At the start of the 2000's Craig Ustler of Ustler Development was fixing up bungalows in Thornton Park and reselling them when he had a Eureka moment. Food could be the catalyst to bring people to the neighborhood he was re-developing one house at a time.
So 14 years ago Ustler started Hue, an impossibly cool, unique, fun venue on the corner of E. Central Boulevard and N. Summerlin Avenue. Happy hip young diners came, spilling out of the restaurant's tightly packed confines onto the sidewalks.
"We had to get into the restaurant business," Ustler said. "And we had to do it ourselves."
It proved to be the catalyst the neighborhood needed. Hue lived a long life for a restaurant of its sort and was replaced by Soco. Meanwhile, other eating and drinking establishments moved in and more diners decided they wanted to live in the neighborhood with the lively vibe and the old houses. Then new shiny towers started turning up in downtown and even more people chose to move in.
Thornton Park is about lifestyle," Ustler said. "I think it's the best and most complete 'urban village' in Orlando and people value the walkability, restaurants, Publix, Lake Eola, and proximity to the downtown core."
Ustler said the 'main streets' of Thornton Park, Central Boulevard, a block of Summerlin Avenue and Washington Street form a critical mass of activity. This area, with a good variety of restaurants and other activities, including Lake Eola, form the heart of the commercial district.
The demand is clear in rising rental rates in the downtown area, which includes Thornton Park, said Bobby Palta, first vice president CBRE.
"Average rent in the Downtown Orlando submarket has increased by 10.2 percent over the past year-and-a-half alone, rising from $1,328 per unit in mid-2013 to $1,463 per unit in 2015 (6.8 percent per year, annualized)," wrote Luke Wickham, senior vice president, and Shelton Granade, executive vice president, of CBRE Orlando. "During this same time period, occupancy levels increased from 94.4 percent to 95.5 percent."
"Thornton Park is a notable contributor to the growth in this submarket, as demand for infill locations remains strong," they said.
One of the next steps toward Thornton Park's maturity as a neighborhood is attracting service providers to the booming population. For instance Delta Dental recently set up shop in Thornton Park, said Palta. " Publix moved in a few years back and is thriving," he added. All that mass helped trigger an expansion of the free downtown bus system.
Ustler also said commercial occupancy rates in Thornton Park are strong though there has been some turnover.
At Thornton Park Central, Tijuana Flats didn't renew its lease. The owner of the IBI Salon retired and did not renew her lease, and Qarma Crepes closed, said Ustler.
"However there was strong interest in those spaces when they became available, so that does speak to the neighborhood and how it attracts tenants," he said, adding that a nail salon replaced the hair salon and a new restaurant has signed for the Tijuana Flats space. Also, the former Urban ReThink space next to Soco is leased to the same group that has Soco and Cityfish, and they are designing and permitting a new venture for the spot.
Palta of CBRE said Thornton Park's success has inspired other adjacent areas that were calling themselves South Eola, including Star Tower, to take on the Thornton Park moniker.
Ustler agreed that South Eola is a part of the Thornton Park renaissance. "I think Thornton Park is well known as a great neighborhood and the South Eola area is part of it."
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