Down(town) and out

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Lagging behind in the boom that has construction cranes once again dotting the skyline, the Parramore neighborhood remains downtown Orlando's Achilles heel. The celebration that greeted the opening this week of three new homes there underscores the ongoing anxiety about how to include the low-income area in the renaissance without running off its residents.

That focus, however, assumes downtown's middle-income residents are perfectly able to fend for themselves. But frankly, they're starting to get a little worried.

Case in point: The Plaza apartments.

Cradled by Lake Eola Park, whose fountain dominates the postcard view from the windows of Lee's Lakeside restaurant on the building's first floor, the Plaza's nine floors hold 121 apartments with monthly rents that start between $550 and $600. But with its recent sale, The Plaza is at the vanguard of the current rush to build more than 1,000 new housing units in five major downtown projects. Its 1950s-era tower soon will undergo a top-to-bottom renovation; Post Properties of Atlanta also plans a parking garage plus 123 new units that will fill a four-story addition and another four-story building across the street.

Already a new name has been unveiled: Parkside by Post. And although many residents are in the dark, new rents also have been fixed. According to Anthony Everett, vice president of Post apartment development, rents for existing units will start at $750 for a small one-bedroom and climb to $3,000 for the penthouse. Those whose cheaper rents now include water, sewer, heating, air conditioning and a cable-TV subsidy will be made to shoulder those costs on their own. (Post Properties received a $3 million city subsidy to build downtown, perhaps helping to keep those rates for now from climbing higher.)

Those increases are pushing several tenants toward the door.

"I really have been waiting to see downtown housing take off, because more people are working downtown," says Amy Perkins, a two-year Plaza resident who could walk to work at the Orlando Public Library. "It seems such a viable area to live and work and socialize in. But everything I see going in is luxury and muscling out people like me who make a middle income."

Perkins pays $585 for a studio apartment. She doesn't know how much the rent will go up, but she's not waiting to find out; next month she'll start splitting expenses with a friend and rent a whole house in Colonialtown. "I just can't imagine paying more for the box I live in right now," she says. "Not that I don't love living here. I really had no intention of leaving before this."

Another resident, who asked that her name not be used, previously owned a two-story home with pool and Jacuzzi in the Wekiva area. She gave up her $800 mortgage and moved to the Plaza last March, where she pays $715 for a one-bedroom unit. The house, she says, "got to be too much for me. It seemed like I was just working and working to pay for the home. That was why I sold it."

She has two jobs and walks to work. "I really want to stay in the downtown area, but I don't want to pay for a one-bedroom what I would be paying for a mortgage," she says. "It seems like my rent's going up to more than what my mortgage was. And I just find that hard to understand, especially when salary scales aren't going up."

Jim Dolan has no salary. His fourth-floor Plaza apartment has magnificent sunset views, "but I'm retired and living on a fixed income, and so my staying and living here is dependent on how much they're going to raise the rent." Like others, the 73-year-old former business law instructor at Valencia Community College fears the worst; he can weather a $100 jump in his $725 rent, he says, but much more would be hard to handle.

"We're working with residents on an individual basis, but once a unit is renovated a rate increase will occur," says Everett. "We certainly would like to keep them as residents. We're trying to make this transition as painless as possible."

He adds: "We've had lots who want to stay."

Further rattling residents are the requirements of the renovation: Those who decide to stay must pack up and move within the building while their current apartments are redone, only to pay more upon their return, with utility cost increases that remain unknown. But it'll still be cheaper than moving to the newly built apartments when those buildings go up; those rents will start at $775.

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