Orlando's Appearance Review Board gave tentative approval Thursday to Manhattan developer Property Markets Group (PMG) for the first phase of its proposed three-tower mixed-use project on one of the most high-profile lots in the central business district.
"I think what we're looking at here is a great looking building," ARB member Patrick Panza said. "I think it would be a good step forward for architecture in city of Orlando."
The board unanimously approved the initial 17-story tower, but with numerous caveats that materials, colors, signage and skyline architecture must come back to board for final approval.
The project would be downtown's largest mixed-use multifamily development ever proposed on one parcel, with what is now 889 apartments across three phased towers and 120,000 square feet of retail-commercial -- including 35,000 square feet of co-working space -- proposed at 434 N. Orange Ave.
The developer and its architectural team have revised the design multiple times since the initial courtesy review in April, including changing the height and placement of the second and third towers, adding light boxes on the roof and a "living wall" of plants along the facade to add visual interest.
All of the ARB members voiced concerns about the viability of the living wall, given the height and exposure of the building. But they endorsed the option of replacing the plant matter with panels of luminescent dichroic film if it fails, even though lead architect Adam Berkelhamer said he had never used the material before.
He passed around a sample for the board to review.
"As you look at it from different angles, the color changes and depth changes, so I think it could be very interesting," planner Doug Metzger said.
Responses to the choice of dark gray corrugated metal siding on the towers provoked a range of responses, from lukewarm to hostile.
Chairman Fulvio Romano thought the material could bring a fresh look to downtown, though he was concerned about using it along the exterior stairwells from floor to roof. Mike Mulhall felt it was too dark and too industrial and wouldn't have a uniform finish.
"I don't know what you guys are thinking putting that stuff up 20 floors," he said.
Board members said they were sensitive to concerns raised by the owners of Central Station on Orange, a 6-story apartment building directly north of the site, about the height and density of the proposed building. Architect John Ehrig said the proposed 24-story tower in Phase 3 would cast shadows over his client's property, making the swimming pool into a "dark dungeon" 10 months out of the year.
"We don't have any sunlight most of the year," he said. "This is not about taste, it's talking about compatibility."
But board members said they also needed to consider X Orlando's compatibility with the high-rise Bank of America building to its south, and the fact that it would abut the region's Lynx/SunRail transportation hub.
"Compatibility is a two-way street," Panza said, noting that allowing another midrise structure next to the Bank of America would create a jarring effect.
"I happen to believe the height and massing of Phase 1 is compatible," he said. "It's going to have to be used as transition. It's going to have to take on the character of a transition piece."
Panza was more concerned with the design on the west side of the building, facing Gertrude's Walk. PMG wrapped the parking garage with residential units and added commercial uses to the west elevation. He asked the company to elevate the design so it wouldn't "give the impression that you're walking or riding your bike along the back of a building."
The board also held a lengthy discussion about what remedies they could provide for in the conditional approval if PMG fails to advance the project beyond Phase 1.
Berkelhamer said PMG intends to roll into Phase 2 as soon as Phase 1 is completed, and likewise with Phase 3. He told GrowthSpotter the contingency plan wouldn't be needed.
"To them, a lot of this discussion is purely in the hypothetical realm," he said.
Berkelhamer said he didn't have an issue with the conditions. "We want to make sure we satisfy the concerns of the board," he said. "They want to see specific materials, and we've kept it pretty generic up until now."
The company's downtown project, dubbed "X Orlando," would be the third in Florida for its new PMGX Living line of "social living community" developments, following the 31-story "X Miami" project and 41-story "X Las Olas" now under construction in South Florida. The first X-branded community opened in Chicago in 2016, and a second is in development there and in Denver.