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

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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.

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