Saving Winter Park’s Unique Character

Editor's Note: Articles written by citizens reflect their own opinions and not the views of the Winter Park Voice.  

Saving Winter Park’s Unique Character

Guest Columnist Bob Bendick

Winter Park is becoming an island in a sea of urban sprawl.

I was reminded of this a couple of days after the recent forum on the future of Winter Park at Rollins College, when I drove to St Petersburg for a meeting. There was a lot of traffic both going and returning, but It was not just the time lost sitting bumper to bumper that made the day tiring–it was also the scale and pace of the I-4 corridor which is quickly becoming one almost-continuous 100-mile wide urbanized area.

The day’s drive and my relief in arriving back in Winter Park, and taking a walk with the evening clouds reflected in Lake Virginia, made me think more about the Rollins forum.

What is it about Winter Park that still makes it such a good place to live? From my perspective five positive attributes of our city were highlighted at the forum by the presentations of the panelists and the question and answer session that followed.

Winter Park retains a human scale

Winter Park was originally planned and continues to retain a comfortable human scale, in contrast to the increasingly large and impersonal scale of the surrounding metro area — think ten lanes of rushing traffic on the soon-to-be-completed widening of I-4.

Greenspace, lakes and trees connect people and nature

Greenspace, lakes and trees bring people into contact with nature in every part of our city. The tree canopy reduces air pollution and traffic noise. Views of the lakes are everywhere, and our parks are heavily used.

There are many opportunities for walking and biking within the city

It is possible and enjoyable to walk or bike in Winter Park, particularly to and around the downtown area. Where heavily trafficked roads decrease walkability, like the 17-92 and Fairbanks/Aloma corridors, the quality of the Winter Park experience is diminished.

Winter Park has a sense of place and history including a vibrant town center

Unlike so much of Florida today, Winter Park is not generic. It has a coherent history that is reflected in its architecture and, particularly, in Rollins College and its downtown. It conveys a sense of place — not just anyplace.

The city is a diverse community

Winter Park thankfully retains racial and ethnic diversity, which enriches the life and culture of the city. It is still a community with events that bring people together in shared experiences.
As is the case in other places around the country that have managed to retain a distinctive grace and character, people want to move here.

Winter Park is at a crossroads.

The pressure for more development and redevelopment is not necessarily negative unless that growth undermines those attributes that make the community a good and unique place to live and work. Winter Park can accommodate growth and change while planning on a community-wide basis to retain the assets that make it unique.

We need to add greenspace to balance growth

This means adding and connecting greenspace as the city grows, ensuring that new development is consistent with the scale and character of the city, resisting and, where possible, mitigating the impacts of heavily trafficked transportation corridors on our quality of life. It means creating new opportunities for alternatives to automobiles, consciously acting to retain the diversity of the community, and reinforcing the vitality of our downtown.

Planning for investment in the City will foster a robust economy

The experience of similar communities is that planning for public and private investment that further enhances the city’s character will not diminish the city’s economy, but will make it that much more attractive for quality development. Perhaps more importantly, respecting the unique assets identified by the Rollins College panel will help ensure that Winter Park will still feel like home to the generations of residents who follow us.

  • author's avatar

    By: Anne Mooney

    Anne Mooney has assumed the editorship of the Winter Park Voice from founding editor Tom Childers.

    Mooney got her start in New York as a freelance line editor for book publishers, among them Simon & Schuster and the Clarkson Potter division of Crown Books. From New York, she and her husband and their year-old toddler moved to Washington, D.C., where the two ran a newswire service for Harper’s magazine. “We called it Network News,” said Mooney, “because it was a network of the Harper’s writers, whose work we edited into newspaper style and format and sold to papers in the top U.S. and Canadian markets. We were sort of like a tiny UPI.”

    The newswire ceased operation with the death of Mooney’s first husband, but Mooney continued to write and edit, doing freelance work for Williams Sonoma cookbooks and for local publications in D.C.

    In 2005, Mooney moved to Winter Park, where she worked as a personal chef and wrote a regular food column for a south Florida magazine. She took an active interest in Winter Park politics and was there when the Winter Park Voice was founded. She wrote occasional pieces for the Voice, including the Childers bio that this piece replaces.

    The Winter Park Voice is one of a large number of “hyper-local” publications that have sprung up across the U.S. in response to the decline of the major daily newspapers and the resulting deficit of local news coverage. The Voice’sbeat is Winter Park City Hall, and its purpose is to help the residents of our city better understand the political forces that shape our daily lives.

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16 replies
  1. Thaddeus Seymour says:

    Thank you, Bob. What a crisp review of all the rich and unique resources of our community. You and Jill moved here shortly after Polly and I did, so we have watched together the pressures of the last decades. Winter Park is STILL a treasure, but the the developers are moving fast, and the clock is ticking. I hope the Commissioners, the citizens, and the VOTERS will save the Winter Park we know and love — before it is too late.

    Reply
  2. Bill Swarts says:

    I was drawn to Winter Park 32 year Is ago by a vibrant active community. Joggers, walkers and bike riders were everywhere. Citizens built the wood playground at MLK park in one weekend. Individual donors followed with Whiting Playground at Phelps Park and the Train Station Park at Azalea Lane. Most park areas such as Ward/Showalter , Cady Way pool, and Howell Branch are only available by car. The Cady Way Bike Trail remains our greatest area of connectivity along with our ever busy chain of lakes. Commissioners should pledge to keep what we have and add to it wherever possible.

    Reply
  3. Charley Williams says:

    Well said Bob Bendick: our unique characteristic assets are worth protecting and fighting for. We only have one Winter Park and one Florida. Once they are altered, we lose them forever. Not to mention what we deed to the next generation and the generation after that. Just now reading Jack E. Davis’ winning book “The Gulf: the Making of an American Sea” following his recent lecture at Rollins. Highly recommended as a case study of the state of our estuaries all along the Gulf coast. Another asset under duress.But take heart. Citizens are waking up. Just this past election, the voters in New Smyrna Beach restructured their local city commission to reverse past trends which had the net impact of producing an even more congested version of “Maitland-by-the-Sea”. Kudos to NSB. Change can happen. Make it happen!

    Reply
  4. Beth Hall says:

    Bob- Thank you for this wonderful and timely piece. I say timely because Winter Park is indeed at a crossroads. Why? Because the city is essentially “built out”. There is almost no more available land. Pressures will mount to develop and/or re-develop available land at higher intensities. To maintain our remaining human scale ambience will require a vigilance in our citizenry. A majority of our current commission actually VOTED to be sure that the words “human scale” or “pedestrian scale” were omitted from our Comp Plan in favor of the more generic and meaningless term “traditional scale”. Just how big is a tradition? How tall ? Exactly right. No one can say. That’s the point.

    When commission members vote in such a way as I describe, I suggest that everyone ask himself if such a vote reflects your values as a citizen?

    If you cherish our human and pedestrian scale and our open and green spaces, before you vote in the next commission race ask if the candidate running shares your values and your vision for development in WP.

    They will all say that they do. But check the record. Did they vote for human scale or did they vote for “traditional scale”? What now passes as “traditional scale” in Maitland along 17-92 would scare the fur off a cat.

    Reply
    • Pitt Warner says:

      What difference is there between human and traditional scale when there is a height limit, a FAR limit (unique in the state, according to Comp Plan) an elimination of R-4 zoning and no more apartment approvals? Everything else is essentially handled by zoning, i.e., a body shop does not fit in a residential neighborhood. The question to ask a candidate is what have you done to preserve WP’s residential character?

      Reply
      • Beth Hall says:

        Pitt, if the comp plan was as self explanatory, self-policing, and as self-administering as you state, think of all the city officials and advisory board positions we could just eliminate.

        When Cooper made a motion to include a clear definition of the
        ambiguous term- “traditional” scale”- she got a second from Seidel, a man whose livelihood as an engineer depends on precise terms and quantifiable values.

        Weldon Leary and Sprinkel all voted NOT TO DEFINE the term.

        This was deliberate. Why? Because what is traditional scale changes as our buildings and homes become larger and larger. Human scale and pedestrian scale remain the same.

        Larger and larger buildings now become our “traditional scale” buildings. It is a slope. I will let you decide if it’s slippery.

        Reply
        • Pitt Warner says:

          That’s ridiculous. If there is a height limit and FAR limit, who cares what it’s called? Trying to manufacture an issue out of the difference between “human scale” and “traditional” within the parameters of our Comp Plan tells me there isn’t anything too serious to debate. Pete Weldon has consistently voiced his support for property tax reduction, elimination of apartments (successful) and approving projects that are built within the guidelines. No building or home has “gotten larger”. Again, another ridiculous charge with no facts. Please tell us the approvals/variances/winks/nods that were granted to allow “larger and larger” buildings. I can’t think of any.

          Reply
  5. Beth Hall says:

    Pitt- You are certainly entitled to your own opinions, but you cannot create your own fact set.

    The abandonment of terms “pedestrian scale” and “human scale” was not accidental, not arbitrary.

    Fact: Winter Park is built out. Very little available land.

    For this reason new development will be such that it expands- either In height or in mass.

    You say: Oh it can’t. That’s not permitted.

    Oh but it is. It is when the Applicant seeks and is granted a major variance or rezoning.

    Now say the Applicant is a Bellows entity.

    One example is the recent approval of a massive residential project on Morse using C-2 zoning as opposed any known form of residential zoning. This was the former UBS Building. Applicant: Greenhouse Partners.

    This project will DWARF the land upon which it sits. The massive parking lot will be consumed as well.

    Not only that, approval was granted with no guarantee or written assurance from the Applicant that he would build what he submitted.

    And, if he changes his mind in the future, he possesses all the entitlements C-2 bestows. What he can build there any time he now chooses would amaze you.

    Once the development entitlements are bestowed by the commission in contravention of our comp plan and zoning code, it is nigh on to impossible to take them back.

    Only one commissioner, Cooper, had the sense to vote no. The other 4 voted to approve the change to C-2 from 0ffice. Do you know what you can build with C-2????

    Reply
    • Pitt Warner says:

      You’ve got to be kidding, right? A vacant office building is being converted to 8 luxe condos (as opposed to the 17 allowed) and has an FAR that is 1/2 the allowable amount and in return the owner asks that C-2 zoning be kept because 20 years from now, retail may make sense on the ground floor. If that’s your position, you’re just looking for issues. I’d rather have 8 $3 million +- condos than an office building.

      Reply
      • Beth Hall says:

        Pitt,

        Take a time out, Pitt!

        Then deal with reality. The owner did not ask for C-2 to “be kept”. The owner sought a CHANGE from Office to C-2.

        C-2 was not a permitted on that parcel.

        C-2 allows a 200 % FAR. This is about double what an R-3 rezoning would have bestowed.

        Now that it’s been granted, this entitlement cannot be removed except under threat of litigation.

        The 2nd floor of the office building was vacant because the Owners chose for it to be so.. There is a real short supply of Class A office in Winter Park. Class A office in WP rents at a comparative premium.

        You are certainly free to pray that every available inch of the city is paved over. You are free to believe that our comp plan and zoning laws don’t give developers all the
        permissiveness they need to go even bigger (as granting this Greenhouse application allows), higher, denser.

        But your desire to deny every person the right to an opinion as to the direction this city ought to be going in terms of more intense development is misguided.

        You asked for an example. I gave one.

        Reply
        • Pitt Warner says:

          “The building size, height and scale of the project is comparable to the Phil Keen townhomes across the street and in the context of adjacency to the Douglas Grande, less intense. The project will also function as a logical step down in height transition from the Douglas Grande at 4 stories, this new Building at 3 stories to the existing building conversion staying at 2 stories, which then matches the existing building size to the west. Other than the 2½ foot height allowance which is mitigated by the proximity to Douglas Grande and the privacy wall along Virginia the project has no exceptions to Code.”

          It makes sense to me to have fewer units.

          Reply
  6. Sandy Womble says:

    Thank you Bob for writing such a thoughtful piece. Winter Park draws travelers and new residents from around the world because of it’s historic component which defines the human scale quality. We are unique to Florida’s landscape, people seek out our authenticity over other Poltergeist communities. We all know this.

    There is nothing wrong with positive progress and growth that is compatible with our existing brand. I find the new condos on the corner of Park and Whipple across from Casa Feliz a benefit to the community. The height, setback and quality prove that developers CAN build within our reasonable rules and still make a hefty profit. One can easily drive around town and see new construction that sets the example for ill-fitting, out of compliance, too close to the road construction. Why not just build something you can be proud of?

    One thing that needs mentioning here is the lack of or no regard for historic preservation. Heck, the current extreme leadership-of-3 even removed the word ‘heritage’ from the city logo. I feel it acutely in my neighborhood where in the last year or two 4 houses were mowed down, trees and all to be replaced or already replace with giant, out of scale, houses. A few fit in, but it’s the glaring giants that belittle the historic flavor of this neighborhood.

    A Gamble Rogers historic church was razed, a beautiful historic apartment complex – gone! and the infamous Capen House was replaced with a generic modern farm house – by the way, I found that very design in a magazine that focuses on modern architecture. Ugh.

    We are reminded on a daily basis that Laissez faire government degrades our quality of life and property values.

    Thank you Beth Hall for shining a light on the 3 scofflaws who consistently bend rules for Dan Bellows and a handful of other developers who seek profit over quality. I had no clue about these actions over on the West Side (but I’m not at all surprised).

    Pitt, you’re like the gift that keeps on giving. As you continue your argumentative commentary challenging others who don’t share your viewpoint, it gives writers the opportunity to expand on their knowledge of the egregious actions of these 3 Commissioners.

    I don’t think residents asking for council members to respect our laws and quit giving in to cozy friends is an unreasonable request and we certainly aren’t villains. I wish there was a way we could all come together and realize that Winter Park is truly a special place to live which deserves our extraordinary care!

    Reply
    • Pitt Warner says:

      Well, as always, you’re almost right. Variances are granted to virtually every project. Your friends are immune from criticism and your imagined “scofflaws” are not. Sorry, I don’t have that type of discernment. Either it’s black or it’s white. You have imaginary villains. I have respect for the applicants. Let’s work together to make every project a building that all of WP can be proud of in the future.

      Reply

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