After months of neighborhood outcry, contentious hearings and citizen petitions, on Monday, Nov. 3, the Orlando City Council approved an Atlanta development company’s plans to build a high-density, multi-story apartment complex on a little island of land that sits in between Princeton and Smith streets in College Park. At the meeting, only one commissioner, Patty Sheehan, spoke openly against the project.
The Princeton at College Park, as the apartment complex is being called, has been controversial since it was first unveiled by Pollack Shores Real Estate in May. It would squeeze 206 apartments (down from an originally proposed 226), a parking garage and a parking lot onto the 3.43-acre wedge of land, which sits at the busiest intersection in the neighborhood. To get approval, the developer applied for entitlements from the city – the property was originally zoned low-density residential, so density bonuses and amendments to make a multi-story, high-density complex possible needed to be approved. In exchange, Pollack Shores agreed to reduce the number of units in the complex by 20, reduce the height of some of the buildings to adhere to guidelines developed for the neighborhood in 2009, and include “optional” items, such as streetscaping, underground utilities, increased stormwater capacity and other improvements that technically should be part of a modern, high-end development anyway.
And there lies the rub: When the proposal went before the City Council for consideration on Nov. 3, Orlando’s legal team told the commissioners that since the developer agreed to such niceties, they had no choice but to greenlight the project.
Before any of the public comment had even begun (and it should be noted that a community opposition group called Rethink the Princeton was at the meeting with an attorney, waiting to address the commissioners), assistant city attorney Kyle Shephard got up and warned the dais that the city’s legal department didn’t see any way the City Council could not approve the plan – at the city’s request, the developer modified his original proposal, and now, Shephard said, the city was obligated to approve the project. If it failed to do so, he said, it could be sued.
“So, Kyle, basically what you’re saying is that this council has no power,” City Commissioner Patty Sheehan said in response. “I find that ridiculous.”
A group of residents and stakeholders from College Park who’ve banded together under the name Rethink the Princeton pointed out the flaws in the project – it’s bound to snarl traffic, but there are no accommodations included to improve pedestrian friendliness, such as wider sidewalks or incorporation of bike lanes; to obtain some of the entitlements the developer received from the city, the building is supposed to be mixed-use, but rather than incorporate any new retail space into the buildings, the developer has tacked on existing retail space that will be connected by a parking lot (the buildings that currently house a CVS and a Tijuana Flats on Edgewater Drive) to fulfill that obligation.
Opponents of the project, including longtime College Park resident Mary Travis, who has been a vocal member of the Rethink the Princeton movement, insisted that they were not anti-development (nor, they said, were they anti-renter or NIMBYs, which is how they’ve been characterized by some proponents of the project). They say they’re opposed to this development on this particular parcel of property at the size and scope that has been proposed – they want, they say, community-friendly projects.
In the end, though, it was fear of retribution that led to the final decision. “I don’t get the luxury to vote on this project based on whether I like it or not,” Commissioner Robert Stuart, who represents College Park, said in defending his decision to vote in favor of the project. “The property owner also has a right.”
Despite Sheehan’s observation that the project was being pushed through and the testimony of unhappy residents and Karen Consalo, an attorney for Rethink the Princeton, the City Council voted 4-1 to approve the project. (Sheehan’s was the only opposing vote.) Days after the vote, Sheehan was still fuming – as much about how the process went down as about the project itself. She says that she thinks the city’s legal department was out of line in telling the commissioners that they basically had no say in whether to approve the Princeton at College Park. “I could not believe what an egregious overstep that was,” she says. “This is not the way a city should be run.” From her perspective, she says, it looked as if the legal department was trying to ram the project through at the expense of what’s best for the community.
“That was a mess,” she says on the Friday after the vote. “I’ve been on council for 13 years, and I’ve never seen such overreach by the legal department.”
And although Shephard expressed concern to the council that the city could open itself up to lawsuits if it didn’t approve the project, there are some rumblings of legal action because it did – not from the developer, but from the community. A call to Rethink the Princeton’s lawyer to confirm whether the organization was planning to file suit to block the project resulted in no comment. But a Facebook message to the Rethink the Princeton group indicated that, despite the City Council’s vote, the community is not done fighting yet.
“We are working on our next steps now,” the group responded. “I will get back to you with more contact information. I will say that community’s resistance is not over. This island piece of property is very important to us.”