“We have enough buildings in this area! We don’t want any more, especially a 20-story monster tower right across from a playground with a dead-end road! Surely you can build your tower on Orange Avenue where it belongs! Go away!”
Those strong words, anonymously written on a comment sheet, reflected the sentiment of many Lake Eola-area residents who gathered in the Howard Middle School gymnasium March 27. At that meeting, developer Eola Capital introduced plans to erect a 200-foot-tall office complex at the end of Washington Street, right off Lake Eola. Residents said the project seemed to come out of nowhere – and it went over like a lead balloon.
Since then, Eola Capital has withdrawn its development action, though it promises to revisit the project later this year. But Sue MacNamara – an outspoken gadfly who ran unsuccessfully against Patty Sheehan for her city commission seat in 2004 – isn’t taking any chances. In early May, she filed applications with the Historic Preservation Board asking that all five of the structures Eola Capital would demolish for its project be designated historic landmarks, and thus preserved. (City rules let her make such an application even though she doesn’t own any of the buildings.)
The city’s Historic Preservation Board is scheduled to consider her applications July 2. MacNamara believes a conspiracy is afoot.
“Something’s going on up there,” she says. “And I’m not sure it passes the smell test.”
According to the city, Eola Capital focused seriously on the project at the beginning of the year. City staffers reviewed the company’s proposed development and recommended that the Municipal Planning Board approve it. The process itself doesn’t require that the city notify the public, but the fact that residents found out about it just two weeks before the project was slated to go before the city’s planning board left many neighbors, MacNamara included, suspicious.
“The staff report was so biased toward the developer,” MacNamara insists. She accuses city staffers of fudging zoning rules to allow a high-rise development where none should be permitted. “There were a lot of other things in there that were just plain made up. If that high-rise can go up there, then we can kiss our historic districts goodbye.”
At the March 27 meeting, Eola Capital presented few specifics – the project was, after all, still in a preliminary stage. Still, there was enough there to put the company’s representatives on the defensive. What about the newly refurbished playground that the high-rise would permanently shadow? What about the already harrowing traffic problems cluttering the cobblestones of Eola Drive? And what about the old houses (most of which are now offices) and their historical significance to Orlando?
At that April 15 Municipal Planning Board meeting, Eola Capital withdrew its application – but oddly, only after the company made a lengthy presentation for its project. Residents who had taken off time from work to be there were surprised and demanded that they be heard anyway. They were. But Eola Capital promised to “take a deep breath” and come back in six months’ time, adding that no matter what, they would be building something on the five lots in question, historical houses be damned. That didn’t sit well with MacNamara.
So she pored through many documents at the Orange County Regional History Center and the public library to come up with historical facts about the five structures that would make them architecturally significant.
The house at 538 E. Washington St. once belonged to College Park developer John McCullough; 522 E. Washington St. was used as offices for the French consulate; 512 E. Washington St. dates back to citrus pioneer George S. Marsh; 20 N. Eola Drive belonged to noted chemist Lee Marble.
Perhaps most important, though, 528 E. Washington St., built in 1923, belonged to John R. Mott, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946 for his work with student organizations striving for peace.
Back in 1994, all of these properties were considered for inclusion in the Lake Lawsona Historic District, a designation that protects historical structures. But after some area business owners objected, the city council rejected that idea and decided not to include these five houses in that district.
“Actually, when this came to my attention, the historic landmark designation wasn’t really part of the equation,” says Frank Billingsley, the city’s director of economic development. “They weren’t designated historic. The community had gone through the debate and discussion and deliberation and the decision as to whether they were historic over 10 years ago.”
MacNamara says that Billingsley and city commissioner Patty Sheehan, who represents the area in question, have unfairly pushed the development. Billingsley denies that.
He does say, however, that MacNamara’s landmark application is unprecedented. “I didn’t know that that process was something that we actually had in place, that somebody could apply for landmark designation on property that they don’t own,” he says. “As long as I’ve been here, I don’t remember that ever happening before.”
Sheehan says that her support for the developers only covers the zoning that their proposed development already has. “I do agree with keeping the developers to what they can build by right,” she writes in an e-mail. “But if they come in with a proposal that can save the buildings, I want to be open to that as well. This all has to be done through the public process, of course.”
By law, Eola Capital could go ahead with demolition of the three structures it owns – two are still in negotiation – even with the pending applications for July. That’s a concern that MacNamara knows all too well. She tried to get the landmark applications approved for the June meeting, but the required research was incomplete at the time.
“I’m just afraid that this delay is going to allow the developer to go in there with a bulldozer at midnight and tear some of those houses down,” she says.
But if the structures manage to remain until the July 2 meeting, MacNamara plans to come prepared to argue. “When I get up there, I’m going to do a bang-up job on it,” she says.
(Eola Capital did not respond to Orlando Weekly’s requests for comments.)
Even if MacNamara wins with the Historic Preservation Board, the battle isn’t over. The historic board’s recommendations go to the Municipal Planning Board and from there to the city council, which makes the final decision.
So, if MacNamara’s conspiratorial instincts are correct, and the city has already sided with Eola Capital, the fix may already be in.[email protected]