Milk District residents worry about new development, but big changes may be inevitable 

Off Bumby Avenue, Leah Fairchild and Matt Uva have created an oasis.

Minutes away from the high-rise condos and lively bars of downtown Orlando, the couple live in a quaint 1930s bungalow surrounded by a small forest of their own in the Milk District neighborhood. Inside the home Fairchild has rented since 2011, she writes and concocts different scent combinations for the candles she makes in a workspace near her screened porch.

Near the side of the bungalow, there's a butterfly and vegetable garden. In the dirt, the couple planted milkweed for the monarchs; lettuce, red tomatoes and radishes for themselves. Toward the left fence on the property, there is a row of Surinam cherry trees. They ripen into red bell-like fruits that Fairchild picks and stuffs in her apron pockets.

The towering trees in their backyard provide shade from the sweltering Florida sun and a home for pileated woodpeckers, squirrels, possums and raccoons. During Thanksgiving, the couple says they turn on the lights strung between the trees, set up a long table and invite about 20 of their friends to a holiday feast.

During a September visit, late-afternoon sunlight filters in through the trees, and for a moment, it's easy to forget the ants biting your ankles and bask in the glow. This bungalow, like many of the homes in the shadow of the T.G. Lee Dairy plant, is affordable for Fairchild and Uva, who work in creative fields and the service industry.

"It's not just a house," Fairchild says. "It's our home. It's a refuge for plants, trees and the local neighborhood critters. It's our little paradise."

click to enlarge CHRIS TOBAR RODRIGUEZ
  • Chris Tobar Rodriguez

But for the past two years, Fairchild and Uva have watched their neighborhood and quietly worried that the sanctuary they've created will slip away. Two bungalows that used to be next to their home were razed and replaced with shiny yellow two-story duplexes with bright-green lawns. Additional cars on the street sometimes block their mailbox. At an average rent of about $2,100 a month for a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom unit, the duplexes are inaccessible to the couple, who fear they and other renters who live in the Milk District because it's affordable will be pushed out in the next cycle of gentrification.

"Matt is a mover and shaker, and I've had my hands in community," she says. "We would be gone. Not to say we're a huge asset, but we're involved in this community, and I think that matters."

Their fears were amplified after online outrage over reports in the media about the developer who owns the duplex near their house and other land in the neighborhood. Adam Wonus owns 25 properties; most of them have already been developed into duplexes and have tenants. By the end of this year, Wonus says his plans for 50 to 60 units on his properties should be complete. The outrage comes at a critical moment for the players in this emerging part of Orlando. The majority of those new units are finished, and neighborhood business owners are close to instituting a Main Street program in the Milk District, like the ones in Mills 50 and Thornton Park.

Beneath the debates over gentrification, growth and displacement, there's an underlying question that has yet to be answered: What can a neighborhood that's inevitably flourishing do to preserve the scrappy spirit that made it special in the first place?

So what exactly gives the Milk District its eclectic character?

Lee Wortman of Sportstown Billiards on Robinson Street has some idea. Wortman and his wife have owned this popular hangout since the 1980s, though it was first established in 1958, several years before Beefy King and the Plaza Live theater, two of the oldest businesses in the Milk District. With its extensive craft beer selection and broad range of games like pool, Ping-Pong, shuffleboard, cornhole and Skee-ball, Sportstown Billiards is not only a business in the Milk District – it's a third place, a public space besides home and work where locals gather, interact and create a community.

In the past decades, Wortman says he's seen businesses open and close in the neighborhood, starting with the English pub Bull & Bush in 1987 and continuing through trendy spots like Etoile Boutique, Drunken Monkey Coffee Bar, Pom Pom's Teahouse and Sandwicheria, the Milk Bar, Spacebar, Gringos Locos, Se7en Bites and the Market on South. He's watched Tasty Tuesdays become the most popular gathering of food trucks in Orlando and bring extra business to his own establishment. And he's also observed how his clients have changed since he first bought Sportstown Billiards.

The workers from the T.G. Lee Dairy plant and officers from the now-closed Orlando Naval Training Center who sought affordable housing have been replaced by young people in the service industry and creative fields, along with retired older folks on fixed incomes seeking low rents.

Renters living paycheck to paycheck aren't unique to the Milk District. A study released in 2015 year by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies shows renters in the metro Orlando area have a median household income of $35,190, but midpoint rent costs are $1,030. The majority of area renters are considered "rent burdened" because they spend more than 30 percent of their income on household costs. About a third of renters in Metro Orlando are considered "severely rent burdened," which means they spend more than half of what they make on household costs.

Wortman says his customers' main concern with the new duplexes in the neighborhood is a rent hike.

"I'm all out for sprucing up the neighborhood, and some of those places need to be torn down," he says. "But if my customers are concerned, sooner or later, I will be concerned because if they can't pay rent, they can't come to Sportstown to play pool. People who live there won't be able to afford to leave their houses, and it becomes a trickle-down effect."

Places like Sportstown Billiards created the character of the Milk District that attracted Adam Wonus.

After moving to Orlando from Ohio in 2005, Wonus says he lived in the Milk District for about three years and fell in love with the charming neighborhood. While he lived there, he says he noticed empty and dilapidated homes that couldn't find buyers and stayed in a perpetual state of disrepair.

click to enlarge CHRIS TOBAR RODRIGUEZ
  • Chris Tobar Rodriguez

In 2012, he says he started buying up empty lots, houses that were on the market for a long time and homes the city had liens against. Wonus, who has a financial background and owns Atrium Management Company, began constructing duplexes with units roughly consisting of 1,740 square feet. Out of the 25 properties he owns, Wonus has already developed pretty much all of them, and by the end of the year, he will be putting several units on the final three properties.

At an average rent of $2,100, Wonus says he sought to make beautiful homes that are affordable for college students and young professionals who don't make enough money to live in a condo in downtown Orlando or a vintage bungalow in Thornton Park. If two people live in one of his units, they would each have to pay about $1,050 a month for rent, which Wonus says is affordable for people making roughly $37,000 a year or more. (Note: According to the metrics mentioned above, this fictional renter would fall squarely into the "rent burdened" category.) If three people divide the rent, each renter would have to earn roughly $24,000 a year.

The sudden interest in his project surprised Wonus, who's been developing the properties for about four years now and currently has 100 percent capacity in all his units. After several media reports, including one from Orlando Weekly, the cries of gentrification and backlash from locals were swift. Wonus has been subject to a wide variety of critiques, ranging from the fair ones about the design chosen for the duplexes and the number of trees cut down to make way for those units, to some cheap shots about his age (he's 33).

During a meeting at Dexter's of Thornton Park, Wonus' excitement for the Milk District is palpable. People might not agree with everything he says or his design choices, but there's no question that he's open to talking with anyone about how to improve his projects.

But he does want to clear the air, and he starts by defending himself on the claim that he tore down historic homes and pushed out residents. Wonus says the homes that were razed were dilapidated or unwanted by other buyers. Wonus says when he told WMFE 90.7 that he wanted the Milk District to become the next Thornton Park, he didn't mean he wanted the same character for the neighborhood. He says he wants the same type of revitalization for the Milk District's hodgepodge group of homes from different eras, some of which aren't in good shape.

Wonus says he tried to unsuccessfully revamp an older home on Jefferson Street to live there with his family.

"I tried to save one of the houses on Jefferson Street, and I almost moved there," he says. "Because I want to be there. But I couldn't save the house. I wasted $10,000 trying to save this old home that was infested with termites. Ripping and gutting it out from a financial standpoint doesn't make sense."

He pauses for a moment and wistfully adds, "It stared at the milk stacks. To me, there's nothing more cool."

Online, people have accused Wonus of being controlling because he said during the interview on WMFE's "Intersection" news program that one reason he likes to keep his duplexes as rentals is to help maintain the properties' green lawns. Wonus says the appearance of his yards is important to him and to the aesthetic of the neighborhood, but he's willing to work with others in the community on different ways to clean up the neighborhood curbs and medians.

"I want to do good," he says. "I want this city to be a better place because I was here. ... I don't like when people say 'Adam wants to come in and do this or do that.' It's never about one person. I know a lot of the criticism has zero to do with me because they don't know me."

Ultimately, Wonus says he doesn't think the differences in rent between his units and other neighborhoods could have an impact on the district's rental market.

"The 25 properties I own only make up about 3 percent of all the properties in the Milk District," he says. "To think that I'm going to affect how that community really ends up evolving is very naive."

The controversy over Wonus' projects is one of the first things the unborn Milk District Main Street program has had to deal with. Business owners in the community want to join nine other Orlando communities who've organized Main Street programs to receive annual financial support, technical assistance and intensive training from the city to strengthen commercial districts.

Shaun Noonan, chef at the Southern vegan restaurant Dixie Dharma inside Market on South, volunteers with the Milk District Main Street program. Noonan says there's a variety of opinions about further development in the community, such as people who are adamantly against further growth and others who love the duplexes and think they will bring more customers to local businesses. The fledging program was meeting in September to share their concerns with each other and work on a united response to the developer and city officials.

Noonan says he's spoken with Wonus, who told him he has received death threats from callers. OW asked Wonus about these calls, but he did not want to speak further about them, saying they did not represent the majority of the people in the Milk District.

"I don't want [Wonus] to shut down entirely," Noonan says. "We want to be smarter than that. We want to work together with whatever developer comes along. We want to set a precedent that the Milk District has personality that we'd like to maintain with development."

But like a small pebble thrown into a lake, Wonus' small projects might make waves large enough to attract other developers to the Milk District.

And there's little to stop this kind of gentrification, says Susan Greenbaum, an anthropology professor at the University of South Florida. Gentrification has become a pretty loaded term, but a general definition of the phenomena is that wealthier people come into an urban neighborhood, bringing with them changes in rent, property values and the district's character. Whether this is positive or negative is a subject of perpetual debate among academics and urban planners.

"It's not surprising that places like the Milk District are being gobbled up by urban expansion," Greenbaum says. "In the wake of the foreclosure crisis, the whole cost of housing went up, and people who lost their housing had to rent, which pushed the cost of renting up in places like Orlando and Tampa, which still have a lot of low-wage workers. It really does lend itself to endless sprawl."

click to enlarge CHRIS TOBAR RODRIGUEZ
  • Chris Tobar Rodriguez

Influencers who made the local area interesting are pushed out in the gentrification process as more and more development eliminates low-cost housing, which Greenbaum says is a "brutal process."

"There's a strong ethos of private property in Florida and the feeling that people should be able to sell land and do with it what you want," she says. "But people who live in a place should have some say. The city of Orlando probably needs to be more deliberate in knowing how much low-cost housing they need and how to get it."

Eliza Harris Juliano, an urban planner at Orlando's Canin Associates, says she moderated a forum on the Milk District's expansion for the group "Rethinking the City." Harris Juliano says in the discussions she's seen in person and online, people have talked about gentrification without thinking seriously of what it means.

"There's a difference between gentrification in Hannibal Square in Winter Park and Parramore and the Milk District," she says. "In the Milk District, we're not talking about multi-generational families being pushed out. We're talking about people who went looking for affordable housing and it's not affordable anymore. These racial and cultural issues are less of an issue in the Milk District."

While Parramore and Hannibal Square are historically black neighborhoods, the Milk District, according to 2010 U.S. Census data, is majority white with some Latinos.

Harris Juliano says affordability is a citywide concern that one builder is not going to solve. But she did discuss with Wonus changes he could make to the duplexes, such as increasing the number of trees, making the garages side-loaded rather than front-loaded and having a design that encourages residents to walk places instead of driving. A pedestrian community would increase the need for public transportation and reduce the need for cars, she says.

"I think what's happening here is a gradual change, rather than a dramatic one," she says. "Gentrification in some cases is very negative, while in other places it's part of revitalization."

And it shouldn't surprise anyone that it's happening, says Julian Chambliss, a history professor at Rollins College. Small developers like Wonus can be the results of broader change and structural forces that have already worked their magic. Cities like Orlando encourage growth and are predicated on development.

"There's no mechanism in the American urban experience for retrenchment," he says. "When I came here in 2003, there was a huge push from the city to get people to live in downtown Orlando. People want to live downtown in Lake Eola or Thornton Park, but it's too expensive, and a block over in the Milk District, it's affordable. It's easy to want to blame this Adam guy, but he's just a sign of the process."

Chambliss says dialogues between businesses, residents and developers can happen, but entering these kinds of dialogues is difficult for the least powerful people in the equation. Aside from the renters, stopping higher rents doesn't benefit anyone: the city, developers or local businesses. To have a successful conversation, you need a developer whose goal isn't only to make a quick buck, but Chambliss reminds us that there's no magic bullet.

Back at Fairchild and Uva's bungalow near Bumby Avenue, the couple say if they're priced out of their rental, they would leave Florida for another state. The whole reason they live in Orlando is because of its arts scene.

"This is our home," Fairchild says. "We care so much about this place. There's a difference between living in a space and caring about a space. Gentrification takes away the culture. It takes away the art. It takes away the things that people who moved there may seek."

But both agree they want a meaningful conversation about the community and an appreciation for the homes already there. It's nighttime now at their house and the crickets make it hard to hear conversation. From the darkness, a small trill comes out near the sunflowers.

"It looks like an Eastern screech owl," Uva says after a quick inspection.

"I've never heard that back here," Fairchild says. She laughs slightly. "It's like he wants to add his two cents and say, 'This is my home, too.'"

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