Passive Green Space is Essential to Livable Communities
Guest Columnist Paul Owens / October 3, 2021
Living in Orwin Manor, a neighborhood that straddles the Orlando-Winter Park line, but leading an organization headquartered in Tallahassee, I regularly make the 250-mile trip by car between my home and the state capital. My favorite place to stop on the way is about halfway in between: a stretch of grass and trees in Fanning Springs on the banks of the Suwannee River. It’s a pocket, passive park, with a small parking area, a restroom and some picnic tables, adjoining a larger state park that has more amenities but also an admission fee.
I’ve come to look forward to my stops in Fanning Springs as a break to de-stress and enjoy nature. I don’t care about the lack of a concession stand or a souvenir shop. A few minutes of fresh air and sunshine are all I need. Judging from the folks I see at the picnic tables, I’ve got plenty of company.
Since the global COVID-19 pandemic arrived on our shores in the spring of 2020, Americans have flocked to parks as safe places when venturing outside their homes. A survey conducted by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) concluded that 260 million people in the United States — almost 80 percent — visited a local park or recreation facility at least once between May 2020 and May 2021.
Parks — critical to business relocation decisions
Parks are wildly popular. Some 80 percent of U.S. adults look for high-quality parks and recreation in choosing where to live, according to NRPA. Even more, 87 percent, consider parks and recreation an important service provided by their local government. Businesses rank quality parks and recreation among their top three factors in relocation decisions. Communities with growing populations need to add green spaces to maintain or, better yet, improve their quality of life. My organization, 1000 Friends of Florida, believes parks are a critical part of livable communities.
The Trust for Public Land (TPL), in its latest annual report rating park systems across the country, ranked St. Petersburg tops in Florida at No. 14 among 100 U.S. cities. In St. Pete, 75 percent of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park, and more than one acre in 10 is dedicated to parks and recreation. The city’s 168 parks are a mixture of large parks with an array of recreational facilities and other amenities, and small, passive parks, without buildings or extensive paved areas.
Orlando’s Constitution Green
Five years ago, Orlando went to extraordinary lengths to preserve one of its small, passive parks. The city paid $3.34 million in cash and handed over a half-acre city-owned parcel of property worth another $2.5 million to take possession of Constitution Green, a park of less than two acres occupying a block in downtown Orlando, to save it from possible development. Constitution Green is most revered as the site of a huge, majestic oak tree estimated to be at least 125 years old. The park’s only other amenity is a dog run. Yet the city’s substantial investment met with resounding public approval.
There are numerous documented benefits of parks and green spaces for surrounding communities. They improve public health, both physical and psychological. They provide gathering spaces for families and diverse groups of people, especially when they are accessible free of charge. They beautify communities and increase nearby property values. They reduce flooding.
And notably for a state where rising temperatures are a growing concern, parks reduce temperatures, especially when they are more oriented toward grass and trees than buildings and pavement, according to TPL. They are natural cooling stations. TPL’s analysis of 14,000 cities and towns found that areas within a 10-minute walk of a park are as much as 6 degrees cooler than more distant areas.
While 81 percent of U.S. residents look to parks as a place to exercise, even more, 85 percent, appreciate them as outdoor spaces where they can relax and reflect, according to NRPA. This popularity of the passive element of parks suggests, to be visited and valued, an urban green space doesn’t need services already offered by nearby businesses, or any other bells and whistles. In a sea of rooftops, concrete and pavement, there’s much to be said for a verdant island of serenity.
Paul Owens is president of 1000 Friends of Florida, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Tallahassee and dedicated to sustainable communities. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.
Once again, 1298 Howell Branch Road is in the news. There is no memory care facility this time, just four lots for single family homes. Sound simple? We’ve been here before.
Developer changes course in 2017
After the Villa Tuscany Memory Care Center failed in 2017 to receive approval, the developer, Villa Tuscany Holdings, LLC, revised its request and received City approval to divide the property into four single-family lots under the current R-3 zoning. The 3.77-acre property, of which only 2.09 acres is buildable because that is the portion above the Ordinary High Water elevation of approximately 66 feet, is located between two bodies of water. The larger to the south is Lake Temple; to the northeast is an unnamed sinkhole.
Four lake-front lots planned
Since all four are lakefront lots, new home construction must be reviewed and approved by the Planning & Zoning (P&Z) Board. The P&Z review focuses on tree preservation, storm water management, making sure plans are compatible with the grade of the lot and maintaining lake views. Each individual plan involves a negotiation with Urban Forestry Department, especially if a specimen tree is involved.
Developer begins work in May 2021
When the developer obtained a permit to begin work on the property in May, a 54-inch oak tree was to be preserved. In addition, a silt fence was erected to prevent clearing along a 50-foot margin from the lakefront to protect neighbors from noise and light pollution from Howell Branch Road.
54-inch oak takes the fall
On May 14, according to Parks and Recreation Director Jason Seeley, who oversees the City’s Urban Forestry Department, a subcontractor arrived with heavy equipment to clear the land. As the clearing began, the crews, unsupervised by the developer, proceeded to take down the silt fence, clear all the way to the lake front and cut down the large specimen oak.
Even after a Stop-Work order and a Code Violation were issued, City staff observed the contractors continuing to clear the land. The City contacted the developer directly, the Stop-Work order is still in place and work on the premises has halted.
Draft tree preservation ordinance planned
A draft Tree Preservation Ordinance has been approved by the Tree Preservation Board and is awaiting review by P&Z in July or August. Changes contemplated include a matrix that uses a range of species, conditions and sizes to generate a mitigation number. Mitigation is strengthened in some areas. For instance, the ordinance proposes separating residential from commercial and increases mitigation requirements for trees on residential property.
Most trees lost to residential development
We lose more trees to residential development than we do to commercial,” said Jason Seeley. “The biggest impact on trees over time is with residential development and building codes. When a small house is torn down to build a McMansion, we lose about 60 percent of available space for plantings on those residential lots. You just can’t plant your way out of that problem.”
Commissioner Sheila DeCiccio pointed out how important it is for alert residents to keep the City informed. “We have a very small Urban Forestry staff,” she said, “and they can’t be everywhere at once. In the case of the Howell Branch property, City staff was responding to neighbors who reported unpermitted activity on the site.”
In an email blast sent June 1, DeCiccio wrote about the proposed tree preservation ordinance. “This revision has several more steps to go through before it reaches a final form to be voted on by the City Commission,” she wrote. “The ultimate aim is to codify an easy-to-understand mitigation / compensation scheme reflective of the value that the citizens of Winter Park place on their trees.
“The tree canopy is an integral part of what makes Winter Park so special. The more we know, the better we can protect this precious resource.”
Citizen Activists Made Sure 122 Acres of Parkland Remains Green
by Anne Mooney / January 10, 2020
In an economic climate in which developers threaten to gobble up every square inch of open land, a hearty band of Winter Parkers deserves our gratitude for making sure our largest parks are protected from development and will remain forever green.
Six Winter Park citizens – Michael Poole, Charley Williams, Peter Gottfried, Marty Sullivan, Forest Michael and Kim Allen – have worked tirelessly since May of 2016 to make sure the city government took the necessary steps to preserve five of our largest parks for “outdoor recreation in perpetuity.”
The five parks – Phelps Park, Lake Baldwin Park, Martin Luther King, Jr. Park, the Community Center swimming pool and Temple Trail – had received money from the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program (FRDAP). This program provides state funds to municipal and county governments to acquire or develop lands for public outdoor recreation.
The FRDAP grant comes with a condition. For each park receiving a grant, a deed restriction for the park must be filed with the Orange County government pledging that the site is dedicated to “outdoor recreation in perpetuity.” Over the years, beginning in 1974 with Lake Baldwin Park (a/k/a Dog Park), money was dispersed and work was done, but the deed restrictions fell through the cracks, leaving open the door to disposal and/or development of some 122 acres of parkland.
When the citizen group learned in 2016 that deed restrictions and site dedications had not been filed for these parks, they brought the matter to the attention of the City and of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).
The happy ending to this story is that, after three and a half years of phone calls, emails, letters and meetings, Kim Allen received notification from the FDEP that the deeds were filed and the parks protected.
The email read: “Good Morning . . . and Happy New Year! I am . . . sending this email to let you know that the City of Winter Park recorded the following Notices of Limitation of Use – Site Dedications, for the projects listed below [i.e., the five parks], with the Orange County Clerk of Courts office. Thank you for your continued patience working with our team and the city to secure these recordings.” The email was signed by Angela Bright, Community Assistance Consultant, Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Credit goes to Brenda Moody of the Winter Park Public Works Department, who performed the exacting task of making sure the paperwork was properly completed and filed with the county and state agencies.
This kind of behind-the-scenes dedication and dogged determination by citizens who are just like everyone else – with jobs and families and busy lives – is what makes Winter Park such a special place to live. The same tactics that worked for John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt to establish the national park system worked for our very own neighbors. We should be both proud and grateful.
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.
Controversy surrounding the city’s new library project dominated the January 28 City Commission discussions, even though it wasn’t on the agenda. This time around, criticism came from state officials, who aren’t happy with the City’s plans to build its new library and civic center at Martin Luther King Park. The state has even warned that the city could lose future grant money for parks if it doesn’t comply with the rules.
None of that is stopping the City from going full speed ahead with the project. Plans are underway to tear down the Rachel Murrah Civic Center this week and take the chainsaw to 60 trees at the park between now and April.
City Out of Compliance with State Grant Rules
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection notified the City Manager in a letter dated March 6, 2018 that the city had failed to follow the rules governing a grant it received in 1994 for improvements to Martin Luther King Park. Commissioner Carolyn Cooper and several citizens pleaded unsuccessfully with commissioners to hit the pause button to resolve the issue.
Seen in this context, and taking into account the City’s failure, so far, to come up with a clear plan to bring the Canopy project back in line with the $30 Million budget approved by the voters in 2016, the decision to proceed with such haste gives one pause.
Playing the Blame Game
“There is a small group that continues to protest this project and has gone to the State and has asked the State to overturn previous State grants, once again costing the citizens of Winter Park money,” said Leary. “If we have to pay back the State . . . uh, this is a small group who are shooting people in the foot. It’s an absurd request.”
FL Department of Environmental Protection
The notification of non-compliance came from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and concerned the 1994 grant for improvements to MLK Park under the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program (FRDAP). The grant required the City to dedicate the park, in perpetuity, “as an outdoor recreation site for the benefit of the general public.” [emphasis added]
City Version of Deed Restriction Unacceptable to FDEP
A March 6, 2018, letter from FDEP General Counsel’s office warned that the Public Dedication recorded by the City in January 2018, “does not meet the requirements of the rule and is not acceptable to the department.” The letter went on to state, “Failure to comply with the department’s rules can result in the City being declared out of compliance and therefore ineligible for further grants from the department.”
This could affect the City’s application for a FRDAP grant for improvements to the wetlands around Howell Branch.
But Wait – There’s More
A January 16, 2019 letter from FDEP stated, “It has also come to our attention that some or all of the City’s previous land and recreation grants do not have restrictive covenants recorded for the parks funded by our grants.” In addition to MLK Park, the letter contains a list of other FRDAP grants for locations such as Lake Baldwin Park, Mead Garden, Phelps Park and the Howell Branch Preserve, requesting the City to provide copies of the declarations of restrictive covenants for each within 60 days.
A FRDAP grant to the City carries with it the requirement to publicly record with Orange County a covenant restricting the park to outdoor recreation, in perpetuity.
If the City converts this dedicated land to another use, according to the January 16 FDEP letter, the City must “. . .replace the removed property with property of similar size and value and replace any facilities (such as the walking trails around the current civic center that were part of the FRDAP grant) that will be removed by the new construction.”
Citizens Urge Caution
During public comment, several citizens urged the Commissioners to move cautiously with their demolition plans until the way forward is clearer.
“I see a tendency by the City to insulate itself from opposing views and from citizen input,” began Beth Hall. She pointed out that the original Library Task Force had considered multiple sites for the new library, MLK Park among them. “But I don’t see where the FRDAP grant was pointed out or considered by the Task Force,” she said. “Thus a major restriction on the viability of the site was ignored.” Hall pointed out that the City had made no attempt to inform voters of this issue at the time of the bond referendum.
Who Knew about the Grant?
In a January 30 email responding to a public records request from Beth Hall, City Clerk Cindy Bonham confirmed the City has no records of communications or materials about the MLK Park FRDAP grant being provided to the Library Task Force, to the Commission, to the Planning & Zoning Board, the Library Board, the Library Staff or to the trial court that heard the bond validation suit.
Road Not Taken
Referring to the FDEP requirement to replace all converted lands with land of similar value, Hall asked the Commission to remember the bowling alley property. “That it is gone is a failure of long-term vision and strategic thinking,” she said. “Maybe hearing other voices would have taken us another way, but we will never know, for that was the road not taken.”
When is a Canopy Not a Canopy?
Charley Williams displayed the City’s tree demolition legend, which identifies more than 60 trees that will fall victim to the chainsaw this spring. He suggested the City Communications Department might keep citizens abreast of what will transpire in MLK Park. He showed before and after pictures of mature live oaks that were removed January 26 to make way for the Civic Center demolition.
Williams urged Winter Park to “show some leadership” by heeding the advice of the Winter Park Forestry department to save mature specimen trees by root pruning and moving them to safety within the park. He pointed out that other cities have done this and that there are Winter Park residents ready and willing to privately fund the project. “We’ve already named it the Canopy,” said Williams. “Now I think we ought to walk the walk.”
‘We Keep Whittling Away Amenities While the Price Goes Up’
Kim Allen enumerated ways in which the Canopy project has changed since it started in 2016. The square footage of the library is significantly reduced. Elements of the buildings, like the porte cochere at the entrance, have either been eliminated or declared ‘alternatives,’ which the City can build only if it raises additional money. The $30 Million budget cannot accommodate many elements that would seem integral to the success of the project.
Sarah Sprinkel: “It Makes Me Mad”
In her closing comments, Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel decried having what she called “an issue that some people in this community have created for us.”
Cooper reiterated her suggestion to put the matter of the grants on the City Manager’s report so that people could see periodic updates of how the City is working through the issue. Cooper’s desire for this kind of transparency was not supported by her fellow Commissioners.
Leary: “It Just Seems to be One Thing After Another”
In his concluding remarks, Mayor Leary said, “Whether it’s trees outside, or whether it’s water . . . I mean, it’s one thing after another.”
Editor's Note: Articles written by citizens reflect their own opinions and not the views of the Winter Park Voice.
The one thing of note in an uncharacteristically brief June 11 Commission meeting was a presentation by Planning Director Dori Stone about Mixed Use Development. Her presentation focused on a single question, the answer to which will determine the way Winter Park grows into the 21st century.
Are current land use and zoning categories sufficient to promote the best development in Winter Park, or does the City want a specific mixed use development option for properties located along gateway corridors within the city limits?
WP Already Has 3 Mixed Use Developments
Currently, Winter Park has three mixed use developments – Park Avenue, Hannibal Square and Winter Park Village. The single word that describes all three is walkable. Each development has a mixture of shops, offices and residences. Each is a popular destination with wide sidewalks and plenty of shade – resulting in plenty of foot traffic. Buildings are pedestrian in scale, allowing life to flow easily in and out of doors. Each location has a well-defined sense of place.
They All Have Trees
While they have different architectural designs, street layouts and building heights, they all have one essential attribute — deciduous trees. Trees with wide branches. Trees with lots of leaves. Trees that provide cool shade and a sense of place.
Regardless of architectural design, without the shelter of these leafy branches all three areas would be hot, blinding, forbidding environments of reflective and refractive masonry, asphalt and glass. People would avoid them whenever possible, except possibly at night. Who among us doesn’t choose the shady parking spot over the one baking in the harsh Florida sun?
We All Need Trees
Our affinity for trees is in our DNA. Our ancestors relied on trees for security from predators, for foraging, for shelter from the elements, and for gathering places for social contact. Our love of trees is innate. No man-made structure ever has the same elemental and calming effect.
Builders who ignore the need for a stately tree canopy in their developments are doing a disservice to their clients, their tenants, the customers of those tenants and to their own legacies. Trees are good for our peace of mind, the environment – and they’re good for business.
What Kind of Canopy Will Be Left at the ‘Canopy’?
In this vein, many are concerned that at the new Winter Park Library – Event Center at “The Canopy,” the majestic trees that currently form the canopy on the Rachel Murrah Civic Center site will meet with the chain saw — despite the branding term. When that happens, the glare and reflected heat from all that glass, metal and masonry will change the character of the MLK Park dramatically. Although new, smaller trees can be brought in, it will take decades to achieve the current sense of place afforded by the existing site trees.
Don’t Cut Them Down; Dig Them Up!
This does not have to happen. A reasonable solution would be to dig up the specimen trees, roots and all, and store them in MLK Park in wooden crates until the construction is completed and they can be safely replanted.
While this may seem incredible, it is actually standard technology. The land that the retired El Toro Marine Air Station occupied was deeded to the City of Irvine, CA in the early 2000s. Before redevelopment began, 543 large shade trees, which included 10 species, were saved in this manner. The average weight per tree was 40 tons. The city crated them and cared for them for about five years until, one by one, they were strategically replanted as redevelopment progressed. The sense of place was preserved by this brilliant and caring move, and the homes in those developments sold as quickly as they were built.
Trees Are Our Brand
Canopy trees are part of our unique Winter Park brand. They shelter nearly every street and enhance every neighborhood. The promulgation of mixed use standards presents a fleeting window of opportunity. We must act now to ensure that mixed-use will enhance our gateway corridors for generations. Let’s make a big green splash!
Trees Should Be Part of the Mix
Let’s make room for our big green friends in our Mixed Use code. Let’s promote reasonable street setbacks and adequate pervious areas for these natural wonders. After all, our big trees enhance and promote our businesses, our neighborhoods and our sense of place in Winter Park. And, for Winter Park, a sense of place is a sense of home.
Todd Weaver is a semi-retired aerospace engineer and UCF graduate. He holds a Florida general contractors license. He currently runs a Winter Park-based business, TruGrit Traction, Inc, which designs and manufactures specialty wheels for pipe inspection robots for the public works industries. Weaver has served on Lakes Management advisory boards for Orange County and Winter Park.