Apopka pursues update to CRA master plan, targets new downtown redevelopment

The City of Apopka is preparing a long overdue update to the master plan for its Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), with potential new projects to repurpose blighted parts of downtown, help homebuyers fill vacant lots, and five "opportunity sites" recommended for mixed-use redevelopment.

The city's CRA covers an area of approximately 633 acres, encompassing the majority of Apopka's downtown.

Of the 485.9 acres of developable land within that boundary, 33.7 percent now has residential uses, with 28 percent being single-family homes. Commercial uses cover 17.9 percent, city-owned land accounts fo 12.7 percent, and vacant land makes up 13 percent.

City staff and project manager John Jones of S&ME, Inc., began working last year to produce a draft update to the Community Redevelopment Plan. That was delivered in March, and reviewed at a CRA workshop earlier this month.

Apopka's Community Redevelopment Plan was first passed in 1993, and while an update was produced in 2006 it was never adopted. 

When Community Development Director James Hitt rejoined the city staff six months ago he fast-tracked the project, and S&ME started from scratch with the 1993 version.

"If you have a healthy downtown you have a healthy city," Hitt told GrowthSpotter. "My goal is to get our downtown healthy again and get people coming. We have good businesses that want to come in now, and we have to create an atmosphere for them to want to stay." 

S&ME recommends updating design guidelines for the CRA, and developing a land acquisition and land lease strategy for the downtown. Investment in new wayfinding signage and streetscape enhancements would be focuses for beautification. 

HIGHLIGHT ADDITIONS TO PLAN
For Hitt, the three most exciting additions to the Community Redevelopment Plan all focus on improving blighted or vacant properties in Apopka's downtown.

One is the 5th Street Parking Lot, located on the street's north side between Park and Central avenues. The property now is mostly owned by a private entity, meant for parking but not advertised as such. 

The city owns a portion of the land and is in the process of buying the rest, to total 125 parking spaces. Once fully owned, the CRA can invest to clean it up and make it an attractive -- and free -- public parking lot. 

One block to the west are 3.5 acres the city has tentatively named the "Station Street Shopping Plaza," west of Central Avenue where Station Street and 5th Street meet. With CRA funding the city would vacate two streets to create this 3.5-acre plaza. 

It would offer an acre of open event space, a pavilion would be built, 55 parking spaces would be paved, and adjacent city-owned land would be developed with buildings to accommodate up 10 retail/office tenants and 45 apartments. 

Hitt's third highlight of the new plan is a residential program that will focus on filling vacant lots within the CRA. 

"In order to make homes more affordable, we would pay the impact fees that are typically assessed on a single-family home, which would save $19,000 to $20,000 on a house," he said. "It's a targeted area within the CRA, so we can pay for the infill." 

Hitt would like to implement a followup program in the years to come that would reimburse existing homeowners for renovations. 

The Community Redevelopment Plan update would also reinstitute a facade grant program for businesses in downtown. 

Bike path extensions throughout downtown are part of the new proposals, which would connect and run from the Station Street project over to the West Orange Trail, and from there on to Apopka's City Center project, linking the central core of downtown to its east side. 

Apopka's CRA currently draws in about $350,000 per year in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) revenue, Hitt said, a value that will grow with further redevelopment downtown. 

The number of vacant parcels within the CRA has increased from 142 in 2004 to 183 in 2016, partly due to the demolition of substandard buildings. Vacant lots give an impression of disinvestment and blight, but also present redevelopment opportunity and are spread throughout the CRA area, according to S&ME's report. 

The city should update its design guidelines to focus on mixed use in downtown, per the report. SM&E recommends Apopka pursue a public-private partnership to develop a "model mixed-use project" in downtown that is pedestrian-oriented, on or near the main thoroughfare of U.S. 441, which is what the Station Street project can help accomplish.

OPPORTUNITY SITES
A Conceptual Master Plan produced by S&ME highlights five opportunity sites within the CRA for redevelopment.

The first is bound on the north by E. Oak Street, Central Avenue to the west, W. Orange Trail to the east and E. 2nd Street to the south, with 63 parcels totaling 27.65 acres. The site is bisected by Park Avenue, and Kit Land Nelson Park lies within. 

Eight parcels in that opportunity site are vacant, and the majority of surrounding land uses are low-density residential. The conditions make it ideal for redevelopment into office, mutifamily, supporting retail and mixed uses. 

The second site is located within the Downtown Development Overlay District, south of U.S. 441 between E. 6th Street and MA Board Street, totaling 17.87 acres (49 parcels). 

This site would benefit from a more urban mixed-use development with focus on commercial, serving its central downtown location, proximity to a major Lynx stop and location on the E. 6th Street cross-town bicycle trail, wrote Jones of S&ME. 

The third opportunity site covers 16.67 acres (35 parcels) on the south side of U.S. 441, between E. 6th Street and the Central Business District.

The U.S. 441 frontage is already developed with commercial and retail, and the south end of this site will be the eastern terminus of a cross-town bicycle trail. This site would be a good location for a mixed-use planned development, neighborhood-scale commercial and/or residential that would benefit from proximity to downtown, and the trail. 

The fourth opportunity site covers 7.68 acres (10 parcels) on the south side of U.S. 441 bounded by E. 6th Street, on Apopka's east side. About 1.57 acres are vacant, with the balance now single-family homes and small retail outlets. 

This site is recommended for the same type of mixed-use redevelopment as site no. 3, based on its proximity to downtown and a bike trail.

Opportunity site no. 5 covers a 6.42-acre, city-owned parcel at the intersection of S.R. 436 and U.S. 441. It's on Apopka's main commercial corridor with more than 40,000 daily traffic trips, per S&ME. The site favors mixed-use development that would benefit from high visibility and traffic volume. 

NEXT STEPS
The CRA update proposals will go before Apopka's Planning Commission in late May, so they can make a recommendation that it is in compliance with the Comprehensive Plan.

This would then go to the CRA board, which consists of city council members and two citizens, for their approval and recommendation to the City Council. Both of those meetings should be held in late June. 

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at bmoser@growthspotter.com, (407) 420-5685 or @bobmoser333. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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