Editor's Note: Articles written by citizens reflect their own opinions and not the views of the Winter Park Voice.
Guest Columnist Marty Sullivan
The first anniversary of the conditional use approval of the Canopy project is coming up September 24, and shortly thereafter the Commission should receive the construction drawings, from which the City can finally calculate the “not-to-exceed” cost of the project. Despite anticipation of these long-sought answers, questions remain.
The proposed Canopy project is a big deal for our City. Based on the history of our current library, we may have this public building for the next 40 years.
We have to ask: Is the design compatible with our City? Is the library satisfactory in form and function to serve Winter Park citizens? Will the adjoining events center serve Winter Park’s needs for community events? Will the evolving cost fit within our budget? Will long-term maintenance and operation costs be acceptable? Will it be a desirable addition to Martin Luther King, Jr. recreational park?
Let Your City Officials Hear From You
Your City leaders need to hear from you. Let your Commissioners know your thoughts on the proposed library and events center. There is no time to waste. Act now.
In March 2016, we voted on a bond referendum for a new library. I expected a favorable landslide vote, because who isn’t in favor of a new library? The bond passed, despite controversy over vague plans and finalization of the building site. The final breakdown was 51 percent for and 49 percent against. The referendum passed by a margin of just 214 votes, foreshadowing the controversy that was sure to follow.
Initial Concept is Substantially Changed
Are the changes in building sizes from the initial concepts acceptable? The referendum language specified, “For the purpose of building the Winter Park Library and Events Center, to include library facilities, civic meeting and gathering facilities and related parking structure . . . .”
Voters were told there would be a 50,000-square-foot (sf) library, an 8,505 sf civic center and a 200-space parking garage (“Community Engagement Workshops,” ACi Architects, 10/26/2015).
Now, the plans are for a 34,400 sf library and a 13,564 sf events center. The ‘associated parking structure’ has been replaced by surface parking (City Commission conditional use approval, 9/24/2018). The Canopy library is only 400 sf larger than the current library facility. Library staff cites efficient use of space, which compensates for the reduction in size, but is this library adequate for our citizens’ needs?
MLK Park Loses Trees and Green Space
Are changes to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Park appropriate? The proposed structure will reduce the MLK park area by an estimated two acres, and the storm water treatment area must be expanded, although no specifications had been developed as of May 2019 (LandDesign engineers).
What Effect Will Tourism Dollars Have?
The City secured a $6 Million Tourist Development Tax (TDT) grant in return for making the Canopy Events Center available for international tourism. At the City’s presentation to the TDT grant board, City Manager Randy Knight was asked about the extent of Winter Park citizens’ use of the event center facility. He responded that he thought Winter Park residents might use the facility during the week, but that the event center would be available on weekends for tourism activities. Winter Park voters approved the bond referendum based on an event center with the purpose of “civic meeting and gathering facilities.” However, now the intended purpose seems to be an international tourism destination. (Presentation before Tourist Tax Grant Board 3/15/2019).
No Hard Numbers, So Far
Cost estimates have been a moving target. To date, the City has provided only artistic renderings, and we are depending on bids based on construction drawings to derive hard costs. The City’s official position on cost estimate is $40.5 million, coming from $28.7 Million in bonds, $6 Million TDT grant and $5.4 Million in private donations. The estimated total budget with contingencies is $43 Million.
How many private dollars should our community contribute to this one project? Are we draining resources away from other endeavors? We have other important projects on the horizon, many of which may require private sector support, such as plans for the post office site, new parks, city hall renovations and repurposing the old library site.
How high is too high?
What final figure will cause our City leaders to pause and rethink this project? Fifty Million? We’ve heard $55 Million. Commissioners need to tell us now what they consider an acceptable figure to move ahead with the Canopy.
Mayflower Nixes City’s Request for Bike Path Easement
When the Mayflower retirement community came before the July 22 Commission seeking final approval for plans to expand their facilities and services, most of the discussion centered not on the expansion, despite substantial changes to the version that received preliminary approval in 2018, but on the City’s request for an easement along the western border of the property where it could maybe, someday, build a 15-foot wide path for bikes and pedestrians. The City wanted to create a route that removed bikes and pedestrians from the dangerous motor traffic on Lakemont Avenue.
In January 2018, the Mayflower received preliminary approval to add a new three-story health care center and a one-story memory care center, a one-story club house and four separate three-story residential buildings. Conditions of approval were that the Mayflower would “explore” a bike path, install buffer landscaping for adjacent properties and come up with a storm water plan approved by the St. Johns River Water Management District.
A year and a half later, in addition to the new club house and additional residences, the Mayflower wanted to combine the health care facility with the memory care center in a single four-story structure to make room for a fifth 24,000-square-foot residential building. The plan presented to the Commission displayed easements along the western border of the Mayflower property for the bike path. The easements are indicated in red and blue on the map above.
Sprinkel Has Heartburn
Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel pointed out that when the original request came before the Commission in 2018, the Mayflower was asked to “explore” a bike path that would serve as a northeast connector trail, but the path was not a condition of approval. “We have not, as a Commission, even approved this bike path,” said Sprinkel.
Turns out the bike path easement was a staff recommendation, which City Code, Sec. 58-90, “Conditional Use,” allows the City to impose. Code says that if an applicant brings for final approval a project in which the height has changed by more than one foot and the floor area has changed by more than 250 feet, the City can re-open all negotiations. Planning Manager Jeff Briggs cited the intent of the 2010 Comprehensive Plan to get cyclists and pedestrians from Lakemont up to Palmer, and said staff believed there was an opportunity for that along the western border of the Mayflower property, as had been discussed in 2018.
Seidel Suggests a Sunset Date
Commissioner Greg Seidel stated while an easement is no guarantee the City will build the bike path, the Mayflower’s failure to grant the easement would guarantee it won’t be built. Seidel suggested establishing a 10-year “sunset date” on the easement – if no bike path is built there within 10 years, the easement will cease and the property will revert to the Mayflower.
Connectivity Plan “Accepted” but Never “Adopted”
The connectivity plan for bikes and pedestrians goes back to the Bikes & Peds Board before it was renamed the Transportation Advisory Board. The Bikes & Peds Board submitted a plan for connecting bike and pedestrian paths through the City, which Mayor Steve Leary said was “accepted” by the Commission, but not “approved.”
Mayflower Project Has ‘Substantial Change’
Addressing Commissioner Spinkel’s ‘heartburn,’ Commissioner Carolyn Cooper pointed out that since the Mayflower came back for final approval with a project that was substantially different from the one that received preliminary approval, “. . .we can start all of these conversations all over again. . . . Alternatively,” said Cooper, “the Commission also has the right to ask the developer to revert to the original plan, since the substantial changes have not received preliminary approval by the Commission.”
“Winter Park is a Big Dead Zone”
Commissioner Todd Weaver addressed the concerns of the Mayflower residents for their own pedestrian safety on the property. He pointed out that between the fence and a 50-foot landscape buffer separating the proposed bike path from the Mayflower property, the residents would not even see the path, let alone encounter bicycles. Weaver recounted a recent Metroplan meeting at which a map of the inter-connected greenways in Orange, Osceola and Seminole Counties showed a big ‘dead zone’ at the center — Winter Park. “It is City staff’s mandate to complete our Comprehensive Plan, and part of that is our mobility,” said Weaver. “This connectivity plan has been 10 years in the making, and we are 10 years behind every other city in our area.”
We Are Asking for the Opportunity
Weaver went on to explain that the City had neither planned nor funded the actual path, that it was simply requesting an easement for the opportunity to do so at some future date. He stated that there would be no design and that no plans would be made without including Mayflower residents, surrounding neighbors, City staff and the Commission.
Everyone Wants Trails – Just Not In Their Back Yards
Public commenters criticized City government for its failure to come up with a well-defined plan for greenway connectivity. Citizens hastened to assure Commissioners that they were not against bike and pedestrian paths, as long as they are far enough away from their property.
Attorney Tripp Cheek, who is a member of the law firm representing the Mayflower, Winderweedle, Haines, Ward & Woodman, PA, but who spoke as a private citizen, cited a case in which the St. Johns River Water Management District required a developer to improve a wetlands property he did not own in return for granting him a permit to develop his own property. The developer successfully sued the District, claiming the wetlands improvement had nothing to do with his own development and should not be used as a condition for approval. Cheek cautioned the Commissioners against asking for the bike path easement, warning they were “asking for a problem” in the future.
Cheek’s remarks drew a sharp response from Seidel. “I don’t appreciate it when people threaten me with a lawsuit over something I’m trying to decide,” said Seidel. “That is not going to sway me one way or the other.” Seidel said he would defer to the City Attorney.
Ardaman cited City Code, which says the Commission has three options. One, the Commission can decide the Mayflower’s changes are not significant. Two, they can find the changes are significant but acceptable. Or, three, they can decide the changes are significant and unacceptable, in which case the applicant must amend the plan to conform with the original conditional use and resubmit it to the Commission.
The Problem is Lakemont
A significant hurdle to the decision is the City’s failure to adopt a connectivity plan. One by one, each Commissioner admitted that where the ball had been dropped was right in their laps. “We didn’t do it because we couldn’t,” said Sprinkel, “we didn’t have agreement up here. Now we need to do something about this.”
“I know that our Advisory Boards have worked hard on this issue,” said Cooper. “They’ve done planning, but their plans have been ‘accepted,’ not ‘adopted.’ I’m glad [City Planning Director Bronce Stephenson] has a different impression about this plan.”
Weaver asked if people in the audience would favor using the “complete streets” treatment on Lakemont that has been employed on Denning. A cheer and a show of raised arms arose from the back of the chamber. Weaver then asked how many of those people would agree to have their taxes raised in order to pay for an improved streetscape on Lakemont. Again, a strong show of support.
Leary Stands by the Mayflower
Before calling for a vote, Mayor Steve Leary stated that in the nine to ten years he has been going to the Mayflower, he has made a commitment. “If the Mayflower doesn’t support this, I’m not supporting it,” said Leary.
The Trick Box
When the vote was called, Seidel offered an amendment requiring 15- to 20-foot wide easements at the western border of the property, with a ten-year sunset, for the purpose of building the path for non-motorized transportation, and the City would bear the cost of any improvements required to construct the path. The amendment passed 3 – 2, with Leary and Sprinkel dissenting.
Before calling the vote on the final approval, with Seidel’s amendment, Leary offered the Mayflower the opportunity to pull or table the application prior to the final vote.
At least half a dozen lawyers headed for a huddle at the rear of the chamber, with attorney Cheek at the center of the pack.
The Mayflower attorney returned to the podium to report that the Mayflower would agree to a part of the easement at the southwest corner of the property, provided the Commission would approve their plan with the four-story building as presented. The Mayflower offered the easement marked in red at the lower left corner of the map at the top of the article.
In a confusing turn of events, Seidel withdrew his original amendment for the expanded easement, which had already passed, and offered a new amendment that granted the Mayflower’s request, which passed on a 4-1 vote. The main motion, to approve the Mayflower’s plans as presented and with only the smaller easement, then passed on a 5-0 vote.
Axe-Throwing Venue Slated for Old Booby Trap Property
Two local doctors plan to breathe new life into the 0.6-acre property at 2600 Lee Road, site of the double-domed Club Harem – variously known as the Booby Trap, Club Harem, Club Rio and Christie’s Cabaret — an adult entertainment venue with a lurid history.
The contract to purchase the land from the City for $950,000 was approved by a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Carolyn Cooper casting the dissenting vote. Local vascular surgeons Dr. David Varnagy and Dr. Manuel Perez Isquierdo plan to build an axe-throwing facility where the Booby Trap once stood.
A popular pastime in Canada and a feature in lumberjack competitions, axe-throwing is now gaining popularity in the U.S. According to Wikipedia, indoor axe throwing is a sport in which the competitor throws an axe at a target, attempting to hit the bulls eye as near as possible. Today there are commercial locations in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom where participants can compete, similar to dart throwing. For a video of axe throwing, follow the link below.
In 2015, the City purchased Club Harem at 2600 Lee Rd. for $990,000, an amount well above market value. Then-Mayor Ken Bradley pushed for the purchase in order to “eliminate alleged illegal activity” at the location. Stories about the building with the breast-shaped roof line include a 2008 undercover police investigation at Club Harem, which led to a lawsuit by its owners against the City. The case was quietly settled in 2011 when the City issued a check for $250,000 to the aggrieved parties.
Explaining her vote against the sale, Commissioner Cooper noted that since 2015, the City has invested around $1 million in the property. She said she thought the City should hold out for a better price. She pointed out that property values in this area have increased by 14 percent in the four years since the City’s purchase. City Manager Randy Knight acknowledged that the City was “not hurting for money” and that there was no pressing need to sell at this time. The City’s broker, Bobby Palta, suggested the City could counter the doctors’ offer with a higher price, but the Commission chose to do neither.
Is Axe-Throwing Conducive to Better Behavior?
In his remarks, Commissioner Todd Weaver wondered if an axe-throwing venue that plans to serve beer and wine was “conducive to better behavior than what was there before.” Even though he expressed concern over mixing alcoholic beverages with axe-throwing, he did vote in favor of the project.
At the time of publication, neither Dr. Perez Isquierdo nor Dr. Varnagy responded to requests for comment.
The planned Canopy project may be the largest public works project ever undertaken by the City of Winter Park. Approved in 2016, the Library, Events Center and Parking Garage referendum garnered a slim majority of 214 votes, out of over 10,618 votes cast.
Campaign Literature in 2015-16 Promised Cost Levels
New Events Center:
(demolition, design/engineering, landscaping, site work)
Library Board to Raise: $ 2,500,000
TOTAL PROJECT COST $ 29,914,311 with a promised 15 percent contingency
Three years later, why does the public continue to be skeptical about the chances for success?
Why is public trust in this project, funded by taxpayer dollars, continuing to falter? The answers to these questions are not difficult. Look at the project track record over the past four years. Promises were made, then discarded. Trust evaporated. The trend line below speaks for itself.
$29.9 million project with a 15 percent contingency
50,000 square foot library
LEED-certified building including solar energy capacity
Multi-deck parking garage to ensure easy access, safety and security for patrons
Footprint that takes no more than 1 percent of MLK Jr Park acreage
A site suitable to build upon with no extraordinary contamination or soil stability issues
Storm water plan that could be addressed without taking more parkland
A transparent process open to public comment, with all commissioners kept in the loop
Project focus is a world class library and a community events center
Robust community fundraising support assured
CRA funds unlikely to be needed and should be reserved for other city priorities, like the purchase of the Post Office property.
The Path Forward
Price tag increased to $40+ million and is tilting toward $50 million Note: Taxpayer dollars restricted to the original $30 million bond limit
Greatly reduced contingency fund resulting from a challenging construction environment
Library size reduced to 34,400 square feet with no LEED certification
No parking garage, requiring consumption of more park space for parking lots
No traffic study of Morse & Harper to address congestion and safety issues Note: Plan proposed to model the entire Orange Avenue MLK Park region
Continued flooding of Morse and Harper with no approved storm water plan Note: Lake Mendsen is currently at capacity, per St Johns River WMD
Complex site issues with debris buried to 30-35 feet and muck. Note: Building site has been shifted west to avoid muck pockets.
Trees removed without public notice or involvement. Note: There is a moratorium on future tree removal.
Consumption of MLK Park acreage now in excess of 15 percent of park space, and
Lake Mendsen could be further expanded by taking 1-2 more park acres. Note: There is some effort to dial back the size of the project footprint.
Lack of Transparency — the last comprehensive public forum on the project was the April 9, 2018 City Commission Meeting approving Schematic Designs.
Tourism as priority pitched to Orange County Tourist Development Council (TDC) — our own “I-Drive.”
One commissioner was not informed of TDC meeting and the request for $6 million.
Fundraising from the community still not accounted for, though the deadline was April 2019.
CRA funds will likely be tapped to bail out this project.
Martin Luther King, Jr: still has not been honored as the namesake of this park.
What if This Were Your Own Health?
Citizens have not been presented with a satisfactory explanation for this list of discrepancies. This is the chance for the commission to step forward and demonstrate leadership.
If this project were a medical patient, we could say we have seen the X-Rays and indicators of a potential complication are all there.
If we wait seven more months, until January, when construction pricing comes due, we then face a crisis decision of whether to administer chemo or radiation or both. Why not take preventive measures now? Get a second opinion? If your health was at stake, what would you do?
Maybe change medical providers?
Can We Afford This Project?
For many, the fiduciary handwriting is on the wall: we cannot afford this project.
No wonder the citizenry is concerned.
Cost estimates and overruns will not diminish. Instead, they will likely increase. Change orders will become a major concern. Our Central Florida construction market is robust but stressed, increasing pressure on construction costs. That context has already been established with the I-4 Ultimate, Orlando Airport’s New South Terminal and the building boom.
Commissioners Need the Chance to Talk to One Another
At the June 10 Commission meeting, Commissioner Carolyn Cooper requested a workshop so the Commission as a whole could discuss various budget issues, including the Canopy and the CRA, without having to go through the City Manager. She was dismissed by Mayor Steve Leary, but her suggestion deserves reconsideration.
Recommendation: Give Us the Benefit of Your Shared Vision
Hold a Workshop.
Put the questions on the table and explore some answers together.
Educate a very concerned public.
How Much Can the Camel Carry?
In the case of the Canopy, it is reasonable to say that a $1,000 per square foot public works project is unacceptable. So, what is acceptable? $700 per square foot? $500 per square foot? $350 per square foot? That guide star needs to be established — or at least discussed – and the public needs to hear the discussion.
If we cannot attain that acceptable price per square foot, alternative scenarios need to be explored. When a project moves beyond 60 percent design, the time and money already invested make it increasingly difficult to say “no” or even to change tack.
Think Big: Where is Plan B?
The goal is to maximize all our assets to make this project the best it can be. For this reason, the process deserves heightened public involvement, heightened communication and heightened stewardship by our elected leaders.
Are our taxpayer dollars being wisely spent? If so, show us how.
Celebrate Community & Greenspace at the Winter Park Land Trust Kickoff
Feb. 28 – Farmers Market – 6 pm
The Winter Park Land Trust inaugural kickoff event at the Farmer’s Market on Thursday, Feb. 28 at 6:00 pm promises to be one great big party. There will be music, refreshments and something for everyone. Everyone is welcome – so come on out!
What’s a Land Trust?
Learn how land trusts work around the United States and hear about the Winter Park Land Trust’s vision to help plan, expand and protect urban parks and green space throughout Winter Park and surrounding communities.
Featured speakers from the City of Winter Park, the City of Orlando, the Alliance of Florida Land Trusts, the Nature Conservancy and, of course, the Winter Park Land Trust, will be joined by 15 groups at information tables, where representatives will be on hand to discuss their visions for urban parks and greenspace in Winter Park.
Participating Groups at Information Tables
City of Winter Park
City of Orlando
Alliance of Florida Land Trusts
1000 Friends of Florida
University of Central Florida
Winter Park History Museum
Mead Botanical Garden
Florida Native Plant Society
Winter Park Garden Club
IDEAS for Us
Winter Park Land Trust
Please forward this announcement to everyone you know who has an interest the future of parks and green space in Winter Park.
Go Green on February 28 – 6:00 pm — WP Farmers Market
Grab your Valentine and get ready to party!
Farmers Market — February 28 at 6:00 pm
Come celebrate the establishment of the Winter Park Land Trust with friends, food and music. Find out how you can be part of the mission of creating, enhancing and connecting our urban parks and green space for everyone’s benefit and enjoyment.
What is a Land Trust?
A land trust is a private non-profit organization whose purpose is to conserve land in perpetuity. It enhances the character of the community by providing open green space for recreation, education, the protection of water and air quality, wildlife habitat, and agriculture.
Land trusts ensure lasting stewardship of conserved lands and waters by working with government to create long-term plans looking out over several generations. Land trusts connect the planning process to the public through membership in the organization. There are more than 1,200 land trusts across the U.S., ranging from all volunteer community-based organizations to large staffed land conservation non-profits with statewide or national territories.
Why Does Winter Park Need a Land Trust?
The 2015 – 2016 Winter Park Visioning Process revealed that expanding and connecting urban parks and green space is one of Winter Park citizens’ most important community values.
A community land trust plays an important role providing additional local open space, and it can supplement the ability of city government to provide and maintain green space.
Land trusts in the United States are long-lived, because they are able to transcend the everyday operational responsibilities and the changes in personnel faced by local governments. They exist solely to support a permanent framework of parks and green space in cities and towns.
Vision and Mission Driven
“The mission of the Winter Park Land Trust is to plan, finance and manage the acquisition of land and interests in land to be used for the creation, expansion, improvement, and connecting of parkland and green space within and adjacent to the City of Winter Park.
Our vision is that the Land Trust will help to ensure that Winter Park and surrounding communities will be an area with sufficient parks and open space, where the footprint of existing parks will be increased, and wherever possible, parks and green spaces will be connected in order to balance and reduce the adverse impacts of increasing development and population density. Attractive green space will then always be an important asset and characteristic of the Winter Park area.”
By joining The Winter Park Land Trust, you can help with the process of permanent land acquisition for urban parks and greenspace in Winter Park. You can become a member now by going to the website address above – and come to the kickoff party to learn all about it!
The Winter Park Land Trust is supported through private, tax-deductible contributions. Your contribution is an effective way of acting upon your belief in creating a lasting legacy to secure the quality of life in Winter Park.