No Park Expansion

No Park Expansion

A 20,000-square-foot medical office building will occupy a lot once home to bowling lanes on Fairbanks Avenue near U.S. Highway 17/92.

City commissioners accepted an offer to buy the land from ComTech Properties for $3.5 million by a 4-1 vote, Commissioner Carolyn Cooper opposed. The site at 1111 W. Fairbanks Ave. has been coveted by some in Winter Park eager to expand Martin Luther King Park.

The city put the land out for bid in June, less than a year and a half after it bought the 1.63 acres from Rollins College for $2.9 million. The college had bought the bowling lanes site in 2013 for $2.85 million as part of a planned athletic field, but sold it to the city after it found another location.

The city used community redevelopment — or CRA — funds from its special downtown taxing district to pay for about a third of the purchase price to Rollins. The intent was to create turn lanes from Fairbanks Avenue onto Hwy. 17/92. There also was discussion at the CRA and city commission level about using the parcel to expand MLK Park.

Commissioner Cooper argued Monday the city should delay the sale “for now,” so it can study what effect the new city library will have on storm water drainage in the area. Hurricane Irma raised the need for more land to offset storm water, she said. Commissioner Greg Seidel voiced similar concerns, as did two residents who spoke to delay the sale. This area “was the TV stand-up spot” reporters used to show flooding from Irma, resident Charley Williams said.

Mayor Steve Leary said the agenda item was “never about park space and water,” but about needing space for traffic lanes. Arguments about stormwater were just another tactic to delay the sale, he said, and that could scare away prospective tenants in the office building and jeopardize the bid.

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    By: Geri Throne – Guest Columnist

    Author / Journalist
    Geri Throne moved to Winter Park with her husband and two young children 34 years ago, after learning about the city as a reporter for the now-defunct Winter Park Sun Herald. She wrote extensively for that weekly about city issues and local politics in the 1970s.She later joined the staff of the Orlando Sentinel where she specialized in local government issues and in the 1980s served as Winter Park bureau chief. She worked at the newspaper’s Orlando office as an assistant city editor, deputy business editor and member of the Editorial Board before her retirement in 2003. A series of her editorials won a national award for educational reporting from the Education Writers Association in 2003. Geri has published several essays and short stories. She continues to pursue her interest in fiction writing with local authors and is working on a novel set in World War II.

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12 replies
  1. Charlie Williams says:

    Many of us fought long and hard to add the 1.6-acre Bowling-Alley site at 1111 W. Fairbanks Avenue to our Martin Luther King Park green space. After all, it was that rare parcel contiguous to one of our city’s largest parks.
    On Monday night, the City Commission voted to sell this city asset rather than keep it.
    I am encouraged by the number of Winter Park citizens who increasingly are taking a stand to protect and expand our public green-space holdings.
    As we visibly witness the traffic, congestion and growth in our community, the desire for more balance becomes undeniable.
    The question remains: When will we turn that desire into actionable results?
    Perhaps we are not quite there yet, but I believe the time will come — and sooner than we think.
    Every community needs a “great park”, a gathering space, a common green. MLK Park is such an opportunity: its 28.27 acres is right in our urban core.
    In addition, the park has been studied and projected as a Gateway opportunity for the past 18 years.
    Stay positive. Be creative. Ask questions. Dig deeper. Ask more questions. Hold elected officials accountable. Remember the history. Remember the votes.
    No one said it would be easy. But then again, it shouldn’t be that hard.
    Don’t give up.
    The next generation is counting on you. And the next.
    Here’s to the long game.

    [Below is an edited copy of a letter signed by myself and 104 other residents that was sent to city commissioners prior to their vote.]

    Charley Williams
     
    Sept. 21, 2017
    Commissioners
    Cc: City Manager
    City of Winter Park
    City Hall
    401 South Park Avenue
    Winter Park, Florida 32789
     
    RE: Expand MLK Park – Twenty Years in the Making
     
    Dear Mayor and Commissioners:
     
    The voters have spoken. We are excited about plans for a new library complex on the north end of MLK Park. The park is one of the city’s largest green-space parcels at 28.25 acres. It is currently a blend of both active and passive uses.
     
    Our request is simple. We write today to ask this commission to retain rather than sell the bowling alley property at 1111 W. Fairbanks Avenue at this time.
     
    Plans for the library bring to light several considerations concerning the bowling alley property: the lack of urgency to augment reserves with the sale proceeds; the additional storm water and infrastructure needs which must be addressed; and, above all, the overarching 18-year history of a stated intent to expand the park and enhance the city gateway.
     
    The bowling alley completes a line of sight from Fairbanks to a beautiful expanse of green space, terminating at the new library. Together the library complex, MLK, the bowling alley, and the parcels east of it on Fairbanks, offer a unique gateway feature to our downtown – a 30+ acre urban greenway:  a jewel in the crown for any community.
     
    Moreover, in order to counter MLK’s three new multi-story structures (with accompanying impervious surfaces), we believe it’s fair to add balance, and to grant compensating acreage on the south end by incorporating the bowling alley footprint. Plans indicate that the library complex will now easily exceed the initial “1% of park” footprint originally pledged in 2016. This restoration of balance is so easily within our grasp. The City already owns the 1.6 acres at 1111 W. Fairbanks and does not need to spend additional resources to acquire it.
     
    Bowling for Greenspace: An 18+ Year CRA Effort
     
    The concept of enlarging MLK Park is not new. The expansion MLK Park and the acquisition of the bowling alley property have been on the table for almost two decades.  Going back as far as the 1999 CRA Plan Amendment, the 17-92/Fairbanks corridor was earmarked as a priority focus for the CRA.
     
    The following language is from the 1999 CRA Plan Amendment, as adopted by the Commission.

     1. Lake Island Park “will be enlarged to include all land east of Ward Avenue to Denning Drive, from its existing boundary at Comstock Avenue to Fairbanks Avenue. The expanded park will provide additional open space, increase opportunities for better utilization of the park, and showcase the property as an aesthetic enhancement along Fairbanks Avenue.”

     Despite the reference to “east of Ward” no coherent reading of the CRA amendment could exclude 1111 W. Fairbanks. It is envisioned as part of the Gateway feature. Discussion of future intent even included acquiring properties on the south side of Fairbanks.

    2. “The park expansion will require the acquisition of some properties fronting the north side of Fairbanks Avenue. This is an activity the CRA will undertake.”
     
    3. “This project will be paid for with public funds.”
     
    The Plan Amendment included a projection of funds required to pay for this land acquisition–3.8 acres at $400,000 per acre for a total of $1,520,000. The slated timeline for the planned Lake Island Park expansion was eight to 15 years, which would have taken us through 2014.  We are now three years behind schedule.

    1999 – 2017: Momentum Builds to Expand MLK Park
     
    In 2014 the CRA staff report (Sept 22, 2014) stated “The opportunity to acquire land along Fairbanks is important for several reasons. …..showcasing MLK Park – and – a vista along Fairbanks Avenue provides a true sense of the city’s commitment to quality of life and would create an identify for a gateway into downtown”.
     
    In 2015, the CRA Capital Improvement Plan (July 20, 2015) discusses the need to create an urban gateway at 17-92/Fairbanks. “Let the user know they have arrived”; “greater sense of place”; “serves as a unique gateway to the central core of Winter Park”.
     
    The 2016 CRA Annual Report states “1111 W. Fairbanks, known as the bowling alley site, was targeted by the city and the CRA for a two-fold purpose. … (1) To obtain additional frontage to correct transportation deficiencies and (2) to highlight the on-going development and expansion of MLK Park”.
     
    Staff report of April 11, 2016 recommended:
     
    “Complete the MLK Park Master Plan with the library/event center/parking design and then decide on the future of this property (1111 W. Fairbanks)”
     
    We, the undersigned, could not be more in agreement.
     
    Unanswered Questions: Stormwater Capacity/Lake Mendsen – MLK Park
     
    Lake Mendsen, the stormwater pond at the heart of MLK Park, is at capacity. It already serves Winter Park Village, Paseo, CNL as well as other commercial/residential uses in this basin. Eventually it flows to Lake Killarney. Will the City need to further enlarge Lake Mendsen to accommodate the new library event center? At what cost? Could not the bowling alley be a part of the solution to solve the increased capacity issue as well as to restore balance to the park?
     
    We suggest that the bowling alley property be retained in the event more parkland is needed to solve this stormwater demand. Such an action would offer a conservative and fiscally prudent protocol. We do not yet have the answers to these questions which carry critical budget implications. When will we know?
     
    Timing: Now Is Not the Time to Sell a City Asset
     
    We realize the Commission is constantly seeking new sources of revenue for the bottom line. The $3.5 million which could be realized from the sale of the bowling alley plays to this fiduciary role. However, once it is sold, the opportunity to acquire that contiguous green space is lost for decades, if not forever.
     
    Parcels abutting a park/green space are prime real estate. The bowling alley’s 1.63 acres are the sole such contiguous parcel in the city’s inventory which meets this rare parameter. It is an asset. Current budget/reserves belie any urgency which could legitimately justify the sale of such a valuable asset. Please wait.
     
    Public/Private Partnerships to Nurture/Preserve Greenspace
     
    Efforts are underway to develop a community land trust for future land acquisition and donor participation. A land trust cannot blossom if the City willingly and knowingly disposes of the very parcels (parcels it already owns) that could accrue to our green-space holdings. A potential land trust is precisely the type of public/private partnership we, as a community need to nurture. The long-term benefit of enhanced parkland is there: property values appreciate significantly around substantial expanses of passive parkland, ultimately adding to the city’s property tax base. All boats rise.

    Conclusion
     
    The time has come to ask ourselves which course of action is more strategic? Which action is supported by a community-wide consensus?  Which action plays to our long-term stated values and vision? 
     
    We, the undersigned, urge you to retain the bowling alley property on Fairbanks and dedicate renewed energy to acquiring additional holdings around the periphery of MLK Park. It’s the right thing to do. Just as the city has done with its recent purchase of 50+ acres off Howell Branch, this too is a legacy-project—in our urban core– for generations to come.
     
    We are here to help reach that goal and honor the vision which has guided all that has gone before. Winter Park is, and can be, that small community with a grand vision.
     
    Sincerely, and with continuing appreciation for your service to our city.

    Reply
  2. Cigar says:

    Nice thoughts. One and all.

    Unfortunately, the die was cast for MLK Park and the residents lost. The developers won. Fair and square? No. But as they say, “Possession is 90% of the law.”

    Nobody cares about a petition with 104 signatures.

    I know that sounds heartless, but that’s the way it works. Fill the City Commission meeting with a few hundred angry residents and you would have had a chance – a chance.

    So long as residents continue to allow Commissioners the authority through the City Charter to chop up and pawn off chunks of MLK Park to developers, that’s exactly what will happen to the park.

    Anybody who really wants to save MLK Park or any other park, would be dedicating their time to gathering the thousands of required voter signatures to add a Charter Amendment to the next ballot prohibiting development or sale of any park land without prior voter approval.

    This game of vote for somebody who will fix everything never works. The problem is not the politicians. The problem is that the residents voluntarily have ceded powers to their Commissioners that they never should have had in the first place.

    Reply
  3. Anonymous says:

    hey, I was thinking….since the library will be our new center for learning, perhaps we could have swim lessons there 🙂 issue snorkles to the patrons…have water ballet at the event center. Since there is no storm water capacity in the pond and we continue to cover everything over with concrete. That can replace the soccer, touch football and lacrosse programs usually played there.

    Reply
  4. Anonymous says:

    Land in Winter Park is precious and scarce. Park land especially. Expaniding MLK while improving the aesthetics with a southern view from Fairbanks makes good sense. Further study of flood drainage too. Traffic at Fairbanks/1792 is a mess. Why add to the confusion? Consider what’s happened at Morse/17-92. Go up the road (17-92) into Maitland to view what poor planning and development has wrought. A nightmare! The Maitland corridor is an example of inept and leaderless government. Winter Park is capable of so much better. Preserve this space. Use it wisely. Remember, we won’t be able to get the land back. The short term financial gain will seem insignificant in the long run.
    Think long, not short!

    Brian Furey (bfurey0224@gmail.com)

    Reply
  5. Anonymous says:

    Congestion, congestion, congestion!! That area of Fairbanks already has day-long auto traffic that it can barely handle. The addition of a right turn lane may help alleviate some of the problem.. But a 20,000 sq ft business building will do nothing more than add to the traffic problem. For the good of the residents and the businesses, I think it very foolish to waste this opportunity and compound the problem.
    That proposed building is a permanent structure that the city will have to live with for a long, long time. I suggest that the proposal be dropped.
    Richard A. Connell
    W. Pk. resident since 1951.

    Reply
  6. Domino Theory says:

    Those who understand domino theory will grasp the significance of the sale.

    When a row of dominos is lined up on their sides, if the first one tips with sufficient force and direction, all the others will follow and fall soon after.

    The library/events center was the first domino to fall in MLK Park. The Fairbanks property fell only months later.

    It’s all about momentum. Those who are “excited about a new library complex on the north end of MLK Park” don’t understand what they are supporting.

    Once the dominos begin to fall there is no turning back. If you want to save MLK Park, let alone expand it, you have to find a way to stop construction on the library/events center. The legal battle was misguided. This should have been handled politically. There’s still time. Residents can organize marches, sit ins, and massive door to door publicity that exposes to all residents the deception that led to the library/events center decision and the shady dealing that guides it today. That kind of campaign of public opinion can turn up the heat enough far enough to make it unbearable for a majority of commissioners to continue their support for the MLK Park library / events center development. A recall election campaign of commissioners (as authorized by the City Charter) could have the same effect. But once construction starts on the library/events center, kiss MLK Park goodbye, because it’s going to be paved over with an art museum and other development not long after.

    No different than when someone first starts to sneeze, you know cold and flu season is upon us.

    Don’t kid yourselves. There is no momentum to expand MLK Park. The momentum is with development. The momentum to expand was lost when building a library / events center in MLK Park was approved, and it has never been regained.

    Reply
  7. Beth Hall says:

    Promises made; promises broken.

    In order to expand the boundaries of the CRA in 1999 , the CRA made promises to Orange County about what it would do with the expansion area if the county would sign off on the expansion.

    The CRA needed the permission of Orange County-the local taxing authority- because the CRA fuels itself by diverting tax money which would normally go to the County.
    The idea is that the public benefit of the items promised will be so great that they will justify and outweigh the value of revenue lost to the county coffers.

    These very specific promises are all memorialized and contained in the voluminous 1999 CRA Plan Amendment. The plans specified a major expansion of MLK Park, formerly known as Lake Island Park, as well as the creation of a scenic gateway along Fairbanks Avenue from 17-92 into the City. Expansion of the park along the north side of Fairbanks all the way east to Denning was planned

    The County agreed to let the CRA expand based upon representations made in the document. The 1999 CRA Plan Amendment remains in effect today.

    I do not believe that the CRA has upheld its end of the this bargain. Wonder if there is any way the County can get it’s tax revenue $$$$ back since without the bowling alley site there is no practical way to expand MLK Park?

    Reply
  8. Beth Hall says:

    I am sure the commission and the CRA felt that since they only obtained 1/3 of the purchase money for 1111 W Fairbanks from the CRA, and since they used that money to expand the turn lanes at the intersection, they were okay. Expansion of the turn lanes was a contemplated use of CRA funds. Fair enuf.

    But the fact remains that the sale of the bowling alley site is a de facto departure from and modification to the 1999 CRA Plan Amendment. Modifications to the CRA require a public hearing on the proposed modification. The CRA and a majority of the Commission have disavowed and abandoned the content of the 1999 CRA Amendment, which called for expansion of Lake Island (MLK) Park and creation of a signature, scenic gateway along Fairbanks. The 1999 CRA Amendment remains in effect today

    Reply
  9. Bob Bendick says:

    The recent decision by the Winter Park City Commission to proceed with sale of the former bowling alley property on Fairbanks Avenue was disappointing, but there was also a positive outcome for the city’s parks at the same Commission meeting—the inclusion in next year’s city budget of $60,000 to update the ten-year-old- Parks and Recreation Plan, including a preliminary look at how our parks, and the city as a whole, can be better connected by greenways, walkways, and bicycle paths.

    A motion supported by Commissioners Cooper and Seidel to add more money to the budget to draft a full greenway plan was, unfortunately, defeated. This would have made the Parks and Recreation plan better and more comprehensive. However, the Commission seems willing to entertain additional parks-connection planning if the initial effort identifies workable opportunities for connecting our parks with linear greenspaces that will also enable safe pedestrian and bicycle travel.

    This all may seem like a minor matter in the midst of discussions about power undergrounding and other budget concerns, but connecting our parks and providing safe pathways for walking and cycling will create a green framework for Winter Park’s future. They were important priorities both in the 2008 Parks and Recreation Plan and in the City’s more recent visioning process.  Such investments would help retain the human scale of our community, connect people to nature as part of their everyday lives, encourage healthy exercise, and better connect us to each other. It is my hope that the Park and Recreation Plan update approved by the Commission will be a significant step in this direction. 

    Reply
  10. Randy Vance says:

    The sale was necessary in light of the $5 Million in Power line replacements. The park property was NOT contiguous but divided by public roads—another red herring argument. It was commercial property then and should continue to be. But the city should have retained enough of it to lengthen the right turn lane on Fairbanks at Orlando Ave. The best solution to stormwater runoff and for preserving green space is to rescind the Library boondoggle and give us back our $30 Million to underground our power grid.

    Reply

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