City Council relies on base instinct 

Despite lingering questions, the Orlando City Council took a decisive step Monday toward picking the developer responsible for turning the abandoned 1,100-acre Naval Training Center into a "traditional" neighborhood -- albeit one of 3,200 residences and 1.8 million square feet of commercial development built in the midst of already established neighborhoods on Orlando's northeast side.

A 6-1 vote selected Orlando Partners Inc. to transform the decommissioned naval base into a web of homes, apartments and townhouses built around a town center, parks and three lakes on the land that stretches northwest of Highway 50 and State Road 436, just south of Winter Park. Eventually the development consortium expects to make between $20 million and $30 million on its investment, although some estimates predict the developer will walk off with twice as much. But before taking that to the bank, Orlando Partners must pay the city $5.8 million for the privilege, clear most of the 250 buildings, clean up on-site pollution and satisfy the exacting building standards that the city has placed on the development.

"This is like a marriage. We better pick a partner we can be in bed with for 15 years," says District 4 Commissioner Bill Bagley, whose constituents will be among those bearing the brunt of the impact of this development, which will begin with about two years of demolition work.

The council's action left an escape route for the city if Orlando Partners -- a consortium of more than 20 companies, including one that has been involved in converting two military bases in Illinois to civilian uses -- fails by May 18 to satisfy questions about its financial commitment and legal structure. In that event, Oakhurst Park Partners -- with a record of new urbanism designs such as those the city intends for the naval base -- would get the nod.

Yet in reaching what Mayor Glenda Hood described as "probably the most significant decision we'll make as elected officials," the council clearly was committed Monday to supporting the decision of a citizen's advisory board, even though the board's vote was clouded by indecision. That indecision was so profound that its final recommendation hinged on the vote of a Winter Park resident who, minutes before siding with Orlando Partners, had endorsed Oakhurst -- and then only after switching from a third bidder, St. Joe Corp./CNL Group.

Asked after the advisory board's vote to discuss his flip-flops, board member Doug Storer declined, citing City Attorney Scott Gabrielson's order not to talk with other members of the board, the companies pursuing the project -- or the media. During that meeting, Storer, a Winter Park city commissioner who is vice president of Longwood-based DCC Constructors, had jumped behind Oakhurst to help break a deadlock. Then he complained that the Oakhurst plan would have crowded about 200 more residences onto the property than Orlando Partners. Such was the advice the council was left to use in making this "significant decision."

"I was hoping to have a clear majority," says District 3 Commissioner Bruce Gordy. "For us to come through this process without a clear consensus, I'm not very encouraged." Yet, conceding that the council had asked the advisory board to recommend a developer, Gordy echoed the view of the majority of the commission: "Unless there's a major question, I'd be inclined to go with the board."

Why the rush? The clock is ticking down to June 23, when the city's option to purchase the naval base expires. "Our obligation is to step up to the plate with $1.2 million, or they can go someplace else," Bagley says.

In 1996, the city nearly lost the chance to control the destiny of the last big piece of undeveloped land within its boundaries. The Collier family, which owns large tracts of land in Florida, offered to trade the federal government mineral rights on Big Cypress National Preserve in southwest Florida for the Orlando base and other closed military installations. Hood pulled the plug on this deal, citing the recommendation of the city's base reuse board -- which was later spun into the advisory board that the mayor and city council looked to for guidance in picking the developers.

Five days before the council vote, the advisory board appointed by Hood had wrapped up a two-year process by picking Orlando Partners from four competing groups to redevelop the base, which was ordered shut down in 1993 after serving as a training facility for 27 years.

Not to be overlooked in justifying Orlando Partners' selection is that $5.8 million purchase price -- $1.8 million more than Oakhurst, $800,000 more than St. Joe Corp./CNL Group, and $300,000 more than the fourth bidder, WCI Communities. Of that $5.8 million, the city must pass 75 percent -- about $4.4 million -- on to the Navy. After reimbursing itself for the additional $1.2 million payment due to the Navy next month, the city still gains about $250,000 from Orlando Partners to offset the costs of the selection process. (Had it opted for Oakhurst, the city actually would have lost about $200,000 on the deal.)

But other factors fell in Orlando Partners' favor as well. In addition to its record of successful dealings with the Navy -- which was accused of mishandling the transfer of land to the city, slowing the Orlando conversion by two years -- the group was cheered for its plan to clear the land of buildings and clean up a hazardous waste site in less than two years.

Advisory board chairman Tom Chandler also championed the plan's traffic patterns and park systems, as well as the fact that all of its roads led to lakes. More generally, Chandler emphasized the comprehensiveness of Orlando Partners' proposal. "We're looking for the best team who can do it all," he says.

But other members pointed to the group's inability to meet the deadline for filing paperwork, and raised concerns about the role of a partner who signed on with the group during the final days of the selection process. City attorneys questioned whether a letter of credit adequately protected the city. Contrary to other groups, Orlando Partners plans to immediately resort to public financing by selling bonds that would be repaid largely through a tax on property owners. Board member Arthur Lee said Orlando Partners' finances "scare me to death."

Richard Shields, the group's project manager, dismissed those questions about financial backing as "routine" and promised to have them all answered for the council by May 18.

If outside influences affected the outcome, Orlando Partners certainly would have had an edge. Former mayor Bill Frederick was part of its team, although he insists, "We had a `lobbying` blackout. Every one, as far as I know, observed that."

The blackout was lifted for Monday's council meeting. While Frederick made no public comment, prominent local attorney Hal Kantor emerged as cheerleader for the St. Joe Corp./CNL proposal. And renowned South Florida land-use architect Andres Duany joined in the last-minute pitches on behalf of Oakhurst. (WCI Communities, having failed to get a single vote from the advisory board, made no presentation.) Duany was a consultant on Disney's town of Celebration and other neo-traditional communities, which are planned around neighborhoods in which people walk to the store and gab with neighbors from their front porches. Duany boasted that the council could have "an original" by choosing Oakhurst's plan, or settle for "some very good copies" by sticking with Orlando Partners, which has no record of such developments. Apparently, a copy will do just fine.

District 2 Commissioner Betty Wyman cast the lone dissenting vote, partially because she favored Oakhurst and its homebuilder, Pulte Homes. She also questioned Orlando Partners' finances as it embarks on more than a decade of development. "I don't want to see this fall back on the city of Orlando."

Now, the city's lawyers and financial experts must work with Orlando Partners in hopes of preventing that from happening.

More by Lawrence Budd


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