Your tax dollars at work 

With its stately white columns, a fountained courtyard and bold yellow paint job, the new Echelon at Cheney Place is one of those tony apartment complexes that can turn any city block into instant uptown.

Still fresh with the scent of new carpeting, Echelon's 303 units are outfitted with arched doorways, white-on-white appliances, alarm systems, multiple cable outlets and walk-in closets; moreover, tenants have access to two pools, a gym and a "business center" where they can, free of charge, use three Internet-ready computers as well as fax and copy machines. Such conveniences aren't cheap: Prices range from $680 for a studio (though there are none currently available) to $1,805 for a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment. Fireplaces are $25 extra. You'll pay an additional fee for a balcony or a view of the downtown skyline, but even without the view Echelon's location is prime: it's just north of Colonial Drive on Orange Avenue, only a five-minute walk to clubs and restaurants.

Echelon isn't exactly elitist. But its doors are not open to all. To qualify, each tenant must complete a standard rental history, plus pass a criminal and credit check. Still, "We have a little of everybody from the community," says a jacket-and-tied "consultant" escorting a visitor around. "Everybody from toddler to seniors."

It's fitting that Echelon accepts most of the community because it was the community, after all, that helped build this privately-owned complex. To assist Echelon close its $26 million deal, the city of Orlando agreed to subsidize $1.5 million in fees that Echelon normally would pay for sewer, fire and police protection and to help build Echelon's four-story parking garage. The CRA also agreed to "streetscape" the front of the complex, adding palms, shrubs and ornate streetlights and is trying to buy a small piece of land next door that will be turned into a city park.

Echelon is not the only luxury apartment complex to receive help from the city. Four other sites, including another Echelon development, also have benefited from a $13 million "incentive" plan to create more housing downtown -- a goal city leaders have long desired as a means to keep The City Beautiful vibrant.

The subsidies are not without a backlash, however. They are administered by an independent arm of city government called the Community Redevelopment Agency, whose stated purpose is to prevent and eliminate blight and slums in the downtown area. The CRA, as it's known, forms a kind of self-generating taxing district that encompasses all of downtown, from Summerlin Avenue on the east to Orange Blossom Trail on the west, and from Lake Ivanhoe on the north to Gore Street on the south. As property values rise inside the designated area, the agency is able to collect more money to finance CRA projects.

Critics wonder whether the CRA is being held accountable for its corporate giveaways. They wonder whether the agency is choosing the right kinds of projects, and if there's more that could be done for the truly blighted neighborhoods in the district. The feeling among some observers is that "nobody is watching the hen house," says Linda Stewart of CountyWatch, a nonpartisan resident watchdog group.

Stewart is joined by some Orange County commissioners who worry that the downtown CRA's $7.4 million budget siphons off money that otherwise would be the county's to spend. The way a CRA tax scheme is arranged, the agency diverts part of the county's revenue from property taxes into a CRA trust fund. Property owners have to pay the tax regardless of which government ends up with the money. But county officials say it should be theirs -- especially if the city continues to fund projects for the elite.

"It doesn't hold weight for the city to unilaterally take tax dollars to enhance luxury apartments," says County Commissioner Ted Edwards, a real-estate attorney.


The county and city met several times last year to negotiate an end to the county's contribution to the Orlando CRA, or otherwise cap the amount. But after offering to "sunset" funding in 2017 when the CRA's current $24.6 million bond debt runs out, the county has heard nothing from city leaders.

"If the county questions any of this," says Edwards, "we are labeled as ‘anti-downtown.' That's not the case at all."

City leaders want to keep the county's money. But some don't understand why Mayor Glenda Hood's administration won't loosen its stranglehold and at least allow the county to have a say in how the CRA money is spent.

"It's an attempt to protect the kingdom, when in fact the kingdom can be enriched by opening [it] up to the county," says city Commissioner Don Ammerman, often a critic of Hood.

Yet the CRA has other things to worry about. While luxury apartments and high-end restaurants have sprung up on the east side, the west side of downtown -- the truly blighted side -- has mostly been immune to government aid. Millions have been spent in the Parramore neighborhood, though little progress has been made. The tired mantra city leaders keep repeating is that they'll take back Parramore one block at a time. It's been a ghetto for 35 years; why think anyone can turn it around in one year? Or five?

Residents and property owners in Parramore, which was added to the CRA district in 1990, have become restless fighting crime and City Hall for nearly two generations. It's as if they don't want to believe that government and business can't come together to clean up a small pocket so close to the heart of a well-known American city.

Parramore is home to 6,000 residents, 1,000 of whom live in emergency homeless shelters. Mixed together, they create one of Orlando's most active street scenes, with pedestrians and bicyclists scurrying past vagrants asleep in vacant lots or standing around waiting for day work. Statistically speaking, if there's a murder in Orlando, it likely happened in this neighborhood. The same goes for assaults, rapes and robberies. (Larceny and burglary appear to be predominantly east-side crimes.) The median salary is less than $16,000 a year. Many residents live in shotgun shacks, their streets pockmarked by boarded-up houses. The square-mile area has splintered into five different neighborhood associations. You can't order a cab or a pizza in Parramore, but crack hustlers and prostitutes are so plentiful that residents have cheered when police made an arrest in the area.

The CRA has had some success here. In the mid-1980s, the agency built several low-income and senior-housing complexes. And the city is expecting some economic bounce from two new developments near West Church Street, the Hughes Supply headquarters (which won $6 million in CRA and city subsidies) and the West Church Street Square, an eight-story office, retail and apartment "urban village" near I-4 that has yet to break ground.

But to observers, it looks like the city, absent a larger plan, is stalling. "They're waiting for some rich developer to come in and say, ‘I've got the money and I'm going to help you revitalize the Parramore area,' when in fact the reverse process should be the case," says one elected official.

Tom Hage is a 62-year-old accountant who was born in Parramore when it was just another sleepy enclave. He does personal income-tax returns and sells real estate in a building he owns on South Parramore Avenue. Each day he contends with transients who urinate on his stoop, trash his apartments and defecate in his hallways. He has installed bullet-proof glass in his office that will stop a .45 slug.

"I can't see any results from all the money spent," Hage says. "They're not building it in Parramore. They're putting it on the east side."


Housed in a quiet, elegant office on the ninth floor of the Metcalf Building at Pine Street and Orange Avenue, the Orlando Community Redevelopment Agency and its eight-member staff of planners and administrative assistants has operated in relative obscurity since it was created in 1980.

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But people who know local politics associate the CRA with the Orlando City Council, because the council's seven commissioners also double as the CRA's board members, adopting policy, approving the budget and setting the CRA's direction.

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Most residents probably know some of the CRA's handiwork without knowing the CRA itself. The agency's signature project was the $4.5 million renovation of Orange Avenue in 1984, which created (among other things) the large decorative circles that characterize downtown intersections along Orange Avenue.

Over its lifetime, the CRA has spent more than $67 million on about 75 projects in the downtown CRA's 1,600-acre area, which encompasses some of the richest and poorest property in Central Florida, including all of the city's high-rise buildings. The free Lymmo bus service that loops around downtown operates with CRA funds. The bricked walkways outside of the T.D. Waterhouse Centre and Orange County Regional History Museum also were CRA projects.

The CRA can perform such routine governmental functions as borrowing money and condemning property. But its most important function is the ability to collect taxes via a special assessment, like the library or school districts.

Some of that tax money normally would go to the city anyway. But if the CRA didn't exist, roughly half of its annual budget ($7.4 million this year) would be diverted to Orange County's $503 million general fund, which funds such ongoing expenses as parks, the 33rd Street jail, county administrators' salaries and the courthouse.

Per capita, the cost of the CRA to Orange County residents (including those who live within Orlando's city limits) is minimal -- $8.25 last year. But county taxpayers support other CRAs in addition to the one downtown, including two run by the county and two that Orlando established around a pair of I-4 interchanges. A total of 12 CRAs in Orange County have cost county taxpayers more than $66.8 million since 1993, according to the Orange County Property Appraiser's Office. (Eatonville, Winter Park and Apopka are among cities that have their own CRAs.)

Until April 1997, city officials acted as if they had carte blanche to enact CRA districts as they saw fit. Then the county, fearing it was losing too many tax dollars, threatened to ask state legislators to intervene. Instead, the two sides agreed that Orlando wouldn't enact another CRA area without the county's approval.

But the county is still uncomfortable with its role in the downtown CRA. County officials had hoped the city would dissolve the taxing agency in 2010, 30 years after it began. That time frame seems to be what state law requires. But city officials contend the CRA is only prohibited from borrowing money it cannot pay back within 30 years. "The ostensible sunset of 30 years is illusory," says Orange County attorney Tom Wilkes. "The city can evade it easily, and has done so."

The CRA's subsidy program breaks down into three categories: retail, restaurant and housing. Many businesses that accepted incentives are gathered near Lake Eola: The Embassy Suites hotel, at Rosalind Avenue and Central Boulevard, received $350,000; Concha Me Crazy, a linen-tablecloth restaurant in the hotel with an outdoor deck that overlooks the lake, received $75,000.

Also on Central Boulevard, The Waverly, a 22-story apartment tower, received $1.5 million. When complete, the mirrored-glass structure will offer one-bedroom apartments starting at $1,100 a month, with a five-bedroom penthouse renting for $9,000 a month.

Across the street, the Lake Eola Yacht Club restaurant collected $18,900 from the CRA. The restaurant is part of the $30 million expansion and renovation of the former Plaza apartment building into Parkside by Post, a project that was awarded $1 million.

Orange Avenue is also benefiting from the CRA gifts. The Westin Grand Bohemian, the gold-tinged building across from City Hall, received a $108,000 subsidy and what amounted to a $3 million loan. Nearby in Church Street Market, a group represented by Bob Snow, the favorite son who launched the now-struggling Church Street Station, received $206,805 to build two restaurants, Panera Bread and Bailey's Bistro. Closer to the heart of Orange Avenue, the Zello Urban Cafe, a quick-serve restaurant that boasts a $40,000 Wood Stone oven, received $40,875.

On Summerlin Avenue, developer Phil Rampy's Thornton Park Central, which promises a five-story mix of office, retail and 56 residential lofts, was given $575,000. Rampy, who is credited with revitalizing East Washington Street in the heart of Thornton Park, also was awarded $75,000 to remodel the two-story, red-and-black China Glass Warehouse Lofts on Colonial Drive near I-4.

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The $27 million Lincoln at Delaney Square, a 364-unit, five-story apartment complex under construction between South and Anderson streets near Rosalind Avenue, received more than $1.5 million. And another Echelon apartment complex, a five-story building under construction across North Orange Avenue from Echelon at Cheney Place, was given more than $1 million in subsidies.

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The city isn't embarrassed about the giveaways. But it hasn't exactly trumpeted them, either. You won't find a list of the subsidies in any of the CRA's glossy brochures or enumerated in a CRA budget. (The brochures highlight the city's growing downtown without mentioning subsidies. The budget emphasizes paying off bond debt.)

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But information about the subsidies has gotten out. And not everyone is happy with what they've heard.

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CountyWatch is a 60-member watchdog agency that tries to keep governments in check by issuing periodic accountability and accessibility reports. CountyWatch is researching a report on the Orlando CRA for county and city officials.

"It's interesting to see what [Orlando officials] consider blighted," says CountyWatch's Linda Stewart. "Then you have to ask yourself if they are applying the definition of blighted liberally."


Actually, the definition of blight, as written by the Florida Legislature, is fairly broad. Legislators, wanting to protect the central business districts of cities, took a different tack than other states. They stressed business revitalization rather than promoting such neighborhood projects as low-income housing.

Among the things that lawmakers considered blight when they wrote the 1969 CRA law was inadequate street layout, inadequate parking and something as esoteric as "unsanitary and unsafe conditions." In fact, Orlando created its additional CRA areas at I-4 and Republic Drive, as well as I-4 and Conroy Road, because of "transportation blight."

Another issue is whether CRAs work at all. A laissez faire economist is more likely to argue that cities prosper or deteriorate with the ebb and flow of economic cycles. There's no sense wasting tax dollars, this argument goes, since Orlando's downtown will benefit from an influx of residents -- and money -- over the next two decades, when the metro population is predicted to increase by 75 percent.

Indeed, some Orlando neighborhoods, such as Thornton Park and Eola Heights, were revitalized with little or no government help. And the CRA's own literature points out that 1980 through 1983 were unprecedented growth years in Orlando -- growth years that the CRA could not possibly have contributed to because it had very little money.

Still, the evidence is largely anecdotal on both sides. No one appears to have studied redevelopment agencies or whether CRA subsidies actually achieve their goals.

"Those who like CRAs tend to think they do a good job," says David Cardwell, a former Lakeland city attorney when that city enacted its CRA, one of the first in Florida. "Those who don't like them tend to think they don't make a difference."

Business executives, of course, tend to like them. Tim Tinsley, the president of Echelon Downtown I, says without the CRA's subsidy, the land on which Echelon at Cheney Place sits would probably still be weeded lots. "Without the incentives, the deal becomes less attractive," he says. "We think we're contributing by breathing life into a market, by bringing a residential base to this part of downtown."

That's the basic strategy behind CRAs, says Harry Stewart, a former Orange County attorney who recently helped St. Augustine enact that city's CRA. "A CRA is supposed to be a kick start. You identify an area, pour a little money into it, and see what grows. You give it a catalyst. Would the area develop anyway? Yeah, it probably would. But it would take a little longer."

The executive director of Orlando's CRA is Tom Kohler, who wears two hats as head of both the CRA and its sister agency, the Downtown Development Board. Kohler helps broker large development deals such as that for the $53 million Hughes Supply headquarters. His staff also puts together the city's 20-year vision plan, the road map for how downtown should evolve.

Kohler defends the city's apartment subsidies by pointing to the windfall taxpayers should expect from the $150 million development they sparked. By Kohler's estimation, the five luxury apartment buildings will return $1.8 million each year to the CRA, meaning that taxpayers will have a return on their $13 million investment in seven years. (This calculation does not take into account the interest taxpayers will pay on the $13 million loan.) After that, the rest should be "gravy money," Kohler says.

Plus, he says, those benefits will spill over into other tax-supported entities like the library and school district. And the new development fills in vacant land. The 2.6 acres at Echelon at Cheney Place sat fallow for 20 years, partly because of the stigma that it was polluted by toxic chemicals spreading underground and traced to the Orlando Sentinel's downtown plant.

What happens, though, if some of the development goes belly up? "Our feeling is that the people taking the higher risk are the developer, the mortgage builder and the people at Fannie Mae," Kohler says. "That's a pretty good risk on our side."


Still, there's a feeling that if downtown Orlando 20 years ago was "one big hole," as one resident described it, it's improved greatly since then. As almost every Orlando resident knows, Parramore is now the one unfillable hole.

Crime is rampant in the neighborhood. But that's only part of the problem. Parramore is a jigsaw puzzle of mixed zoning, with children living on the same streets that are home to recycling plants, auto repair shops, gasoline storage areas and refrigeration warehouses. A railroad line runs through the upper part of the neighborhood, servicing warehouses near Orange Blossom Trail. Underground storage tanks are buried helter skelter. Parramore is the embodiment of the real-estate adage that inconsistent zoning creates ghettos.

Who's problem is that? The CRA's.

Every 10 years the CRA creates a "vision plan" for downtown, providing project-specific goals the agency hopes to accomplish. The latest incarnation is called Downtown Outlook 2000, a 291-page document that is actually an update of the CRA's 1990 plan. Chapter 8 of that update lists a number of Parramore projects -- parks and property acquisition, for example -- but avoids the most contentious issue, rezoning, in all but a few instances.

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In one of those cases, the CRA wanted to "downzone" land on West Amelia Street that is home to warehouses and businesses. The agency planned to buy some of the property, tear down warehouses and begin building houses. Property owners vehemently opposed the idea and the CRA backed down. The agency instead is now spending $30,000 to study the area.

That confrontation shows how difficult the CRA's mission in Parramore is going to be. The neighborhood is largely associated with the African-American community, though only 4 percent of Orlando's black population lives here. That has led many people, including some of Parramore's white landowners, to conclude it's better to "upzone" property in the area from residential to more expensive commercial uses. Then families can sell their homes for more than their present value and move to a better neighborhood.

But many black families don't agree with that solution. "Because we are only 4 percent, we don't count?" asks Ann Brown, whose family has owned a house on Polk Street for more than 70 years. "We don't need to be overlooked. We need to take that 4 percent and turn it into 40 or 50." And rezoning Parramore doesn't address another key problem: Only 10 percent of Parramore residents own property. Renters would have to find another low-income area to move into -- not an easy chore in today's economy.

For nearly 20 years residents and property owners have argued about who lived in Parramore first. Residents say they had a friendly neighborhood until zoning laws changed in the 1950s. Property owners say the area has been industrial for more than 100 years, and then shanties and small apartment buildings sprang up. The city has sided with residents, arbitrarily adding the word "heritage" to Parramore's name to make it sound more neighborhood-friendly. "Although Parramore Heritage is diverse in its mixture of uses," a passage in the Downtown Outlook 2000 says, "it is first and foremost a residential community."

Not so, says Nancy Patterson, an Orange County Republican who has run in city and state elections and owns a warehouse in Parramore. "The truth is, this has always been an industrial and commercial area."

As the two sides continue their debate, Parramore's zoning remains a puzzle. And the neighborhood continues to miss opportunities the rest of the county enjoys. Parramore's property values for the last three years have stayed relatively flat while the county's have risen by $8 billion.

City leaders see the Hughes Supply and Church Street Square projects as tangible hopes in a string of broken promises. "The fog is lifting as far as what the possibilities are in that area," Kohler recently told the CRA advisory board.

But many Parramore stakeholders are skeptical. They aren't convinced the two developments, along with a new Florida A&M law school, will affect the neighborhood as much as city leaders believe. "[Students and faculty] are going to head east the minute they get out of school," says Hage, the Parramore accountant. "Not a damn one of them is going to head west."

The skepticism comes from knowing that not everything the CRA has touched on the west side of I-4 has worked. For example, with much fanfare, the agency spent $1.3 million in 1987 to redo sidewalks, put in streetlights and add parking on Parramore Avenue between Church and South streets. Then ... nothing. The CRA failed to maintain the area, the police failed to police it, and customers stayed away. Today the streetscaping is in place, but a row of businesses has closed and the stores remain vacant.

"It's been a big disappointment," says Linda Noe, whose (now deceased) grandmother owned a building on the west side of Parramore Avenue. "They painted a beautiful perception. But once it was in place, it dissolved. We had no support whatsoever."

City leaders say the project was too ambitious. "We were naive to think that if we built it, they will come," Kohler admits.

Additionally, the CRA spent $1.3 million to remodel and sell 23 houses on Arlington and Concord streets in north Parramore. The idea, hatched in the early 1990s, was to increase home ownership in the neighborhood. By the accounts of residents who bought into the plan, it's been a noble failure, though a failure nonetheless.

Residents report a number of problems: three crack houses in the neighborhood. Two shooting deaths within six months of each other. Prostitutes and drug dealers roaming after 10 p.m. Code violations against slumlords that go unchecked. Swarms of termites that have invaded some homes. Several houses have defects -- leaky roofs, sagging ceilings, rotting wood, peeling paint -- that residents say the CRA was supposed to take care of. "I didn't do my homework," says a homeowner who is considering selling his residence. "I didn't know what I was getting into."

Neighbors asked to have their street closed or made one way. But the city rejected the request, even though it closed seven streets on the north side of West Colonial Drive, some of them within eyesight of Arlington Street. Those streets, however, were in the more affluent neighborhood of College Park.

Says Kelly Powell, Arlington-Concord's former neighborhood association president: "It was a good plan, but the city didn't follow through with it. They put a bunch of people in here and didn't follow through."


The fact the CRA has had little success in Parramore fuels bizarre theories about why the neighborhood is the way it is.

Some believe, as Tom Hage does, that Orlando police are happy to concentrate crime in the area so it doesn't spread. "The city has to have criminal statistics to get money for the police department," Hage alleges. "They're happy to warehouse crime in one spot." (Orlando Police spokesman Sgt. Orlando Rolon says police fight crime equally in all parts of the city.)

That allegation is part of a larger perception that city leaders actually prefer the mixed zoning and high crime so that property in Parramore remains cheap.

The concept is nothing new. It even has a name: landbanking. Environmentalists, for example, will buy large amounts of property so that developers can't destroy it. Governments also will accumulate land for parks or other civic projects.

But the Orlando theory is slightly different. Some people are certain the city is maintaining a cache of cheap property in Parramore without paying for it by creating programs that they know (or should realize) will fail. Then, when the city needs property for civic projects, or when downtown needs to expand, city leaders can move quickly to grab it.

"When something comes up like an arena or a college like Florida A&M, then land isn't going to be expensive and the city can get grants to build stuff," says a longtime downtown real-estate broker. "If [city officials] allow me to develop my property, they may not be able to buy it from me [later]."

It would be easier to ignore such theories if some commissioners didn't concede, in a private moment, that it appears the city has "no intention of succeeding" in Parramore.

Is there any proof the city is purposely keeping the area impoverished and in disrepair? No, says Bruce Gordy, a former city commissioner who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last year. "Nobody would ever say that. But look at the history of Parramore. The only thing stopping Parramore from developing is the city."

That view isn't universal, however. Many people give the city, if not the CRA, credit for trying. The city has tried, for example, to bring a school to Parramore and promote black ownership of a grocery store in Washington Shores. But those efforts backfired in lawsuits, bad press and abrupt changes of plans.

"I think the city's motives are pure," says one downtown professional. "I think there are some problems not solved no matter how much money you throw at it."


That doesn't mean the CRA has abandoned the neighborhood. The agency is getting back into the development business, having bought property on three streets near the T.D. Waterhouse with hopes of creating a middle-class housing development called Pepper Hill. To achieve that goal, the CRA displaced a number of low-income families, first buying and then bulldozing their homes. The agency is waiting for a developer to complete the deal.

That decision wasn't without controversy. Critics wonder who will buy the homes, located several blocks from run-down shotgun shacks, and whether city leaders might have had other, better options. "We've tried for 20 years to force the desires and wishes of the city on Parramore," says Gordy. "We've never taken the input of the neighborhood. It's always been what the city wants to do. When it comes to building a Hughes Supply or an arena, we've just done it."

Ernest Page was a member of the City Council when the CRA was in its infancy in 1982. He left the council a year later, returning in 1996. Thus, he has not only the perspective of longevity but also is African American, and speaks with confidence on issues affecting the black community. Yet he, more than any other commissioner, has grown weary of the CRA and the city's vision for the west side.

"I don't think it has input from the best and brightest minds in the city, which would include some elected officials," he says of the Downtown Outlook 2000 plan. "It doesn't have sufficient input and it doesn't attack core problems of the area."

Page also takes exception to the large number of nonprofit organizations, some spawned by the city itself, that claim to be revitalizing Parramore. These agencies are part of a small cottage industry, each coming to City Hall with their hand out but with no master plan. They include the Parramore Heritage Renovation Foundation, Orlando Neighborhoods Improvement Corporation, the Enterprise Foundation and Greater Orlando Neighborhoods, Inc. The problem is that city employees, including Kohler himself, often serve on these nonprofit boards, blurring the line on accountability and raising questions about conflict of interest. Some of these nonprofits have even incorporated other nonprofits or called themselves different names, creating an air of confusion.

"What's the plan?" asks Page, who runs his own nonprofit, Southwest United Communities Inc. "What are you doing?"

He continues, "There has not been an aggressive policy to challenge our thinking. It takes courage to make a decision to deal with zoning problems. We can propose rezoning. We can propose upgrading. Or downgrading. We can come up with new zoning. Until you do that, how can you give anyone direction?"

But Commissioner Daisy Lynum, whose district includes Parramore and who also is African American, disagrees. She says neighbors in Parramore can live next to commercial or industrial buildings if the city ensures that buffers are built -- parks or "mixed use" buildings (office and residential) -- between the two. "Mixed use was all I knew as a child," says Lynum, who grew up in Leesburg.

However Parramore develops, city commissioners are now saying it's time to break the stranglehold that the Hood administration has had on CRA dollars. (Kohler now also recognizes it's time to give the county more say in how the tax dollars are spent downtown.) They say they don't understand why the county wasn't brought in earlier.

Other cities don't seem to have a definite answer for cleaning up areas where poverty and crime are concentrated. Maybe it's asking too much of Orlando leaders to figure out how to do it. Especially when the city was surrounded by farmland less than 40 years ago.

"Orlando, believe it or not, is not too far out of the orange groves," Page says.


More by William Dean Hinton


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