Problems in Pepperhill Park

If you need an example of how screwy the city's ongoing efforts to revitalize Parramore are, look no further than its negotiations with Urban Renaissance Development, LLC, to redevelop Pepperhill Park.

Pepperhill Park, aka Federal-Livingston-Otey Place, is a 3.5-acre site located just west of TD Waterhouse Centre and south of Amelia Street. It borders a run-down residential area on one side and an industrial-zoned rehearsal studio owned by gadfly David van Gelder on the other. Orlando, through its Community Redevelopment Agency, assembled the property throughout the 1990s. For nearly a decade, the city has sought to turn Pepperhill Park into a housing development, despite objections from van Gelder and a handful of other Parramore residents who would rather see the land turned into a park with a retention pond. To do otherwise, van Gelder says, would only perpetuate Parramore's long-standing problem of mixed zonings.

In October, the city's purchasing department advertised an RFP -- request for proposals -- to redevelop Pepperhill Park. Judging by attendance at a November meeting, developers were interested. More than two dozen of them crammed a City Hall conference room and convinced the city to move the deadline back a month, from Nov. 26 to Dec. 30, to allow them more time to put bids together.

But by the time the second deadline came, only Urban Renaissance Development was interested enough to make a bid.

"I would say as a group, we were clearly disappointed by the number of respondents," says Bob McClelland, the vice chair of the Downtown Development Board and a member of the committee evaluating Pepperhill Park proposals. "I don't know if any of us knows why."

It's too bad they didn't get more bids, because URD's bid was nothing short of ridiculous. "It borders on criminal, it's so pathetic," says Bill Segal, a member of the Mayor's Parramore Task Force.

But, to paraphrase the old saying, that's business in Parramore.

URD, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Black Business Capital Finance Corporation (BBCFC), proposed that the city's Community Redevelopment Agency give them the land -- which the CRA paid $1.1 million for in the 1990s -- for $1, and then give them another $2.5 million to build 36 townhomes (nine of which would be earmarked for affordable housing). The townhomes would be priced at $120,000. City tax dollars would pay for the land and construction, and URD would bank the profit. Such a deal.

What's interesting is who is behind it. Follow the trail long enough and it leads, as things in Parramore often do, to city commissioner Daisy Lynum.

Lynum is on the board of directors of the Black Business Investment Fund of Central Florida, Inc. (BBIF), a nonprofit that, according to Mayor Buddy Dyer's State of the City address, will receive $150,000 from the city this year to help spur minority-owned business. The BBIF is headed by Inez Long, who is also president of the BBCFC, the parent corporation of Urban Renaissance Development.

The BBIF is also tied into the bid package, as it has committed a $200,000 equity investment to the BBCFC to help finance the bid, according to city records. It also guaranteed a $300,000 line of credit to R.L. Burns, a general contractor who is part of the bid team.

Another of BBIF's directors, Veronica Anderson, is URD's legal advisor on the bid, and has also been appointed in recent years to Lynum-centric boards such as the Nap Ford Community School board of trustees and the Mayor's Parramore Task Force.

Lynum, along with the rest of the city council, picked the committee handling the Pepperhill Park bids in March 2003.

Does Lynum's involvement on both ends of the deal -- voting to appoint the selection committee, and as a director of a group bankrolling the bidder -- raise questions of impropriety?

"Fundamentally, I don't have a problem with [BBIF's involvement]," says McClelland, noting that BBIF's mission is to help minority-owned business, so its involvement here isn't unusual. "I sense some of what you're talking about," he adds.

Lynum did not return calls for this story.

The city selection committee, led by McClelland, balked at URD's stipulations at a meeting Jan. 14. For one thing, the CRA doesn't have $2.5 million to give. And it's doubtful that the mayor would go along, even if the selection committee approved the bid. Dyer took considerable flak for the city's agreement to provide developer Cameron Kuhn with $3.5 million up front for a $140 million condo-retail complex.

Not to mention that the URD's numbers seem to change from page to page. At the Jan. 14 meeting, selection committee members said the details simply didn't make sense.

Still, the selection committee decided against trashing the bid altogether, instead voting to put together a list of questions and demands as a bargaining tool. Then nothing happened for two months.

Meanwhile, two subcommittees of Dyer's Parramore task force took dramatically different views of Pepperhill Park's future. The master planning/zoning subcommittee recommended the city look into making it a park. The housing subcommittee thought the land would be better used as housing.

On March 17, the same day the Parramore task force subcommittees announced their recommendations, the city finally sent URD a two-page letter with 13 requests for additional information, a move it said it would make back in January.

Much of the letter focused on clearing up the bid's inconsistencies, but the main issue involved URD coming up with a plan to develop Pepperhill without CRA money. It's unclear if URD is interested in that or not. Reached by phone, Inez Long said she was in a meeting and promised to call back. She never did.

The selection committee has three options: accept URD's bid, continue to negotiate or turn them down. CRA/DDB director Frank Billingsley will wait to see what direction the Parramore task force ultimately takes: "We haven't had any discussions on the CRA level [about making the property a park]. It hasn't come out of the task force. We have to look at the recommendations."