” Sproat’s parents built the house, which he inherited in 1978, as their winter home when they were Ohio snowbirds.  

There is no doubt that downtown DeLand has that vintage charm one would expect in a small town. It was founded by Henry DeLand, a baking soda magnate from New York, who visited in 1876. His vision was to create a citrus, agricultural and tourism center. His friend John Stetson, who made his wealth in the hat business, followed. Stetson took a strong interest in DeLand University, eventually lending his name to the institution. 

Impressive brick buildings dating back to the turn of the 19th century—some with wrought iron-trimmed balconies reminiscent of New Orleans—line the main street. Tea rooms, wine bars and even a doll shop are tucked in some of the buildings, and oversized flower pots filled with pink petunias sit on street corners. The Historic Courthouse, built in 1929, is known for its neoclassical architecture, copper-clad dome and Corinthian columns. Adjacent is Chess Park, where a life-size chess board and sculptures make it an inviting place for a respite. 

But that old-school vibe is offset by a youthful energy, slightly more hip, that’s percolating downtown at places like Café DaVinci, a live music venue presenting a mix of genres, and the brand-new Persimmon Hollow Brewing Company that turns out flavorful beers with names like Paddle Wheeler, Tipsy Friar and Sleepy Holler. No doubt the Stetson community plays a role in the downtown vibe, but rather than being invasive, it complements life here quite nicely.

“I love DeLand,” says Sarah Stuart, a 25-year-old graduate of Stetson University, who grew up in the town. “DeLand is a little city taking progressive steps.” 

For her it’s the easy availability of organic foods, fresh juices and baked bread.  Great places like DaVinci for bluegrass, alternative music and even a brass quintet. Restaurants serving Thai, Indian, fusion, and bars like Half Wall Beer House and boutiques like Pinup Parlor—all local stuff, she elaborates. “I like seeing DeLand grow, but it still has its local flavor,” she says.

Diana Venturini, a New Jersey transplant and owner of downtown’s Anna Bananas Home Market, is also a fan of the local restaurant scene. “DeLand is not overly crowded like Orlando, and with all the new restaurants, it’s great.” She recently moved her business from a funky old wooden house to a stylish brick building on Woodland Boulevard. She describes her store, stocked with carefully crafted furniture made from reclaimed wood, as having upscale appeal, but with down-home goods.  

According to Maureen Kemp of Kemp Realty Group, the most sought-after historic homes in DeLand are those up to five blocks from its downtown. Buyers are looking for character and finding signature Victorian, colonial and American Craftsman as well as some mid-century modern ranch homes. Turnkey historic homes are selling for top dollar, Kemp points out.

“Buyers are a combination of younger married couples and empty-nesters. For example, one house sold at $189,000 to a young couple who live and work in the medical field here in DeLand. Empty-nesters who work at Stetson bought a Dutch Colonial,” she says. 

Homes under $200,000 maintain the deepest and widest buyer group, but you’ll find a Queen Anne priced at $429,000, and a 1917 restored Craftsman bungalow at $279,000.

For those who want proximity to downtown but don’t necessarily want to live in its core, there are subdivisions with newer homes and plenty of amenities, such as swimming pools and fitness trails, just seven miles away. Larger luxury waterfront and equestrian homes that take advantage of the nearby countryside and have more acreage would be in the $500,000-plus price range.

Winter Park
In 2014, Winter Park appeared in Anheuser-Busch’s Super Bowl commercial as the quintessential small American town. Millions watched the emotional homecoming of a soldier as he and his wife rode in a shiny red wagon pulled by Budweiser’s famous Clydesdale horses down the brick-lined streets.

For residents and those who know Winter Park well, the commercial wasn’t far off from depicting that utopia. Winter Park is definitely one of the most polished and sophisticated of all the small-town environments in Central Florida, with one difference: It’s surrounded by urban sprawl, not countryside. 

Storefronts on Park Avenue, the main thoroughfare, are meticulously cared for and the street’s green space, Central Park, is home to fountains, rose gardens and a new train station. Couples pushing baby strollers, joggers, bicyclists and dog walkers are seen daily, not just on weekends, signaling that people really do enjoy living here.

This community just 15 minutes from downtown Orlando is also recognized for outstanding private and public schools. And it’s home to Rollins College, a liberal arts school boasting an average class size of 17. But Winter Park also has the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Garden, and Casa Feliz Historic Home Museum, which all hold events designed to bring the community together. Then there are quaint parades for the high school football team and a monthly summertime outdoor movie series in Central Park.

 Such events, along with art festivals that draw huge crowds, are great for businesses along Park Avenue, where alfresco cafés, clothing stores and chocolate shops are plentiful. Katie Morgan, a resident who owns the Violet Clover boutique on Park Avenue, says having a store in Winter Park was always a dream. “Winter Park is like out of a movie. Who wouldn’t want to open a store here?” says the 28-year-old entrepreneur. Mothers and daughters who live in the area are among her regular customers, and being next door to the local coffee shop helps. “People will come in to buy a dress that they saw on their morning walk, or say, ‘Oh, I was getting coffee before your shop opened,’ and come back,” she says.

Morgan doesn’t do any marketing, and one of the reasons is that there’s a constant stream of people walking on Park Avenue. And with schools nearby, moms come in to browse before and after picking up their children.

Much of Winter Park is built around the Winter Park Chain of Lakes, which was part of the attraction back in 1887 when the city was developed as a winter resort for wealthy Northerners wanting to escape colder climes. Today the streets off Park Avenue wind through beautiful manicured neighborhoods, where custom-built homes enhanced by professional landscaping are reason to pause. However, Jo-Ann Lamar, a Realtor with The Cook & Lamar Team at Parkland International Realty, is quick to point out that hidden among Winter Park’s mega-mansions are some real finds. 

“People don’t understand that you can have a small, quaint bungalow next to a multimillion-dollar house and they all work together—old and new, big and small. There’s something for everyone,” she says. 

In the mix are historic homes where the owner has kept the true character, Craftsman-style houses, Mediterranean architecture, contemporary designs and even mid-century modern ranch homes from the 1950s. Prices can be as low as the $300,000s for a bungalow or as high as $7 million. 

One of the best things about Winter Park is that the residents are not transient. Homeowners seem to keep their houses forever, and even empty-nesters who want to downsize often sell their larger home and buy something smaller in Winter Park rather than move away.

As in most established neighborhoods, new construction is limited. “There are some houses that need to be torn down. There’s nothing historic about them; they are just old houses that hadn’t been maintained,” says Lamar, adding that the value is in the land. You might see a spec house go up, but most new construction is for custom homes. 

But there is one thing Lamar hears often from potential home buyers. They’ll say: “Oh, I can’t afford it now, but some day I’m going to live in Winter Park.” And those aspirational dreamers do eventually find their home in this coveted small town.

New Urbanism
Once upon a time people lived in walkable neighborhoods where they knew each other, and borrowing a cup of sugar was an acceptable practice. Small grocery stores were just blocks away, and kids rode bicycles there to pick up a loaf of bread for mom. Schools, churches, parks and businesses were all within easy reach.

Then came the automobile, and houses rose up in the suburbs. Gas was cheap, and driving that shiny new car to the supermarket and everywhere else was the  routine. Commuting to work became a way of life, and people no longer had time to mingle with their neighbors.

Somewhere in the 1980s and early ’90s, town planners, developers, architects, engineers and designers started to re-examine the way Americans lived, and that was when the New Urbanism concept began to take shape. 

Today, that concept as defined on goes something like this: New Urbanism promotes the creation and restoration of diverse, walkable, compact, vibrant, mixed-use communities composed of the same components as conventional development, but assembled in a more integrated fashion, in the form of complete communities.

Here in Central Florida, Celebration, Avalon Park, Baldwin Park and Lake Nona are among the communities where New Urbanism has played an ongoing role in their development.

Avalon Park
Avalon Park is an 1,860-acre neighborhood in southeast Orange County, where natural surroundings along the Econlockhatchee River blend with an urban-designed downtown. Besides enjoying manmade lakes, wetlands and walking and bicycling trails, residents are within easy walking distance of the town center. It features  banks, restaurants and stores  painted in earthy tones, with canopies and sidewalks. Designed as a traditional-style neighborhood, you can find four-story apartment buildings  and three-bedroom townhouses in the downtown. Homes include single- and multi-family properties.

Celebration sits just outside the Walt Disney World Resort, occupying about 5,000 acres. The Celebration Town Center has everything from a post office to a boutique hotel, and within the community are an elementary school and high school. Do you want to be near the schools or the bustle of the community’s downtown area? Close to the golf course or Interstate 4? Homeowners can choose from 10 neighborhoods depending on the property size they need and preferred location. Properties include condos, townhouses, duplexes, and single-family homes—from bungalows to estates.

Baldwin Park
Just three miles from downtown Orlando, Baldwin Park is an 1,110-acre oasis surrounded by development. Rather than being corralled by gates or walls, it blends seamlessly with the older neighborhoods that border it. The Village Center is a commercial and civic hub where residents enjoy a sense of community. The neighborhood is designed with resident-only parks, two lakes and 50 miles of paths and trails. Rental apartments include lofts, townhouses and garden apartments. Single-family homes boast eclectic styles from Mediterranean and classic to cottages and bungalows. 

Lake Nona
One of the larger communities that incorporates New Urbanism concepts is Lake Nona. It occupies some 7,000 acres in southeast Orlando, and its neighborhoods are all different. You can choose from a golf-and-country-club community or one that has a modern-transitional architectural style. There is a gated community, with waterfront homes and boat docks facing Lake Nona, which contrasts with a neighborhood of resort-style homes connected by bridges. You’ll also find neo-traditional communities where families are close to the elementary school. No matter where you choose to live, there’s always a park and trails within walking distance. However, because of Lake Nona’s size, you might have to drive to Crescent Park, the local gathering spot for food truck night and yoga classes. By the end of 2015, the Lake Nona Town Center—with stores, restaurants and entertainment options—will debut.

Categories: Neighborhoods