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More than 7,000 UCF students will descend on downtown Orlando in a month. Are we ready? 

Ready or not

This isn't a new park, or a bike trail, or the grand opening of a shopping center. This is a 15-acre college campus, upon which some 7,700 students will descend in almost exactly one month. Classes start Aug. 26 at the new UCF-Valencia downtown campus.

Ready or not, the students, faculty and staff are coming.

And at the moment, says Thomas Chatmon, executive director of the city of Orlando's Downtown Development Board, the to-do list is more like a "scroll."

That includes putting the final touches on the essentials, like infrastructure, parking and transportation, and public safety.

From the infrastructure standpoint, officials are working to make sure students can actually enter the building. The campus is still under construction, UCF officials say.

In an interview July 17, Chatmon said only one place in downtown Orlando's Creative Village – the 68-acre live-work-learn space that will house the new campus – has a certificate of occupancy. The certificate means all the boxes are checked and it's open to the public. At press time – Monday, July 22 – the only place on campus that has one is Amelia Court, a 256-unit apartment complex that aims to serve tenants with a range of incomes. (It opened July 12.)

"The rest of them are still scurrying to reach that, and they have to pass these inspections to insure that they're safe. There's a lot of pressure to that," Chatmon says. "Again, 39 days from now everybody comes, and if you don't have your certificate of occupancy, you can't let them in. It's illegal."

click to enlarge The Dr. Phillips Commons at the new UCF-Valencia downtown campus as it appeared on July 21, a month before classes start. - PHOTO BY MATT KELLER LEHMAN
  • Photo by Matt Keller Lehman
  • The Dr. Phillips Commons at the new UCF-Valencia downtown campus as it appeared on July 21, a month before classes start.

If time starts to run out, the developments can get a temporary certificate of occupancy, known as a TCO, but that, too, requires passing a certain threshold of inspection tests.

"That process of back and forth between the city people and the developers and the construction people really is ongoing, ongoing, ongoing," Chatmon said. "There's a ton of pressure and work going on not only to ensure that they physically finish, but they physically finish in a manner that is consistent with city code."

"We've got to be ready."

The team of SchenkelShultz Architecture, Robert A.M. Stern Architects and Skanska USA took on development and construction of the major arms of campus, including the "academic core" of the new campus: the Dr. Phillips Academic Commons at 514 W. Livingston St.

Out at the site of the new developments, construction crews were on the job. Cranes parked off Livingston Street stretched toward buildings, where some windows were still unglassed and boarded up.

"We deal with a lot of developments'" says Chatmon. "Those ribbon-cutting dates can be pushed back. ... These 7,700 are going to show up, so we've got to be ready."

Three major buildings comprise the campus. The main organ will be Dr. Phillips Commons, a 148,000-square-foot, four-story structure equipped with a library, classrooms, tutoring and studying spaces, and a moot court for law students.

click to enlarge A proposed rendering of the Dr. Phillips Commons - IMAGE COURTESY UCF
  • Image courtesy UCF
  • A proposed rendering of the Dr. Phillips Commons

Just across the street is Union West, a 15-story building that will house around 600 students from the sixth floor up. Student services and classrooms will take up the lower floors, including Valencia College's Walt Disney School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality. The ground floor will welcome restaurants and retailers like Addition Financial, Subway, Dunkin' Donuts, Qdoba and Vera Asian, a futuristic restaurant with a "sushi making robot."

Then there's the UCF Communication and Media Building, already established at 500 W. Livingston St., which is undergoing renovations. Formerly known as the UCF Center for Research and Education in Arts, Technology, and Entertainment and home to programs like Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy and the Center for Emerging Media, starting in August it will also house the Nicholson School of Communication and Media. The building is currently open, but the parts undergoing renovation are closed until the grand opening day of the downtown campus.

As for transportation, SunRail, Lynx buses, and UCF shuttles will send students back and forth from the main campus. Motorists can use a new four-story, 580-space parking garage that will also be part of the campus. Its high-tech features include license plate recognition, security cameras, electric charging stations, and a parking space counter on each floor. Barnes & Noble will run a university bookstore on the ground floor, along with the campus services office.

On the public safety front, there will be not only UCFPD, but also the city's Downtown Ambassadors on call. From day one, Chatmon says, ambassadors will patrol the campus, but it's not clear how many. The city is renegotiating their agreement with Block by Block, the subcontractor that manages the ambassadors program.

On average, three UCF Police officers will be patrolling the downtown campus at any given time, says Courtney Gilmartin, a university police spokeswoman. UCF Police officers will be the primary responders to calls for service, she said, and Orlando Police Department will provide support if necessary.

"Our officers are excited about bringing our agency's philosophy of community policing and our dedication to campus and community partnerships to UCF Downtown," Gilmartin writes in an email. "The officers selected to work at this campus understand the game-changing nature of this project, and they're looking forward to playing a part in UCF Downtown's success."

UCFPD started patrolling the area on June 28 to familiarize themselves before the crowds arrived. Downtown campus security will mirror patrols at UCF, which means all the same features: blue light phones, security cameras, UCF Alert messages and 24/7 uniformed patrols will be available. Blue, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever that specializes in explosives detection, will also be part of the downtown team.

A short video published online in May shows Commander Scott Freeman, who will be leading UCFPD downtown, giving an overview of security measures on the new campus.

"Because our campus is located in downtown Orlando, we will be adding additional security measures to ensure that faculty, staff and students who are working late feel safe inside our building," Freeman says in the video.

After hours, students and staff will need a UCF keycard to access buildings and offices.

"Proximity matters."

click to enlarge IMAGE COURTESY UCF
  • Image courtesy UCF

All these moving parts of the new downtown campus are coming together thanks to a jaunt to Arizona six years ago. Inspiration came from Arizona State University, which did the same thing more than a decade ago.

In December 2013, former UCF president John Hitt met with Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer to tell him about Arizona State University's downtown campus, saying that Dyer needed to see it, says Kathy DeVault, Orlando's director of strategic partnerships.

Two weeks later, Hitt, Dyer, and leadership from UCF, the city and Creative Village were on a plane, bound for Phoenix to check out the new campus. Shortly after, Dr. Falecia D. Williams, West Campus president for Valencia College, joined talks as well.

Wellington "Duke" Reiter, former consultant for UCF downtown, was the dean of design at ASU when they first proposed their downtown campus and was tasked with conceptualizing it. ASU started out in 2006 with 3,000 students and two renovated buildings. Now, with a number of newly built colleges and student housing, their campus hosts more than 12,000 students.

UCF chose to welcome 7,700 students on purpose: It was ASU that gave UCF the idea to start out with that happy medium. Not too few, and room to grow.

"I think 8,000 is a great starting number for UCF. It's fantastic," Reiter says in a phone interview, adding it's important students don't feel like they're on a satellite campus.

"There is clearly a chance for UCF to play a role in the city of Orlando, which will turn out to be more significant than I think people will imagine," Reiter says. "It will just really turn the tide. Proximity matters."

UCF officials say that 300 faculty and staff will work on the campus. Of the 7,700 students attending classes downtown, they estimate that 5,400 will be from UCF and 2,300 from Valencia.

click to enlarge IMAGE COURTESY UCF
  • Image courtesy UCF

With this downtown campus, the inevitable question lurking has been what will it look like when thousands of middle-class millennials begin milling around the Parramore district. Gentrification of the historic Orlando neighborhood has long been a talking point in the city.

Chatmon said it's "not by accident" that Creative Village's first opened building is a "mixed income residential building" set to accommodate a confluence of demographics.

That building "sends a signal that we're about affordability for all economic stratas," Chatmon says.

"There's been a concerted effort and a collaboration of all parties pertinent to Creative Village not only to not allow gentrification to be the norm or to happen," Chatmon says, "but to ensure everything that is here is here for the use, for the betterment, for the convenience, of the entire neighborhood. The entire community."

An economic development study released by UCF in 2015 predicts the development will bring Orlando between $33.9 million and $59.7 million in tax revenue through 2032.

Still, there's no predicting what the first phase will look like next month.

"On Aug. 27, the campus will be open and we'll probably need to come back as a city and re-evaluate what's working, what's not, what city services do we need to alter, how do we do this a little bit differently," DeVault says. "Gratefully, we've got really good partners that are in it for the long haul with us and will be at the table to help us ensure that we can shift and change as we need to make it the best experience possible."

In the final stages, development director Chatmon says the biggest component is finding out how to "direct the orchestra": perfecting infrastructure, transportation, parking, public safety, and all the other components to strike one unified chord.

"I don't think we've left any rock unturned," Chatmon said. "The planning effort has been holistic, comprehensive and thorough. I think we're going to get it right. I really do."

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