New Look to Apopka City Center?

from the Orlando Sentinel

Apopka is looking at a dramatic face lift that could change the character and center of Orange County’s second largest city.

Municipal leaders are seeking a development partner to transform the intersection of State Road 436 and Orange Blossom Trail into the heart of what they envision as the new Apopka, a world-class venue filled with signature restaurants, shopping and recreation.

Right now, the site where those two highways converge is a place most people try to avoid.

“We’ve been waiting on a downtown forever,” said Richard Anderson, who served 31 years with the city fire department and nearly a decade as Apopka’s chief administrative officer.

He resigned that post last year to become a city-paid lobbyist and consultant on three projects, including the proposed City Center.

Following Anderson’s presentation and recommendation Wednesday, the City Council unanimously agreed to put out an open call to developers interested in the rights to 48 city-owned acres that include a banquet place formerly known as Townsend’s Plantation.

“This is the [project] everybody’s been waiting on,” said Anderson, who is paid $11,000 a month as a city consultant.

Anderson helped assemble the properties for a city center about nine years ago.

However, shortly after the city bought the properties for about $13 million — it paid $6.3 million for the 11-acre Townsend property in September 2006 — a recession struck, forcing Apopka leaders to shelve their development plans.

Now they say the time is right to start again: The economy is swinging upward and the future has never looked brighter. Construction on the Apopka leg of the Wekiwa Parkway is underway and Florida Hospital Apopka has broken ground on a $203-million medical center on the west side.
The proposed City Center would reshape a gateway that is now a hodgepodge of fast-food joints and strip plazas.

“This is prime property in one of the fastest-growing communities in Central Florida,” Mayor Joe Kilsheimer said.

The targeted area includes another 108 privately owned acres that could be pulled into the development, a University of Central Florida business incubator and Martin’s Pond, a 14-acre body of water. Private property owners could negotiate their own deals with developers if they chose.

“We want this to be the catalyst,” Anderson said of the city-owned properties. “Those who are interested will be knocking our doors down.”

According to documents detailing Apopka’s ambitious wishes, city leaders want “an intensive, sustainable, vibrant, urban, mixed-use community that creates a unique experience and strong sense of place.”

They covet a pedestrian-friendly center with open-air shopping and a mix of “big brand” and homegrown restaurants.

Asking for proposals “is the easy part,” Anderson said,.

The transformation will pose hard and special challenges.

The city wants a developer with a “proven track record” of building large-scale urban projects, which it defined as having a value more than $50 million, and not many developers can clear that hurdle.

Also, the intersection of “441 and 436 for years has been a mess,” Anderson reminded City Council. “We’ve argued with [the Department of Transportation] and state officials a long time about that.”

The intersection would most likely have to be reconfigured to fit the city’s gateway vision.

Apopka has set an Aug. 24 deadline for proposals.

If Apopka’s leaders receive ideas to their liking, the city would then negotiate with the developer to buy the city’s 48 acres — although probably for less than the city paid at the height of the real-estate boom 10 years ago, Anderson said.

Nonetheless, he figured, the city would still come out on top — as it would add those 48 acres to the tax rolls, collect impact fees for the developments and “we get the amenities in our community.”

“Going forward, we’re way ahead,” he said.

And if the city is disappointed by proposals?

“If we don’t like the responses we get, we’ll go do it again,” Anderson said.

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