Theater seen

Indeed, walking to work may be the dream of residents who are expected to fill the apartments, condos and penthouses sprouting in the city center, part of a downtown building boom the likes of which Orlando hasn't seen since the 1980s.

Who moves in will help define what downtown becomes. But it's certainly going to be more costly. Tenants who already paid premium prices were pushed out by still-higher rents when a new owner began to remake the venerable Plaza Apartments in Lake Eola Park. Construction is adding 244 units to the complex -- since renamed Parkside by Post -- even as a 22-story, 230-unit luxury apartment tower rises across the street.

City officials hope those and similar arrivals (along with new office buildings and new and renovated hotels) create a demand that will lure retail back downtown. Boom times aside, the number of empty storefronts is rising, and the city is no fan of the youth culture that filled in the gaps during the 1990s with a vibrant coffeehouse, club and dance scene that has withered under the city's thumb. Hood seems intent on creating a destination as sanitized as the theme parks, and the opening this year of the latest downtown-lite development outside the district -- Universal's CityWalk -- made the challenge even more immediate.

The solution: Dub downtown an arts mecca. With little more than a wave of her hand, Glenda the Good christened a cultural corridor that snakes from the steps of City Hall to the museums and theaters of Loch Haven Park three miles to the north. Situated along the path are the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts, the North Orange Avenue antiques district and the resident Theatre Downtown. But that's not a lot for all that territory -- which, after all, is really designed to complement Hood's persistent (and so far unfunded) plan to build a performing-arts complex.

But credit is due to the city's recognition of grass-roots momentum in the theater community. When the city finally put some money behind the memos, it was to pledge $200,000 toward the Central Florida Theatre Alliance, which shares with Hood a vision for a downtown theater district. Together with another $200,000 raised by the two-year-old theater group, the money is meant to pay rent and overhead for a year on perhaps four theaters and three galleries. The search for affordable space, however, keeps hitting barriers. And with private money being dangled with strings attached, debate about how and where to put down roots has begun to repeat itself, with no final decision looming.

Foundation money that could have made a difference instead went to bail out the Orlando Science Center. With dull exhibits that discouraged repeat visits, the two-year-old, $49 million center's attendance dropped, its budget projections didn't work and, with the resignation of its director, the place revealed a $1.6 million debt. But at least there was success in its wake: The Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival, operating out of the science center's former digs, now plans a 350-seat, Elizabethan-inspired thrust stage in the complex, and has launched the fund drive to build it.

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