Orlando’s big vision for downtown, the Creative Village development, hinges on a lot of ifs, and Orlando City Council is going to consider addressing the first big if Monday.
Creative Village plans first hatched more than five years ago envision turning 68 acres of what is now mostly vacant moonscape, which once held the now-razed T.D. Waterhouse Arena and its sea of parking lots, into a 21st-century, urban, tech-business paradise in the northwest corner of downtown.
Look out Austin, Portland and Brooklyn.
Orlando promotes Creative Village not only as a new, huge, new-urban area downtown but yet another thriving economic link for the hard-scrabble, largely African-American Parramore neighborhood across the street, much as has been said about the Florida A&M Law School, Amway Center arena and rising new soccer stadium in the southwest corner of downtown.
But attracting businesses wanting to locate there has become a long-term challenge. Developers are convinced that their best shot at doing so is if they get something big there to act as a magnet.
That something big emerged in the past couple years as the University of Central Florida’s proposal for a downtown campus on almost 15 acres on the southern edge of the Creative Village. But UCF says it needs $20 million in state funding. After Gov. Rick Scott rejected less funding last year, state officials told the university they might get it if the university can demonstrate strong local support, such as by raising $20 million in matching private donations first.
That money is coming together with some big local civic donations, but slowly. With time running out, and the university still more than $10 million short, it may be too slowly to get the Florida Board of Governors to sign off on the deal March 2, so that the Florida Legislature might appropriate the money in this session, so that Scott might change his mind.
UCF and Orlando civic leaders started thinking that maybe they could convince state officials of strong local commitment if they offered something else instead.
That something else was outlined last week: the city of Orlando’s plan to donate land, a building and infrastructure improvements for the UCF campus. It’s all in the memorandum of understanding the city council will consider Monday.
“In order to create a little additional momentum as we go into that, we had already agreed to terms we put on the table with UCF a while ago, and we’re going to formalize it at (City) Council,” Mayor Buddy Dyer said.
Few know the challenges like Craig Ustler, the primary developer for the project. Ustler has been behind it, patiently, since 2010.
Creative Village is envisioned as a live-work-play urban neighborhood with more than 1 million square feet of office and work space, a half-million feet of UCF, Valencia College and other education campus space, 150,000 square feet of retail and commercial, 225 hotel rooms and more than 1,500 residential units, including some private-finance student housing and some affordable housing.
The Bob Carr Theater, which dates in part to 1926, is in the northeast corner of the property and stays. Ustler talks about it either as a student performing arts space, perhaps tied to a magnet public high school or one of the colleges or both, or as a creative space for gamers and others.
Also staying is the Orlando Downtown Recreation Complex, in a historic old building on the the property’s southwest corner, serving the Parramore neighborhood.
The former Orlando Expo Center building on the southeast corner, now the UCF Center for Emerging Media, also stays, and simply would join the proposed UCF downtown campus. It’s one of the pieces the Orlando City Council is considering offering to deed over to UCF Monday.
Most of the rest of Creative Village is asphalt or dirt, though the city is pushing some of it around, preparing the area with street and utilities work.
The city values its contributions to UCF at about $67 million. Ustler is prepared to build and contribute some of the student housing, some space for Valencia’s culinary arts program, and a student center, worth almost $8 million. But UCF needs to build its first academic building at the same time.
“If you have this [UCF] campus, it will really be a catalyst for everything else that is going on there.” Dyer said.
And without it, Ustler and his team, which includes Banc of America Community Development Corporation, know it’s a tough time to solicit tech-business tenants.
“I do think the gravity of 7,700 UCF students with the UCF and Valencia anchor, that is a public university, I don’t think that can be underestimated as far as corporate and office tenants go,” he said.
Right now the market in downtown Orlando is weak for new office development, and there’s no long line of eager tenants for the primary purpose of Creative Village, the business purpose.
Ustler and the other partners must hope that changes in the next couple of years.
“The office market is challenging; any developer that tells you different is not being honest,” he said. “The reason you haven’t seen new building constructed for many years, and there are few of us that are considering new buildings, we just keep running up against” that.
It’s even more difficult for the kinds of businesses envisioned for Creative Village: start-ups and tech firms, which, based on the models seen elsewhere, prefer shared office space, flexible office space, transitional office space and creative work-place environments.
Banks, on the other hand, prefer long-term leases on standard offices, Ustler said.
So the market is tricky to serve, even if the demand was high.
Ustler always spoken of a 15-20 year development period for the area and always said he will be patient and see it through, though he started saying that in 2010, when he was 41. He’s 47 now, and still urging patience.
“I’m in no way trying to say I’m unhappy with the way we are making progress, but I’m also trying to remind everyone that this is a long-term partnership,” he said.