Winter Park’s Mount Vernon Inn slated for redevelopment 

Unicorp wants to build luxury apartments and a retail complex at the site

click to enlarge Unicorp's rendering of the Luxe
  • Unicorp's rendering of the Luxe

The Mount Vernon Inn on U.S. Highway 17-92 in Winter Park is an anomaly. The hotel’s friendly, Colonial-style facade, with its covered porch and side-by-side rocking chairs, used to be a gateway to Winter Park at the corner of Morse Boulevard. Now the motor-court-style hotel, which has operated at this spot since 1949, is a quaint oddity along a commercial strip where chain restaurants, shopping centers and trendy grocery stores have become the norm.

The little white hotel, whose pool has long been a secret hipster hangout in summertime and whose Red Fox Lounge is a beloved (if dated) best-kept local secret, may soon be eclipsed by progress.

On Thursday, July 31, Unicorp National Developers, the company that built the new Trader Joe’s shopping center (and its associated parking nightmares) right across the street from the inn, hosted a meeting to obtain community input on its next big project: a massive development on the Mount Vernon site. Unicorp hopes to break ground in 2015 on a new six-story development called “The Luxe.” It will include 77 luxury residential units above retail and restaurant space, as well as a 483-car parking garage. A Jan. 23 news release on Unicorp’s website describes plans that originally included a new hotel in place of the Mount Vernon Inn, but those plans have changed because, according to Unicorp president Chuck Whittal, the company doesn’t think the city will support the density.

Indeed, density and development have been a point of contention recently for Winter Park residents. Frustration over how the popular Trader Joe’s has tied up traffic along U.S. Highway 17-92 is a common resident refrain these days, and “No Density” signs have popped up all around the city. But even without the hotel, people are afraid that Unicorp’s proposed development can’t help but bring more of what they don’t want to the area.

According to Unicorp President Chuck Whittal, the July 31 meeting was a scheduled design workshop to get feedback from the community on the renderings for developing the property. “We had a show of hands and 70 percent said they liked it,” Whittal says, adding that the new project won’t create new traffic. “The restaurants we are talking to exist in other locations in Central Florida, so we will only be capturing local passerby traffic rather than drawing new visitors from a larger radius.”

Despite the meeting – and the fact that the project is already being discussed as if it’s a done deal – Clarissa Howard, director of communications for the city of Winter Park, says the city “has not received a formal complete application yet.” In fact, she says, the city wasn’t even aware of Unicorp’s plans until the company held that July 31 meeting. And despite Whittal’s assertion that the new development won’t create traffic snarls on an already-clogged thoroughfare, she says that once an application is filed, the approval process will have to be followed.

“As part of the formal application, there will need to be a traffic study to address traffic and pedestrian access/safety concerns,” Howard says. “Once these are submitted, staff will review and work with the developer on any needed improvements. The developer is required to go through a defined public process, which includes at least three public hearings and a citywide notice.”

Whittal says he’s wrapping up details of the application, and it should be complete next week. In the meantime, the city of Winter Park is preparing to amend its comprehensive plan to clear the way for more developments like the one Unicorp is proposing. Two Winter Park City Commissioners – Steven Leary and Sarah Sprinkel – and Mayor Kenneth Bradley are moving forward with a “sweeping amendment” to make the city more welcoming for developers. According to Commissioner Carolyn Cooper, the amendment would create high-density planned development zones in Winter Park, where the city could plan for larger developments that would help increase its tax base and stimulate economic development. Some fear that the approval of the amendment will increase congestion in the area, put too many demands on city services and detract from Winter Park’s image. Two public hearings and an affirmative vote by the city commission are required to pass the amendment; it already had one hearing on June 9, and a second one could be scheduled as early as this month.

In her Aug. 8 newsletter to constituents, Cooper says she thinks more public input needs to be considered before the commission votes.

“I believe the comprehensive plan amendment should not come back to the commission for the second and final vote until after the community participates in a visioning process and reaches a consensus on growth,” she wrote. She suggested that any decisions on development amendments be postponed until after a community-wide visioning process is complete, the scope of which was discussed at the City of Winter Park Commission Meeting on Monday, Aug. 11.

As for the Mount Vernon Inn, the project is not set in stone just yet – but according to the Winter Park/Maitland Observer, the property is under contract with Unicorp and the deal is expected to close by the end of the year. So schedule that last visit for a drink at the lounge and a dip in the pool while you still can.

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