Downtown apartment tower approved despite objections over height, retail

Calling a 10-story apartment building with less than 4,000 square feet of ground-floor retail a "lost opportunity" for downtown, Orlando's Municipal Planning Board on Tuesday reluctantly approved a zoning change for the project on the lot immediately south of Bank of America tower.

The vote followed a lengthy discussion over whether the developer, Tennessee-based Mid America Apartment Communities (MAA), met the density and retail requirements for the downtown core. 

City code requires that at least half of the frontage on Orange Avenue contain active uses, and MAA is proposing to do just that.

The other half of the space would be utilized for amenities and leasing offices. Becky Wilson, attorney for Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed, said MAA would build out the amenity space so it could be converted for retail use in the future. 

"If and when the retail market in downtown dictates that my client can make more money on retail in that space as opposed to having amenities in that space, we will find a way to get the retail there," she said.

MPB Member Jill Rose, a leasing retail leasing specialist with  Bishop Beale Duncan, said the developer is underestimating demand for retail and dining uses on N. Orange Avenue, especially with the new multifamily towers planned within a block of the project and the opening next year of Creative Village.

"I think this is a marketable space" she said. "I think you'll get market rent. I don't get the whole 'amenity space' thing. I think you could add another 3,000 square feet of retail."

Matthew Smith, Senior Vice President of Investments for MAA, said the biggest hurdle to retail at this location is purchase contract with the seller, the Diocese of Orlando, that grants a permanent easement for the first three levels of the parking garage. Those 200 spaces must be available to the church at all times. It's a condition of the sale, and it's non-negotiable, he said.

Even though the city code doesn't require on-site parking for retail at that site, Smith said he didn't think it would be viable without at least 80 spaces. "You can’t expect people visiting retail to drive up to the fourth level of a parking garage," he said. 

The site plan would add a handful of on-street parking spaces because it would close some existing driveway cuts. Smith said MAA would explore an arrangement with Bank of America to allow for valet parking in their garage at night to support the retail. 

He also agreed to design the amenities so that semi-public and social spaces would be seen from the street. 

"We just did this at our project on Centennial Park in Atlanta," he said. "We have a bike storage and repair shop and a dog spa with doggy treadmills." 

Smith also agreed to a suggestion from the board to move the courtyard gate back from the street so that an end-user could create an outdoor dining area in the Pasao. The courtyard also would have a large fountain that would be visible from the sidewalk -- a feature the company utilized in a Charlotte apartment complex.

The project still must win approval from the City Council and the city's Appearance Review Board. Smith said he expects the design-build contractor, Finfrock Design Inc., to begin the architectural and engineering design work within months.  

"We close on the property in early March, and we anticipate starting construction in the third quarter," he said.  

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