CRACKS IN THE PAVEMENT 


;"It's martini night!" beams the bartender in the bay of Wally's Mills Avenue Liquors' wraparound serving station.

;It's an odd juxtaposition for the traditionally dimly lit watering hole, one that over its 53 years has served as a neighborhood bar to whomever the neighbors might be. Tonight, beneath the television screens that alternate between blue-collar baseball and white-collar news, the celebrants are a mixed bag indeed. Nervous 30-somethings shift their blind-date eyes, a mulleted mechanic leers in the corner, tipsy young girls with facial piercings lean their bleached heads on their goth boyfriends.

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;Martinis? Why not?

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;As the jukebox blares the Red Hot Chili Peppers chorus "If you see me getting high, knock me down," something else is knocking right outside on Mills Avenue. A wash of mixed-use redevelopment rests on the horizon of the so-called ViMi district, the stretch of Mills Avenue that runs roughly between Colonial Drive and Virginia Drive and derives its name from the Virginia-Mills intersection. With it comes the possibility of knocking down one of the most eclectic and last remaining vestiges of old Orlando.

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;Or, perhaps, building it up.

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;The requisite growing pains that have emerged from the city's own "Mills Avenue and Colonial Drive Urban Design & Strategic Plan," which was finalized in 2003, and the subsequent agreement for the imminent Mills Park development, aren't of the simple Cracker conservationist variety. The proposed (and adopted) idea of mixed-use retail and residential buildings dotting the old ViMi streetscape – itself to be refurbished with wider sidewalks and more pedestrian-friendly amenities – sounds a lot like every other halfhearted Orlando attempt at casual, upscale living. Worse still, it stands in bleak contrast with the neighborhood's colorful past.

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;However, due to the diversity of the affected area – boutique businesses, artists, old merchants, historically gay interests, a substantial Vietnamese population and the bordering high-end residential areas – three distinct perspectives (and naming designations) have emerged. The preservationists, in the form of the ViMi Design District, want to keep the area raw to attract the creative class. The Asian community, presenting an idea called the XOBO District, hopes to transform the Colonial interchange into a mini-metropolis complete with new high-rises. Meanwhile, the new Mills Park development is endeavoring to establish its own Uptown Arts and Business District directly in line with the city's plan.

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;The three can't agree on where the area needs to go. A martini might be in order.

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;Keep it raw

;"The way I feel is, Orlando has enough of the preppy parks: the Baldwin Park, the Thornton Park," says Julio Lima, who owns the graphic design business Say It Loud. "How much can you get of these khaki shorts with their work shirts tucked in and penny loafers with no socks? Why not keep part of the city raw, and let the small businessman have a say-so and try to bring more art galleries and creative types to this area?"

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;At Lima's headquarters on Mills Avenue, the wide-open white spaces inside have a Miami-by-way-of-New-York-City studio aesthetic. The building is massive, with room for artist and photographer studios in back. He purchased it in March after occupying a strip-mall space next door for four years. After inking the deal, he painted the building bright orange – much to the chagrin of nearby residents – in hopes of making it a "landmark overnight."

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;This is what Lima wants: a "ViMi Design District" that mirrors the redevelopment of the Miami Design District, an 18-block stretch of design businesses and galleries in South Florida. It isn't a new idea. Lima and other local graphic designers, including Jeff Matz from nearby Lure Design, started screening window signs with a ViMi Design District logo in 2003, but the effort fizzled. Now that he has a property-owning interest in the matter, he's kicked it back into high gear.

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;"I think development is good if we clean up the area and we keep crime out," he says. "I think we're just trying to resist overdevelopment like they're doing downtown, where they're building all of these condos that are basically a ghost town overnight."

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;For the last few months, Lima's been walking door-to-door to area businesses trumpeting his cause, and in the process clearing up some misconceptions: for instance, that ViMi is a reference to the prominent Vietnamese presence at the Colonial end. He's collected a list of more than 30 businesses interested in supporting his cause, including the Peacock Room, Chuck's Restaurant and the Mullet hair salon.

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;Also on that list is Etoile Boutique, which is owned by Katie Reynolds. She used to work nearby, at a now-defunct record store and at Wacko (a transgender boutique). Having launched her own clothing line, she decided to take the leap with a boutique that markets local clothing and jewelry designers and vintage gear.

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;"I always equated this place with fun, kind of artsy people and businesses, as opposed to all of the other shopping places in town," she says. "I think there's something about it for a lot of people that's charming and homey. Not everybody was brought up with a need to have these cookie-cutter kinds of stores."

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;Until now, ViMi has done a good job of maintaining itself. In downtown's blight period of the '80s, the Vietnamese were first to resuscitate the area, followed soon after by the gay contingent, which launched a sort of gay grotto that included Out and About Books, Rainbow City, Twisted Palms and the Cactus Club. While all of those businesses have since vacated the avenue, other eclectic merchants have filled the gaps: Friends Restaurant, the Peacock Room, Copperhead Salon.

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;The preservationists say the threat now is the city thrusting its ubiquitous, character-killing "mixed-use" plans where they don't belong. That's what Leigh Shannon worries is about to happen.

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;Shannon, of Ritzy Rags Wigs & More, has been on Mills Avenue for 17 years. He started as a partner in the store in 1990 and took it over outright four years ago. More importantly, he claims an interest in the ViMi name; he says he coined it while working for Encounter Magazine – a Central Florida gay publication – in the early '90s.

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;Shannon is suspicious of the city's redevelopment plan. "I'll tell you what the problem will be: A lot of the buildings will be torn down," he says. "I'll be honest, my mindset is I'm kind of fed up with local and federal government. I think that so many people have just gotten in bed with the developers."

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;Lima agrees: "I think the city's controlled by developers. Politicians, as much as they want to fight it, as soon as these guys come in and say, ‘We're going to clean up your area,' they're going to bend over and, you know."

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;Like Times Square

;"I see us as kind of like Times Square. It really is," says To-Lan Trinh-Le. (Full disclosure: She's the mother of Orlando Weekly columnist Bao Le-Huu.) "It's interesting how everything like traffic, it's like chaos, like a marketplace. Nobody can really control it."

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;From a Vietnamese phrase that loosely translates as "chaos" – it actually breaks down to "bucket" and "rice," signifying a bustling marketplace – Trinh-Le developed the name of her own plan for the distinctly Asian section of ViMi, the XOBO District.

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;"Maybe a couple of years ago we weren't ready for prime time yet, but I think we are now," she says. "Think about it; downtown is fully developed now, so where else would you go? I mean this is just like the heartbeat of everything; you've got to come through this area to get to the main corridor. This is the main strip, here. And the good thing is, because it's already organic, you don't have to bring people. The people come already. That is really real and just alive."

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;In the late '70s and early '80s, the Vietnamese flooded into the area in search of opportunities beyond the shadow of old Saigon. The Little Saigon restaurant opened in 1985, anchoring what seemed likely to grow into an all-inclusive market community.

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;By 2001, when CVS threatened to tear down one of the blocks on the corner of Mills and Colonial (CVS eventually took over the existing Eckerd building on another corner), the Vietnamese community had grown vocal enough to mobilize against it. Now, Trinh-Le says, the community is entering its next phase.

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;She understands Lima's concerns about maintaining the district's aesthetic, but she'd rather operate separate from his group. She and her partners don't like the term "ViMi" because of its (falsely) perceived Vietnamese implications. Rather, Trinh-Le's group is planning a sort of vertical city, hoping to achieve altitudes comparable to the nearby 14-story Hillcrest Hampton House.

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;"Most Asians are very urban," she says. "We all live in big cities. I have a lot of friends who have older parents who like to live in high-rises, like in California."

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;She points to the aging of the first-generation immigrants and their appreciation of milder weather as key indicators of a local housing demand. Their kids, she says, would be the ones to keep it dynamic and prevent it from being "cookie-cutter" high-rises.

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;The city's not keen on her plans, however. Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who represents ViMi, says the "footprint" such buildings require would be too great for the area's infrastructure. Likewise, the proximity of the Orlando Executive Airport limits the height of structures in its path.

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;In an effort to work around the restrictions, Trinh-Le includes community centers, ballrooms, even health initiatives in the XOBO proposals, always keeping an eye on diversity and inclusiveness. "All I want is to make this area very hip. And it has all the ingredients to be hip," she says. "Is there any book that says that we have to live by ourselves? Is there a book that says that the gay and lesbian community has to hate the Asian community? The strangest thing is that we keep on just isolating ourselves out."

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;Organic, not luxury

;Farther north on Mills Avenue, the ground is already being primed for the city redevelopment plan's first taker: Mills Park. The $350 million mixed-use, mid-rise development is about to enter its marketing phase. To get the job done, the city granted Pelloni Development Corporation what's called Community Development District status, which affords the developer leeway on density provisions. In return, the city got roadway improvements, a walking trail and an art area. The state also kicked in incentives.

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;"We're completing our engineering for the site and should be able to go vertical in about four to six months," says president Justin Pelloni. "Of course a lot of that is dependent upon how the market receives us."

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;The immense development will take over a lot on Mills Avenue near Nebraska Street that was formerly a lumberyard and a longtime symbol of ViMi's blight. Once completed, the project will boast nearly 1 million square feet of occupied space on 14.5 acres: nine buildings with 78,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space, 272,000 square feet of "office condominiums" and 564 residential units (two five-story parking garages are planned as well). Given the recent limpness of the condo market, Pelloni has altered some of his original plans: In lieu of building 564 condominium units, he's instead building 425 rental apartment spaces.

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; "If you drive down Mills Avenue, one out of five buildings is an old gas station now converted into an old car lot; that's the kind of stuff we want to see go," Pelloni says. "That's the way it will become, a little more Edgewater Drive. There's so much more that we can do and still preserve some of the pedestrian feeling."

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;(Actually, the city hopes Mills Park will bring a "pedestrian feeling" to the avenue that it's currently lacking. As of now, there's not much "pedestrian feeling" there to preserve.)

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;Pelloni insists that rising rental rates in the surrounding areas will be offset by an increase in business, and that good businesses will be able to afford the hike. But he also seems to acknowledge that progress comes with detractors. A self-professed New Yorker, he's hoping to see the ViMi area follow more of an "organic" Greenwich Village model rather than the wholesale sell-out of SoHo. He lists among the adjectives being used to market the property "genuine," "authentic" and "organic," but never "luxury."

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;Pelloni has his own ideas about the redeveloped area's name; he sees things more in a macro sense, looping in Leu Gardens, Antique Row and the other cultural amenities beneath the proposed moniker of the Uptown Arts and Business District (in part, he says, because Florida Hospital – with whom he is working – isn't in favor of a "design district").

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;"This whole area's got, I think, some unique cultural and eclectic components, and it's a part of Orlando that's not on the map when it comes to tourists," Pelloni says. "It's not on the map when it comes to a lot of the mainstreamers in this area. I think it would just be great to package this somehow – whether it be ‘Uptown' or a different name – with a little bit of creative branding so that it would be recognized, so that people knew how to speak of it, so more people could really enjoy it. And I think that it would help out the local businesses and help the district in general."

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;What's in a name?

;Sheehan connected Lima with the two other leaders of prospective area initiatives and the city's planning department in hopes of hammering out a name with which they would all be happy. If that happened, the city could provide signs to market the area.

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;Lima, however, doesn't like the competing ideas. Pelloni's Uptown Arts and Business District suggestion is "trying to be something [that this area's] not," he says. XOBO, he says, is "a total clusterfuck, because now they're going for a strictly Vietnamese name."

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;Needless to say, the meetings have proved fruitless. There's no agreement on a common name, much less a common goal. Lima says he'll go ahead with the ViMi Design District module, if only to visibly mobilize against big developers.

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;"He wants to keep the funk," Sheehan says. "I told him, ‘Julio, I can't stop redevelopment from happening.' I mean, what we wanted to talk about, as opposed to stopping redevelopment from happening, was trying to get the kind of stuff that we wanted to see as opposed to the kind of things that we didn't."

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;Sheehan says she's wary of the low-rent history of the street, where social services and needle exchanges were once an issue. In the past, run-down hotels populated the northern end of ViMi, and prostitution was periodically problematic. She just wants it to keep moving up and keep seedy elements out.

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;What the city officially wants is outlined extensively in the 68 pages of its 2003 "Mills Avenue and Colonial Drive Urban Design & Strategic Plan." According to the document, the region's positives include its neighborhoods, unique businesses and recent developers. Conversely, its negatives include underdeveloped property areas, the encroachment of commercial businesses on bordering neighborhoods (and the traffic and parking problems that come with them) and a pedestrian-hostile environment.

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;Mills Park, with its inclusion of the medical office community, retail space and residential, falls right in line with the plan. Four years later, city planning director Dean Grandin suspects that the community may be ready to go further.

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;Ultimately, the city would like to see things go more commercial. They cite Mills Avenue's importance as the main connecting artery with bustling Winter Park. And although city planners claim their primary aim is to protect the interests of nearby residents, the overriding sense is that commerce (when mixed effectively with residential) is the way to build the district up. The artists' renderings and enhanced photographs contained within the plan suggest a familiar sight in Orlando: cozy, mixed-use two-and-three-story buildings with plenty of trees.

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;Still, any proposed redevelopment would be gradual. The area is now zoned in sections (medical, retail and office, and residential areas, with some overlap) and it would take new ownership and new construction to bring the lots up to code. But the sight of another Thornton Park or Baldwin Park style of architecture has some ViMi purists crying "cookie-cutter."

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;"They're definitely concerned about the teardowns of the strip malls and stuff like that," says Sheehan. "I think part of the thing that's going to preserve those is just the new codes that have to have so much parking; buffer yards [lot size requirements] are different now."

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;But she also says that redevelopment is inevitable in the area, and suggests that the best way for business owners to counter that is to – like Lima – buy their buildings.

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;Of course, buying the building is not something that many small-business owners can afford.

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;Martini night

;At the Peacock Room, where it's always "martini night," a change is already underway. A mixed crowd of hipster kids, gay people and professional types sips along to the low-volume rhythm of alternative and '80s hits. It's a fine testament to just how well this business community has done on its own, with niche occupants rotating in and out with the times, and the neighborhood feel kept duly in place.

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;Nobody seems to know or care what happens next, or whether or not the character of this storied avenue is destined for overdeveloped obsolescence.

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;For now, a martini will do.

; bmanes@orlandoweekly.com

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