Winter Park is a gorgeous small town.
Nestled next to bustling Orlando, Winter Park is an upscale city of 29,000 residents with a beautiful downtown, historic neighborhoods and a new apartment complex and Trader Joe’s that has inflamed a passionate debate about the city’s identity, growth, character and future.
The debate has been raging for a while but has ebbed and flowed depending on the political winds. But the construction of rental apartments and the opening of the wildly popular Trader Joe’s have created a debate in the community over character and the dreaded “D” word, density.
On one side of the debate are those who are OK with change, support transit –there’s a popular SunRail stop downtown– and don’t mind seeing development along the “edges” that might offer some residential opportunities for people who might not otherwise be able to afford to live in the city.
On the other side are those who are concerned with density and multi-family housing, some of whom express concern over the train (which means more people visiting) and traffic, much of it generated because lots of people have to drive through Winter Park to access a booming downtown Orlando–In other words not by development in Winter Park per se.
It’s a familiar debate and I got a dose of it last week when I went to Winter Park on behalf of ULI (Urban Land Institute) to work with the community, mayor, city commission and staff on a visioning effort.
Both sides of the debate have merit, but you wonder if there’s a way to bridge the divide or we are doomed to be caught in an endless loop of fear, division, accusations etc. etc.?
We’ve heard the tired arguments emanating from both sides of the growth divide. For instance:
“Density is bad. “
“All developers are greedy.”
“Elected officials are in the pockets of the big money developers. “
On the other side of the divide are those who argue that all opposition to development comes from NIMBY’s or CAVE’s (Citizens Against Virtually Everything).
It’s as old and as tiresome as the partisan gridlock that has ruined Congress.
We need to do better than this. And I believe we can, but it’s going to take a lot of work and education.
But the effort seems worth it, because the issue isn’t going away.
First, change is inevitable unless of course you live in colonial Williamsburg. Land owners also have property rights and if cities infringe on those rights they run the risk of costly lawsuits.
Ideally, the goal should be smart growth, great design, respect for historic neighborhoods, acknowledgement of–and where possible– mitigation of the impact of development. And yes development has an impact. But to be fair, that impact can also be positive as well as negative.
The devil of course is in the details, but responsible development is not all about numbers: i.e. stories, height or the number of dwelling units per acre.
There’s an art to city building and efforts to drain subjectivity from the process are bound to be frustrating and self- defeating.
In Delray and Boca, we can point to numerous high density projects that work, because the architecture is beautiful and the developers took time to think about traffic flow, open space and how the development relates to adjoining neighborhoods.
I can also point to ugly projects that are both low and high density.
Last week, I received a notice from the City of Delray Beach regarding an update to the city’s Land Development Regulations. The purpose and I’m quoting the city here is to provide greater predictability in the regulations and the process and to incorporate more “form based” code elements emphasizing the importance of the public realm.
Form based codes can be good things and they can be awful too. In fact, our code is pretty good and already incorporates a lot of form based elements. But most importantly, it has worked enabling Delray to become a pretty good place. But there’s a sense– in some quarters anyway– that the answer to all bad development or perceived bad development can be solved by the code. It can’t.
If you want better design and development, you have to roll up your sleeves and work hard to get it.
That means working early in the process with developers and architects, not forcing them to guess about design and other concerns and then sandbagging them at a public meeting.
For developers it means engaging the public and really listening to concerns, not just ramming through projects because you think you have the upper hand politically. And for residents it means coming to the table with a respect for property rights, a knowledge of local zoning (easily attainable these days) and some ideas other than “go away.”
For all, it means working together and finding compromise, which usually means that everybody has to give up something. If you live adjacent to a downtown you have a right to be concerned with development and a vested interest to insist on great design. But you don’t have a right to think you live in a gated community—change is going to occur and the downtown belongs to everyone not just those who are fortunate enough to live there or nearby.
More than a tweak to our codes, what’s needed is a more intelligent discussion about growth, change, design density, traffic, walkability, pedestrian safety, vibrancy, open space etc.
You can’t legislate the art and subjectivity out of city building. You can’t devise a code that will be perfect and you’re not going to get every project right.
I served during a big real estate boom. I met greedy developers and really caring developers. I met genuinely concerned citizens and a few others that could not be reasoned with nor bothered by the facts. I served alongside some pretty good elected officials and we got some things right and a few things wrong. Contrary to rumors, we never granted a waiver or a variance for height and density, but we also didn’t fixate on numbers. We tried to support good projects and we tried to stop bad ones. Our code and master plan was flexible enough to give us those options.
But we also saw the process as an ongoing one of constant education, engagement, outreach and learning. We tried to protect the historic districts and put in new guidelines. We attempted design guidelines and invited local architects to share what would work and what wouldn’t. Our first attempt looked good on paper, but didn’t work in the real world and so we went back to the drawing board.
Plans are meant to live and breathe, not be so prescriptive that they squelch creativity. I hope that’s not where we are going.
Yes, the process should be predictable. It should not take months and months to approve or reject something. But cities need to be both protected and nurtured. They need to be preserved and they need to change. That’s the beauty of this work and that’s where the opportunities are, as well as the risks and pitfalls. You can’t legislate perfection nor can you devise a code—form based or antiquated as I’ve heard our code described—and expect to drain all subjectivity out of the process. Cities are about art and science. Not just numbers. There is no density number that can guarantee good design, no magic phrase or land development regulation that will ensure quality.
In Winter Park, the community and the leadership wants a vision that is values based rather than prescriptive. Values are a great place to start, because as one commissioner stated so beautifully Winter Park is not just about numbers it’s about how we relate and care for each other and our town. At the core of the issue—in Winter Park and elsewhere– is people long for a better way to talk about growth, change and development. Communities don’t want to be estranged, they long to connect and engage.
There’s no code yet devised that takes the place of working together and having honest and safe discussions over the future development of your home town. So we can meet at quasi-judicial hearings and debate whether a project should be 16 units or 19 units an acre even though there’s not a human being on the planet who can tell the difference or we can find a better way.
The passionate debate about the city’s identity, growth, character and future should never stop and there isn’t acode on Earth that will answer every question. All a code can do is help you craft a community that is livable, attractive and sustainable. It’s a tool. Period.
The real work is to build a community where people discuss the future intelligently and get beyond the all change is either great or terrible mindset.
That’s the challenge and that is the opportunity.