A new in-depth study could begin this month on converting one-way avenues in downtown Orlando's North Quarter District to two-way traffic, bringing hope to neighborhood stakeholders of a "complete streets" investment that can sustain retail, dining and lifestyle services.
Orlando's City Council is expected to direct staff at its July 9 meeting to enter into an agreement with Canin Associates for the Phase 2 transportation study of the neighborhood.
Canin's urban planning team will study the potential conversion of one-way traffic to two-way on the North Quarter's thoroughfares of N. Orange and Magnolia avenues -- bounded by E. Colonial Drive to the south and Ivanhoe Boulevard to the north -- and bring that concept to a functional design level.
Canin will lead two week-long design charrette workshops with community stakeholders, beginning in late July through August. A final report would then be produced for the city's Downtown Development Board and Community Redevelopment Agency within seven months.
They'll try to reach a consensus on what the streets and intersections should look like for everyone from motorists to cyclists, pedestrians, business owners and residents.
"We'll be looking at more than just the avenue operations of one-way versus two-way, but also whether there need to be intersection, bicycle and pedestrian improvements as well," Canin's Director of Urbanism Eliza Juliano told GrowthSpotter. "We'll also work together with a separate study on how to connect the Orlando Urban Trail from its end at Magnolia Avenue" to a pedestrian bridge currently being built over Colonial Drive, just east of Interstate 4.
Toole Design Group will be engaged for its expertise in roadway restoration, after executing similar projects in other cities. Toole's Orlando office director Ian Lockwood was formerly a transportation planner in West Palm Beach when that city pursued two-way restorations, which was viewed as "hugely successful from a business standpoint, with lower vacancy rates for retail," Juliano said.
This work follows Phase 1 of the study in September 2017 by Metric Engineering, which concluded that restoring Orange and Magnolia avenues to two-way traffic is feasible from a technical standpoint.
The Florida Department of Transportation will be consulted during the charrettes for its perspective and requirements of changing the avenues, which are state roads.
One of the clear benefits would be slower traffic and more eyes on the neighborhood's retail frontage, said Jill Rose, vice president of retail services at BishopBeale.
"An additional benefit would be College Park residents using Orange Avenue to 'backdoor' their community. I think it would alleviate commuter traffic on Edgewater (Drive) that is trying to bypass I-4," she said. "In addition, it would expose th North Quarter businesses in a more frequent way, making this area first and foremost in people's minds ... if they use it consistently to get to and from work."
A key challenge for North Quarter retail that could be exacerbated by a two-way conversion for traffic is if the already limited street parking is removed to accommodate additional lanes.
Rose led efforts for a year to lease the 7,886 square feet of vacant retail-commercial space on the ground floor of what was then Pizzuti's The Sevens apartment building, before Camden Property Trust bought it in February. JLL's Orlando retail team tried and failed before her during the development and construction period.
The neighborhood doesn't benefit from public parking garages for patrons coming in by car like the Central Business District does, which hurts retailers in the area, Rose said.
"That was probably one of our biggest leasing hurdles (for the former The Sevens ground-floor space), in addition to the lack of traffic count (11,540 AADT) on Orange," she continued. "We felt strongly about the residential rental population surrounding the site and the lack of retail and restaurant competition serving these residents. However, when you start to understand the lack of parking for these projects and the lack of traffic on Orange Avenue, you can understand why new businesses shied away."
The number of apartments in the North Quarter is high after the opening of The Sevens in 2016 -- with 1,204 units overall across four properties and another 261 a half block south -- but retail tenants still need customer traffic from outside the area to generate expected sales, Rose said.
Potential customers from nearby single-family neighborhoods like Park Lake Highland, College Park and Lake Eola Heights are too far to walk to the North Quarter, and today their parking options are limited.
Couple that with one-way streets and the North Quarter is perceived to be an inconvenient place for retail.
"I think making the streets two-way, and potentially finding a location for a public garage, will increase the retail viability of the North Quarter tremendously," Rose said.
Craig Ustler, whose Ustler Development was a leading force in establishing the North Quarter as a marketable neighborhood within the past decade, has developed two office and retail buildings there.
He sees a "complete street" as necessary to make the North Quarter a real urban neighborhood where residents, employees and visitors will walk and interact.
"What we have now is a good collection of buildings and uses, but the walkable urbanism is not there because of the high-speed, one-way streets," Ustler said. "It is difficult and dangerous to go back and forth across Orange Avenue, and to cross Colonial Drive. This makes retail harder to lease."
Making the two avenues more conducive to walking and biking will make the neighborhood a more enjoyable place that residents and outsiders want to spend time in, he said.
Good urban design and walkability are not a panacea for retail, as proven by several popular districts around downtown Orlando with poor streetscapes and challenging traffic patterns, Ustler added.
"Areas like Mills 50 and Audubon Park have poor urban design and poor walkability, yet the retail is thriving," he said. "Thus, I think of it in a broader sense, and say that all uses, including retail, should be better off with a complete street that is safer, walkable and more enjoyable."