Abandoned hopes 

The worst thing, says Ray Cox, is the hypocrisy. Here's the city of Orlando, which for 10 years fought to save historic homes from a developer's wrecking ball, now greasing the skids for a new developer who wants to knock the homes down for offices.

In Ray's view -- a view more or less shared by his neighbors in the Lake Eola Heights Preservation District -- the city is abandoning a historic neighborhood to the vagaries of fast-buck development. All that beauty -- sullied. All that history -- lost. All their investment -- threatened.

Mike Halpin also feels let down. But he's on the other side. He says the city made a deal -- a good deal, one that would result in no lost history, no degradation, no blight -- that it's now trying to renege on. This threatens his $500,000 investment in the five dilapidated houses he owns along Livingston Street and Ruth Lane. He says it's costing him $135 a day in interest alone.

"Scott," Halpin wrote after an early October meeting of the Historic Preservation Board, "[w]e negotiated in good faith with the City to acquire these properties and expedite their development (whatever that may be). We were assured that financial feasibility was key to the buildings' future. ... Needless to say we feel somewhat betrayed and abandoned."

"Scott" is Scott Gabrielson, the city attorney and a central figure in the million-dollar drama now playing out at City Hall and on the block behind the Orange County Courthouse. The neighbors say that Gabrielson is selling them out along with city policy. They say some kind of secret deal must have been hatched between Halpin and city leaders last summer, a deal that Gabrielson brokered and that he is now trying desperately to honor.

The neighbors offer some circumstantial evidence of this (exhibit A, literally, is the above quoted missive by Halpin), but no proof. So far, the Battle of Livingston Street is a muddle of contradictory rulings and claims laid out before arcane city boards and obscure hearing officers. It is a battle about legal technicalities and the question of whether to move a porch four feet.

To this neighborhood, though, the outcome of this fight will define Mayor Glenda Hood's legacy, and the future of residential downtown, more decisively than any mass-transit service or performing-arts center could claim to. This is about the soul of a neighborhood.

And it's about money.

The block in question is worth a lot of money no matter how it's developed, a fact Al Hartog recognized when he bought the five houses in 1986 and 1987 on behalf of a corporation called 4444, of which he was the sole director. He paid $415,000.

Redevelopers had for several years been restoring old houses in the area, and profiting handsomely. But Hartog had another plan. He proposed to raze his houses and erect an office complex.

The idea did not fly.

Orlando was moving to create historic districts, and the area north of Lake Eola was a prime candidate. "In that area, we're simply not going to tear down houses to build office buildings," Mayor Bill Frederick said of the district in January 1990.

In 1991 the neighborhood was put on the National Register of Historic Places. The city passed a historic-preservation ordinance, hired a historic-preservation officer and formed a Historic Preservation Board. People who owned property deemed "historic" now had to clear any changes with this board. The board wanted the houses saved, even though Hartog said renovating and renting them would lose money.

In 1991, when Orange County announced plans for the new courthouse, Hartog proposed moving the architecturally interesting Great Western Bank building that stood on the courthouse site to his Livingston Street location. The city said no.

By then, Hartog was involved in a legal battle with code enforcers. The houses, which were in decent shape when Hartog bought them, had deteriorated. The liens ballooned to nearly $1.2 million. It took the city years to gain authority to foreclose, and when it finally did, it scheduled an auction to recoup some of the fines. But Hartog complicated the auction by filing a new claim. And Gabrielson felt few bidders would come forward, knowing they still might have to fight Hartog in court.

Four days before the Aug. 17, 1998, auction Halpin contacted Gabrielson with a deal: He would buy the property from 4444, giving Hartog $300,000. Then he would pay the city $200,000 of the fine. It was the biggest housing code fine the city had ever collected.

Gabrielson spoke to attorney Barry Miller, who advised him that allowing the sale to Halpin would save months of litigation and spur redevelopment. Miller is Halpin's lawyer, a fact that opponents of his development cite as evidence of an insider's conspiracy. Gabrielson says that at the time he didn't know Miller represented Halpin. But he doesn't think the oversight is significant.

"I had three goals in this negotiation," Gabrielson says: first, collect a fine "big enough that other developers would say ‘ouch'"; second, start work on the structures as soon as possible; and third, keep the property on the tax rolls.

Halpin says all the downtown developers talk to Miller, and that all the players knew the land was going to be up for grabs.

Indeed, the people who are active in the historic downtown neighborhoods form a clique. The players know each other socially, and often form -- and just as easily break -- professional and personal partnerships.

Perhaps Halpin's most committed opponent is Sandy Fredrick, who lives a block away from the proposed development. Until last year, she was also Halpin's business partner. "He tries to portray this that it's just me being angry over the business breakup," says Fredrick. "I have worked very hard to make this just what it is. I ended our partnership over a year ago ... then the next thing I know, he's trying to overdevelop the neighborhood where he knows I live."

On the weekend preceding the auction of Hartog's property Gabrielson went into overdrive, personally negotiating with Hartog, Halpin and city officials. Then on Monday, just as the auction was to begin, Halpin closed the deal and the city canceled the auction.

Gabrielson emerged with an agreement that covered all the bases: Halpin and his partner, Gary Davis, would submit plans for the redevelopment and face fines for dawdling more than six months. The property would be used for residential purposes, unless the developer wanted to open the ground-floor space to offices for "each owner-occupant" with the approval of the city planning director. And finally, "Developer shall use its best efforts to utilize and renovate the existing historic buildings in its development."

"I really think this is basically a home run," Gabrielson told the Sentinel at the time.

Many in the neighborhood thought so, too. They read the contract, combined with the city's record of fealty to the historic district, as a virtual guarantee the houses would be saved. But they soon had second thoughts.

On Sept. 17, a month after the auction date, Skip Lukert, a city building official, sent a memo to Commissioner Bill Bagley, in whose city council district the buildings sit; Lukert cited wood rot and rat infestation and said the buildings could not be saved. On Sept. 23, minutes released after a meeting of the Downtown Development Board said, "Ruth Lane and Livingston Street property developer should begin demolition in early October."

Neighbors began to feel they'd been duped.

The neighborhood association hired a structural engineer, who agreed with Halpin's consultant: Two or three of the five houses can be saved. It's just a matter of money.

On Oct. 7, 1998, the Historic Preservation Board ruled the houses would stand at least until Halpin submitted a site plan and reapplied for a demolition permit. The project had fallen off the fast track. That's when Halpin wrote his infamous summary imploring Gabrielson to play fair. "Mike has a temper, he fires off these letters, and sometimes shoots himself in the foot," says Fredrick.

Halpin says the memo was never meant to be read by anyone but himself. "They stole my notes," he says. He wrote the undated, unsigned missive in advance of a meeting with Gabrielson, he says.

Gabrielson denies a deal was struck before the land was purchased. "I've got just a real vague memory of that," he says. Lukert's findings surprised everyone, he says. "We all expected Skip to say, ‘Yeah, these can be saved.' I was surprised but not skeptical of his opinion, because I thought, geez, he has no reason to make this up."

Secret deal or no, Halpin's hopes were stalled. So began a series of proposals and counterproposals that have carried the plan away from the original agreement and toward one for townhouses and office buildings that the neighborhood association fears most.

In order to save at least some houses, someone on the Historic Preservation Board urged Halpin to create an office building on Livingston Street incorporating two of the houses but razing one in between. Halpin devised a plan to do so, plus add nine townhouses to the back of the lot, where the two remaining homes now stand. (He later scaled back that number to eight.) One of those houses, at 413 Ruth Lane, is in relatively good shape. Halpin's proposal would move that house to the Lawsona neighborhood.

"It's the trump card," says Lee Pharr, president of the Lake Eola Heights Historic Neighborhood Association. "If it stays, then the developer has to stay within the historic pattern. If it goes, that opens the door."

Residents fear more dense development than would otherwise be allowed under historic-preservation rules, both in their neighborhood and in others. "What residential saturation can a downtown neighborhood support before the density overtakes the benefits?" Pharr asks. "I can't cite you a spot where a developer built eight townhouses around a courtyard and the neighborhood went to hell, but we know there are developers who will try this on any number of other parcels."

The most recent example is on Washington Street in Thornton Park, where Phil Rampy built a townhouse development that many feel conflicts with the neighborhood's character. "If that's the sort of thing that's going to start cropping up in our neighborhood," says Pharr, "then we're concerned."

In November the preservation board OK'd demolition of the two roughest houses and removal of 413 Ruth; Fredrick appealed. In December, Halpin returned with a plan that incorporated the other two houses into his office design. Again the board gave its approval.

But when Halpin's new plan showed a slight modification that moved his office porch by four feet, the neighbors, led by Fredrick, argued the board could not hear a matter that was under appeal. Gabrielson overruled them. Fredrick filed another appeal.

Again the neighbors see dark intentions. City legal staff denied the neighbors' request to combine their two similar appeals, ruling the first one moot. That meant the second appeal went to the next hearing officer in line, David Coffey, who, says Pharr, "has a history of siding with developers." And Coffey is a city contractor, a job that could conflict with his ability to rule impartially in this case, the neighbors argue.

Meanwhile, Halpin has confronted his own hurdles.

He scaled back his number of townhouses from nine to eight on the advice of the Municipal Planning Board, on which he sits. To his surprise and that of the neighbors, the board -- one rung up the ladder from the preservation board -- vetoed his plan. This time, Halpin appealed.

And this time, city lawyers said Halpin could combine his appeal with that of his adversaries, under Coffey.

"Doesn't it seem really strange that we asked to have the two appeals combined, and they said no [even though] it was just a minor change in the porches?" Fredrick asks. "Then when Halpin wanted to consolidate his appeal with ours, they allowed it [even though] it's a much bigger change?"

Hold on there, says Halpin: His appeal is a real one. Fredrick's first one was closed out. "That's what I don't understand," Halpin says. "Hearing officers! What's the difference? My understanding is Coffey is a reasonable person for both sides. He is not emotional."

Halpin and his partner say emotional arguments, often colored by misinformation and unreasonable suspicion, already have carried too much weight in this battle. They note the many changes they've made to their proposal since September, the hours on design drafts, the meetings, the details. They're playing by the rules, they say. "I don't believe for a minute that anybody really believes that what we're proposing is going to hurt anybody's property value," says Halpin.

At press time, the two appeals were to be heard at different times, Fredrick's in the first week of April, Halpin's two weeks later. Both sides were hoping to meet and hammer out a compromise. Emotions continue to run high.

But then, historic districts -- and the property values within them -- are fueled by little more than emotion. It's the stuff that makes a house into a home.

It's also the stuff that makes a neighborhood.


More by Ericson, Edward Jr.


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