Downtown 101 

The year was 1980. Jimmy Carter was bunkered in the White House; interest rates were approaching 20 percent; lines for gasoline were several blocks long, and unemployment was in the double digits. In Orlando, things could have hardly have been worse, especially in the downtown area. The city had more felonies per capita than Washington, D.C., and other larger urban areas. Orlando ranked fifth on the FBI's list of cities with serious crime problems. There were only two hotels, one of which, the Angebilt, was a 10-story flophouse where riff-raff loitered around the entrance. Lake Eola was far from the family gathering spot it is today. Visitors avoided the park even in daytime for fear of being accosted by male prostitutes or homeless people camped underneath the park's many azalea bushes. The scourge of Orange Ave., which acts as Main Street Orlando, wasn't the "proliferation" of tattoo parlors. It was plasma centers, where indigents lined up to have their blood pumped for pocket change.

In spite of the dire economic times, then-Mayor Bill Frederick had grandiose plans. He wanted to redo the Expo Centre, establish another major hotel, build a 10,000-seat arena, and revitalize Orange Avenue, especially at Pine Street, where vacant buildings sat on each corner.

To achieve his goals, Frederick knew he needed help. He enlisted developers, investors and other government officials. But none was as valuable as Tom Kohler, the director of the Downtown Development Board (DDB) and its sister agency, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). The CRA has special taxing powers to keep money flowing into downtown projects, while the DDB is responsible for the overall well-being of the 1,608 acres of downtown Orlando. As executive director of the DDB, Kohler was expected to be the face of what is often an abstract and confusing revitalization process. His main goal was to use his budget ($7.4 million last fiscal year) to add to the $2.6 billion in assets downtown is now worth. He answered to a seven-person advisory board and the Orlando City Council but was mainly the mayor's point man on big-ticket downtown projects.

Kohler wasn't the typical candidate to become one of the three most powerful people in city government, behind the mayor and chief administrative officer. He was born in Mexico City where his father was in the oil business. He attended Texas A&M, earning a master's degree in urban planning, then moved here in 1972 to begin a career in urban design.

But he rose quickly through Mayor Carl Langford's administration from a lowly community-development officer to the mayor's administrative assistant in two years. Then he became DDB and CRA director the year before Frederick arrived.

Kohler went to work on Frederick's wish list, tearing up Orange Ave., subsidizing the Omni Hotel (now the downtown Marriott), ushering in the Orlando Arena -- all while trumpeting the benefits of investing downtown. His agencies also ponied up tax dollars. Since Kohler took over the DDB and CRA, the city has spent $67 million in the downtown area. Signs that the investments have sparked a revival are everywhere. The city's 12 high-rise offices are at least 90 percent occupied. Two new hotels have opened their doors in the last two years. Twenty-five new projects, estimated at $637 million, have either been built in the last two years or are in the planning stages. Developers such as Cameron Kuhn have rehabbed the few old buildings left in the city.

So it came as a surprise to many, with the city doing so well, that Kohler announced his retirement, effective in February, to take a position with a small downtown planning firm. He says he has thought of retiring for more than a year, but only recently decided to move on. "I've had offers before, even offers to leave town, to leave Orlando," Kohler says. "This `new job` gives me a chance to use some of the things I've learned."

Kohler, who turns 55 this Halloween, was one of the city's better public speakers, giving the annual state-of-downtown address to business leaders. He was one of the few public officials capable of working with the media and one of the few who could hold his own in debates over civic projects. According to Commissioner Don Ammerman, a nine-year veteran of the council, "The vision and view Tom has had, the historical perspective in where the city has been, what is needed to happen -- those things are not easily replaced."

Even so, as Kohler himself acknowledges, the downtown's renaissance is still a work in progress. Orlando isn't the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week metropolis that city leaders hope it might become. It lacks retail stores, a major park, a significant arts district, a decent farmer's market and more residential buildings. Not to mention that the low-income Parramore neighborhood, which is included in the CRA area, still needs major improvements before it can truly be called a community.

Kohler's successor will have to consider other factors as well. Ten percent of the 1,100 developable acres inside the CRA area are vacant, meaning the city will likely have to continue subsidy programs to entice development. (The CRA has given away $13.2 million to build five luxury apartment buildings in the downtown area.)

Only 16,500 people live downtown in a metropolitan area of 1.6 million people. Only 55,500 people work downtown out of a work force of 845,000 employees. Many Central Floridians don't come downtown to shop or party. Many still have a fear that downtowns are the places where your car gets towed or you get mugged.

"The vast percentage of people think of downtowns as unsafe and dirty," says Timothy S. Chapin, a Florida State University urban and regional planning professor who specializes in downtown revitalization.

Chapin says that Orlando, which he visits periodically to see family, used to be a "godless place." It had no soul. But with the arena in place (now called the T.D. Waterhouse Centre) and a growing number of restaurants on Church Street and elsewhere, he has changed his opinion. "I am very pleasantly surprised how 'placeful' the city has become," Chapin says. "It has character. It has a lot going for it."

The task for Kohler's successor will be to keep the momentum going. Of course, one person or one government agency can't do it all. The business community and its financiers are the major players, and many of them have been reluctant to invest much in downtowns because they feel they can make more money in the suburbs. "Lenders go where they've last had success," Chapin says.

Orlando also is stuck with a mayor not known for her ability to sell her administration's ideas. That's why a regional plan for a light-rail transportation system failed. Nobody in City Hall could forcefully argue that it was necessary, though the $50 million spent in consulting fees should have helped.

So, whoever ends up in Tom Kohler's shoes will have some long laces to thread. While most of his (or her) time will be spent negotiating with business leaders who seek financial aid from the city, there are many low or no-cost strategies that the DDB's director can employ to continue working for a downtown renaissance.

A few of them:

Arts district

Many people have been advocating for a colony of artists, subsidized by the city, who might bring some excitement -- and maybe tourist money -- to a city still lacking in the visual and theatrical arts.

Roberta Brandes Gratz has a contrarian view. Gratz is a former New York Post reporter who wrote two books on downtown revitalization. She frequently gives speeches to groups such as the Fannie Mae Foundation and was scheduled to speak in Orlando Sept. 13 to the Florida membership of the American Planning Association. The terrorist attacks canceled her visit.

Rather than trying to designate an area as an art district, Gratz says, Orlando should focus on being hospitable to artists. "You can't create a district," she says. "You can only nurture the elements that might create the momentum. Otherwise it's too artificial. At most you're going to create a cluster of entertainment places for visitors to come. ... But that's not the same as regenerating the city itself."

"Look for the pieces that might stimulate the use of live-work spaces," she continues. "If they are scattered around town, several things can be happening at once. It's the difference between planting one big tree in the desert or lots of little trees. If the little trees grow, shade is spread over the whole area."

Gratz' idea makes sense for Orlando because, unlike Cleveland, Chicago, Seattle or even an out-of-the-way city like Omaha, Orlando doesn't have a group of warehouses or old commercial buildings that it can convert to artist lofts. History has obviously played a role here. When these older cities needed factory buildings for the industrial revolution of the mid-1800s, Orlando was still a thicket of pine trees. In 1875, the city had a population of 85 residents. Even when Orlando began to develop, its key industry, agriculture, produced tin-roofed, one-story warehouses.

This dearth of old buildings has a significant impact on a city that aspires to architectural significance. (The moniker, The City Beautiful, was the name of an architectural movement around the turn of the century.) Indeed, Jane Jacobs, whom Gratz often refers to in her books, writes in "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" that cities without old buildings will always be at a disadvantage: "Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them."

As Jacobs points out, chain stores, chain restaurants, supermarkets and shoe stores seek out new buildings. But antique stores, bookstores, bars and international restaurants often are housed in older buildings. Older buildings are also where businesses that cater to and augment the arts, such as galleries, music stores and art supply stores, set up shop.

Orlando's only option is to work with what it has, building old next to new so that a consistent architectural feel is developed.

"I think that developers have to create that unusual, unique space to flesh out or round out downtown," says James Pope, a principle with Morris Architects, a 45-employee design firm that is a member of the Downtown Orlando Partnership, a business group dedicated to the well-being of downtown. Morris Architects specializes in entertainment projects such as the Men in Black ride at Universal Studios. But the firm also designed the much-discussed Thornton Park Central, a $25 million five-story mix of offices, retail and residential lofts on Summerlin Avenue, where Morris Architects moved to last month. "They have to create a special feel to carry out the uniqueness, to create a strong brand or image of the city."

Still, Pope concedes that the richness and character of old buildings are something that contemporary buildings can't duplicate. "Economics comes into play," he says. "What you were able to do 30, 40, 50 years ago is tougher to do today in terms of building design."

Another option, favored by Marty Cummins, who runs Chapters Cafe and Bookshop in College Park, is to rezone certain residential areas so that artists can sell art out of their living rooms. "I'd like to see College Park have an area that is specifically zoned to allow in-home galleries," says Cummins, who was instrumental in raising money to restore the former residence of author Jack Kerouac for use by visiting writers. "That would make it possible for artists to permanently afford their own retail space."

Wherever artists wind up, the question still remains what role the city should have in fostering the artistic community. The city already offers $20,000 subsidies to artists locating anywhere in the traditional city. Artists can also apply for a $50,000 low-interest loan if they locate to Parramore, Washington Shores or other low-income neighborhoods. What more can city officials do?

"I don't know about the city," Kohler says. "The community needs to create other incentives -- bank loans, foundation grants -- in addition to the public sector."


So much has already been said about this one-mile-long neighborhood on the west side of I-4 that it will immediately be a priority for the new DDB executive director. One overlooked aspect of the blighted, low-income neighborhood is that, ironically, it might be a key to an Orlando arts renaissance. Parramore has the few warehouses that are in the area. "Where else can you find so much raw space?" says Robin Van Arsdol, a Bohemian artist of some renown who has already relocated to Parramore.

Van Arsdol is a colorful character on the local arts scene. He's known as a maverick who has painted some 5,000 murals on buildings throughout the world, an estimated 750 in Orlando. For many years, his studio was located several blocks from Ivanhoe Row, the antique area north of downtown that is one of the truly quaint commercial areas of the city. Other artists, specializing in tiles, ceramics and sculpturing, also moved into the warehouses to the east of Ivanhoe Row. Many people were excited that an arts movement was blossoming in the city. The mayor's office even stuck a sign up proclaiming the area the Alden Arts District.

Soon after, artists and landowners began feuding over rents and retail access and the district quickly dissolved. It was an unlikely choice for an arts district anyway because the warehouses in the area were ugly corrugated metal; the streets were busy with trucks, and parking was terrible.

Van Arsdol moved to Parramore after a brief stop in Church Street Station, downtown's anachronistic tourist trap that barely registers a pulse any more. In Parramore, Van Arsdol has been rejuvenated. He rented a 6,000-square-foot space that, at one time, was a church but looks more like the inside of a thrift store. Van Arsdol keeps the space filled with his brand of street art but, given the area, keeps the doors locked at all times. "I'm handing out a lot of change," he says, referring to the homeless who bum money from him. "I'm handing out a lot of dollars. I have a lot of people on my payroll."

Parramore, he admits, isn't the kind of place for everybody, though he's had no trouble so far. "I've never been intimidated by anybody," he says. "I'm a different kind of character. This is downtown. You're on the edge of the hood. Everyone here is not from the mainstream."

Still, he's confidant artists will eventually find themselves on the west side of downtown if for no other reason than the synergy he's creating. Though he hasn't had much success with city officials before, he's hoping he can someday partner with them to build a contemporary arts center in Parramore. He expects the arts to become a tonic for the ailing low-income community. "I think `the city` will do this with me," he says. "The city has an agenda. If you fit into that agenda, then guess what? You can do whatever you want."

Performing Arts Center

As far back as the Bill Frederick Administration of the 1980s, city leaders have discussed bringing a state-of-the-art performance hall to Orlando. Advocates say it would make the city more sophisticated, draw upscale consumers to downtown and, obviously, add to the effort to make Orlando an arts haven.

Last spring, after carrying the torch for two decades, the city passed the burden of building the Center to the University of Central Florida Foundation, hoping that an educational component would finally bring the project to downtown. The thinking is that wealthy donors are more likely to contribute to a university than a city government.

According to information provided by the DDB, the Foundation is negotiating with property owners to assemble land for the $150 million project. The development, called the Florida Center for the Arts and Education, will have classrooms and theaters for the UCF Fine Arts Program as well as an auditorium for Broadway-type entertainment. Groundbreaking is scheduled for 2003.

The Center could also serve another purpose: to bring UCF students into the downtown area, where they might live, work and invest once they graduate. As it is, UCF is 15 miles from the heart of the city, enough of a distance to be psychologically removed from the interests of downtown Orlando. That decision, made in the 1960s, to stick the university in the wettest area of the county proved to be a terrible one.

The city receives little benefit from the main campus, and students are stuck out in a suburban ghetto that provides none of the character benefits of even the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.

How often has Kohler wished UCF was closer to downtown? "Many times," he says.

The city helped to set up a satellite campus in an old funeral home on Pine Street. And city leaders are enthusiastic that the $30 million Florida A&M law school, scheduled to break ground in Parramore in the summer of 2003, will give the city the youthful enthusiasm of an urban campus.

At the same time, Roberta Gratz warns that the big-ticket, big-hype projects such as performing-arts centers, convention centers, stadia or acquaria hardly ever provide the impact that their backers propose. "They never fulfill the promise they offer," the New York City-based author says. "The places that have been successful are places that have revitalized on an incremental basis. They've rebuilt in a slow but steady way, regenerating with assets that already exist."

She points to the Lincoln Center in New York as an example of the wrong way to fit the arts into a city. True, the Lincoln Center has a national landmark. But since its 12 institutions (an opera house, library, the Julliard School, etc.) aren't rooted to a surrounding neighborhood, the area lacks the vibrancy of, say, the Broadway district, which grew more organically. "The various arts should be scattered around the city," she emphasizes. "They should be anchors for their neighborhoods ... Once you start thinking about creating a `theater` district, you're already on the wrong path."

Farmers' Market

If there's one easy area for the DDB to improve on, without a substantial cost to taxpayers, the downtown Farmers' Market is it. Gratz believes so strongly in farmers' markets she dedicated an entire chapter to them in her tome on downtown revitalization, Cities Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtown. Gratz calls the Saturday-morning markets "the most successful tool for the strengthening or regenerating of downtowns of any size."

Chapin, the FSU professor, also recommends growers' markets and parties to liven up a moribund cultural center. "I'm in big favor of lots of festivals and gatherings in downtown," he says, pointing to Tallahassee's "Downtown Getdown" parties on the mornings of Seminole football games. "It's a celebration of urban life," he says.

Yet the city's Farmers' Market, housed underneath the I-4 overpass at Church Street, is in abysmal shape. It's so bad that the city spent $3,000 for a faux-trolley bus to escort older customers to market, charging them $.50 for the ride.

That effort has apparently had little effect. Margaret Tedeschi, who runs the Rainbow Produce stand, the market's largest vendor, says she's had her worst two weeks of business in her 12 years at the Orlando market.

Wholesale changes are needed. The DDB likes the location underneath the overpass at Church Street and Garland Avenue because the market can continue during rainy weather. But the overpass' tons of concrete make for a strange Farmers' Market atmosphere and bad acoustics for the musicians who play there. Not to mention the noise from cars clackety-clacking overhead.

Why not locate the market in a park like Winter Park and College Park do?

But Tedeschi says location isn't the market's problem. Rather, she recommends that the city put out a sign emphasizing that the city offers free parking until 2 p.m. As it is, customers drive away when they see a meter reader or policeman in the area even though they don't have to worry about being ticketed.

Tedeschi would also like to see the DDB spend money on better advertising -- and a better police presence. The homeless tend to gather near the market, begging for change without placing themselves in the blue boxes they are required by ordinance to be in.

As it is, Tedeschi says DDB officials have lost interest in the market. "It's like they know it's going to close but they just haven't told us," she says. "Are we still going to be here? I need to know."


No secret here what the city intends to do -- subsidize heavily. But even handing out free money hasn't brought retail to downtown, especially the big retailers like Banana Republic and the Gap, which city leaders openly covet. The CRA ponied up $1.5 million in subsidies to restaurateurs and retailers in a program begun last year. Only one developer, Phil Rampy, who built Thornton Park Central, accepted $331,500 for retail and a grocery store. Seven restaurateurs, meanwhile, accepted $688,000.

The problem with luring retail is that the city must have a healthy residential population before retailers will build a store. "Everything is done on a formula basis," Kohler says.

The desire for retail was the main reason the city subsidized the five apartment complexes, two of which are north of Colonial Drive near the First Union tower, two near Lake Eola and one near Magnolia and the 408 Expressway.

But an abundance of residents doesn't necessarily equate to a healthy shopping area. Ask College Park merchants near Edgewater and Princeton about the amount of pedestrian traffic they see each day. Those merchants are in such a dire condition -- many stores are vacant -- that they are eager to see if the reconstruction of Edgewater Drive from four lanes to two (with a turning lane) will lure more people out of their cars and into stores. As Kohler says, there's no magic bullet when it comes to successful retail.


One thing the new DDB director will have to do is communicate better with the Orlando City Council and the Orange County Commission. County Commissioner Ted Edwards is among the county officials who have complained about the lack of input on the DDB, even though some of the taxes in the CRA's budget are skimmed from the county's budget.

The city administration should also strive to communicate better what it's trying to accomplish. Chapin, the FSU professor, recommends that the city focus on one thing -- such as becoming an arts city -- rather than trying to be all things to all people. Indianapolis, for example, has focused its efforts around being the sports capital of America. The NCAA has moved there. The city has built a triple A baseball park. The Indy Speedway and pro football and basketball have brought an athletic visibility.

"Look at what your niche is," Chapin says. "Look at the market and which people like downtowns. People with kids don't want to live downtown. Retired professionals and young people want an urban lifestyle. Figure out a coherent strategy to attract them."


More by William Dean Hinton


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