ComTerra & Craft embrace near- and long-term plans for Destination Shoppes, in line with Universal Blvd future

UPDATED: February 26, 2016 3:08 PM — Jim Nashman of ComTerra Development Group didn't expect at this point last year that he would spend twice the norm to produce two vastly different development plans for 20 acres he was eying at the northeast corner of Universal Boulevard and Destination Parkway.

His vision for the property, now dubbed "Destination Shoppes," was that of a classic suburban retail strip center, with 150,000 square feet of dining and entertainment he thought would capitalize on a key future intersection of Orlando's tourism corridor.


But as ComTerra's plans made their way through Orange County's approval process last year, they began to conflict with the future vision that was being refined for International Drive and Universal Boulevard, that of a walkable, urban, mixed-use environment.

The writing was on the wall: ComTerra's project as envisioned today could very much become a square peg in a round hole 20 years from now, if Universal Boulevard develops as imagined.


In cooperation with county planners, ComTerra and partner Craft Development Corp. of Toronto spent the past six months conducting a thorough architectural massing study on the property, outlining how their strip of retail outparcels could evolve vertically over the coming decades, in step with what may come next on Universal Boulevard.

"It became a road map for our property, incorporating the live-work-play concept and desired urban density that we know this property is not ready for today, but how we could get there in 20 years depending on what comes in around us," ComTerra's Nashman told GrowthSpotter on Thursday.

"In respect to the county's vision for this area, we chose to develop two plans. We spent some serious money on this massing density study," he said. "It's now a presentation that will open the door to future talks on how to best proceed with the property."

The collaborative effort between Nashman and planners was highlighted on Friday at the final meeting of Orange County's Convention Plaza District Review Group, which meets to discuss the I-Drive 2040 Strategic Vision Plan and its zoning code.

"Six months ago the applicant had buildings separated from the sidewalk, parking in front of outparcels, typical suburbia design which is what we feared," said Alberto Vargas, planning manager for Orange County.

But while the code for the new I-Drive District Overlay Zone had yet to be written, let alone adopted, Nashman and his partners at Craft engaged in constructive dialogue for half a year, Vargas said, without any obligation.

"This is a good story to tell, that the vision plan is working and it's sending a message to applicants that there is a better option out there for how to develop their property," he said.

Nashman likened his group's massing study to what Unicorp National Development presented last November for its long-term redevelopment plans of 76 acres in the I-Drive Entertainment District.


ComTerra and Craft's Phase 1 development of Destination Shoppes could now incorporate a frontage road east of Universal Boulevard to civilize the pedestrian experience, just like The District and Vista Cay apartment developments have done across the street.

That first phase will still be only ground-level retail and dining, because that's all the entitlements they have for the project now. There are also impediments to building vertically on the southern corner of the property, where a sewer force main line currently runs.

But now, most of the outparcels in Destination Shoppes have been moved up to the boulevard frontage with parking located behind, a direct response to the "active street front" standards in the I-Drive Vision Plan.

And thanks to the massing study, if density is achieved on Universal Boulevard by future development around Destination Shoppes, Craft and ComTerra could redevelop vertically with towers that house residential, hotel and office space, above ground-level retail and a galleria open space.

"What the county envisions is a mass of people that would command mixed-use towers, and the ability to put a galleria where you can walk from the towers to all your services," Nashman said. "Something like this takes an urban mass. In this case, given the coming Topgolf and Andretti Karting, future expansion of the Convention Center, additional apartments coming in near us and plans by the Universal affiliate for all its land, the density is coming."

ComTerra and Craft paid $10.14 million on Jan. 15 for its 20-plus acres at the corner with Destination Parkway, and its DP has been approved by county commissioners. Nashman said he's now finalizing tenant leases for the project.


Vargas highlighted on Friday the increased value landowners stand to gain from favoring dense, vertical development.

ComTerra's initial site plan design for Destination Shoppes in mid-2015, with outparcels set far back from the street, had a taxable value estimated at $13 million. It's latest design plan for retail fronting the boulevard should return a taxable value of $17 million.

And the long-term potential of a retail shopping galleria, up to 1,400 multi-family units and 370 hotel rooms across various towers could return $309 million in taxable value, Vargas estimates. That's a 2,277 percent increase in value from ComTerra's initial vision for the property.

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