Commission will consider workforce housing, other ideas for old library site

by Beth Kassab / February 11, 2023

Winter Park Commissioners this week ended exclusive negotiations with a prominent real estate firm to redevelop the old Winter Park Library and appeared poised to consider workforce housing or other residential units on the site instead.

The 4-1 vote (Commissioner Kris Cruzada was the only dissent) to terminate an agreement with Harbert Realty for the 1.75-acre site valued at about $6 million also effectively halted the commission’s vision to repurpose the building into co-working space along with other uses, including a possible café and room for public events. 

Damien Madsen, a managing director at Harbert, pleaded with commissioners to continue the agreement and attempted to negotiate new terms such as a new amount for the ground lease on the property controlled by the city and city oversight over the building leases. 

“We put a lot of time into this effort abiding by the deal that we were given,” Madsen said, noting that the city outlined terms such as reusing rather than demolishing the old building and retaining city ownership. “We followed the rules. Based on those rules you set for us, this is the proposal we can give you.”

But commissioners expressed reservations about those parameters now. 

“What the commission is grappling with is the use the city really wants for this building,” said Commissioner Sheila DeCiccio of the property at 460 E. New England Avenue across from Rollins College that was left vacant when the new Winter Park Library and Events Center opened in 2021. 

Commissioner Marty Sullivan said more ideas need to be considered.

“We did not properly put down our ideas for that building,” Sullivan said. “It makes me uncomfortable that we’re having second thoughts about that. It’s hard to admit I made a mistake and rushed my own thinking of where to go with that property.”

He said he has been approached by other interested Winter Park developers, who have suggested alternative uses such as turning the property into workforce housing for city or Rollins staff, who often can’t afford to live in the city where the median home price in the fourth quarter of last year was more than $860,000 in the 32789 ZIP code, according to the Orlando Regional Realtor Association. The median price for the Orlando region was about $350,000.  

Mayor Phil Anderson said he had heard about a potential concept by developer Alan Ginsburg related to workforce housing on the site, but had not discussed it while the city was in an exclusive arrangement with Harbert. 

Ginsburg, a well-known local philanthropist who has developed a number of residential projects, including student housing across from the University of Central Florida, did not return a phone call or emailed questions about the concept. 

Sullivan noted that the response time for the initial RFP won by Madsen’s group might have been too short, and that given time, other parties have expressed interest in re-developing the building.

Madsen suggested that commissioners could subsidize existing units in the city to create workforce housing options rather than build new units from scratch. 

LaWanda Thompson, a resident and advocate for the historically Black community on the city’s west side, said she attended a meeting years ago about what should become of the old library and there was broad consensus among residents that co-working space would be most beneficial. 

“I remember my personal request as a citizen from the Hannibal Square community was that there be some re-enfranchisement for businesses of color that need business space,” she said. “I hope that includes space for minority businesses like myself.”

At the start of the discussion Madsen asked to delay a vote on ending the agreement because of questions over whether Commissioner Todd Weaver had resigned and if his participation could cast a cloud of uncertainty over any decision made at Wednesday’s meeting. 

Weaver sent a mass email out on Feb. 3 to announce he is “stepping down,” but at Wednesday’s city meeting argued the email did not constitute a resignation and said he planned to stay in his seat. The commission is set to decide whether he can do so at a special meeting next week.

After voting to end Madsen’s agreement with the city, Weaver launched into a PowerPoint presentation he prepared that featured the image of a dinosaur fossil, though it was unclear what he was driving at.

“Darn it, I’m tired of Winter Garden and Tavares pulling over on the cool factor on Winter Park,” Weaver said in a rare admission that other cities were gaining on Winter Park’s regional reputation as a go-to place for dining and strolling. “This is an opportunity to get back on the cool train.” 

Image credit City of Winter Park


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