Preview: I-Drive Vision Plan forecasts 25-year urban rebirth for corridor

The image above shows a 25-year projection of new local streets, expansion of major arterials and future rapid transit options that would be driven by the I-Drive Vision Plan.
The image above shows a 25-year projection of new local streets, expansion of major arterials and future rapid transit options that would be driven by the I-Drive Vision Plan. (Orange County Planning Division)

With a fresh focus on prioritizing walkability, active street fronts and urban design for Orlando's tourism corridor, Orange County planning staff will present the International Drive/Convention Plaza District 2040 Strategic Vision Plan this Tuesday to the Board of County Commissioners for initial review. A detailed development code will follow in mid-December to provide teeth to enforce new development standards in the area over the next 25 years.

The I-Drive Vision Plan's steering committee held its 10th meeting on Friday since beginning in January. They received a 108-page rough draft of the Vision Plan book written by county staff in recent months, and gave Planning Manager Alberto Vargas the green light to present it to BCC.


"Our code today is generally negotiated and market-driven. Our aim for this new code is to have (seven) subdistricts with unique standards to preserve the character of each," Vargas said Friday. "This reduces the need for variances, and adds predictability to the I-Drive and Universal Boulevard corridor."

The I-Drive and Universal tourism corridor encompasses nearly 7,700 parcels in 21 square miles of land. This strategic visioning plan focuses on a sub-area now dubbed the "I-Drive District," bordered by Sand Lake Road to the north, Beachline Expressway (SR 528) to the south, Shingle Creek to the east and International Drive to the west.

Boundaries of the seven subdistricts proposed in the I-Drive District's new Vision Plan.
Boundaries of the seven subdistricts proposed in the I-Drive District's new Vision Plan. (Orange County Planning Division)

The plan's seven subdistricts have been named for the Orange County Convention Center; the Hospitality and Retail cluster covering a few blocks north of OCCC; an Entertainment zone currently home to I-Drive 360, Mango's cafe/nightclub and the proposed Skyplex polercoaster; SeaWorld and neighboring property south of SR 528 and north of Central Florida Parkway; Destination Parkway, with its future connection and growing residential base; Universal Boulevard, south of Mandarin Drive and stretching south past Destination Parkway; and Rosen-Shingle Creek, which includes the named resort and a vast stretch of undeveloped land.

The Vision Plan and its code aren't finished, with potential critique to come from BCC.

If the code is accepted by BCC in December, updates to the county's Comprehensive Plan could come by March or April 2016. That would include the Vision Plan and its code, outlining the entitlement process and development standards, and designating the I-Drive District boundary on the Future Land-Use Map.

It's unknown if representatives from Universal Orlando will show up at BCC on Nov. 3 to protest the plan's lack of inclusion of their property and own growth plan, complaints raised Friday by John McReynolds, head of external affairs for the theme park company.

Key aspects of the code still to be finalized include if height limits for buildings will be required for some or all of the subdistricts. Vargas has implied in past meetings that the Entertainment Subdistrict, where Joshua Wallack's Skyplex entertainment complex would be built, may be left without a height limit to allow for iconic structures. All subdistricts would have a new height minimum, however, that likely brings three stories or more to street fronts for an urban feel.

Planning staff will also further study if a new, reduced distance for 3PS liquor licenses should be included in the plan. Orange County has one of the most strict requirements in the country now for distance between stores selling hard liquor, at 5,000 feet.

There are currently five stores within the I-Drive District that have a 3PS license to sell hard liquor. Staff recommend reducing that distance to 1,000 feet, grandfathering in the five 3PS license owners and allowing no new 3PS licenses in the district.

Those license owners could relocate within the district, a potential win for Unicorp National Developments' Chuck Whittall. He built the new Walgreens at the high-traffic corner of I-Drive and Sand Lake Road in recent years with space inside for hard liquor sales, even though he couldn't get a 3PS license from the county. That store is wildly successful, with revenue of $1 million a month, he says.

Whittall also bought the Plaza Liquors store a few blocks south on I-Drive. With reduced distance rules, he could close that shop and move its 3PS license to Walgreens. ABC Fine Wine & Spirits and Joseph's Liquor, both protected from Walgreens under the current distance, would be wiped out by the closer competition, their owners said Friday.

Goals for the I-Drive District that guided the study process were:

-- Connecting the area by improving walkability, activating streets with vibrant shopping, dining and entertainment venues, and offering more multi-modal transport options: I-Drive's current WalkScore is 45 out of 100, and the Orange County Convention Center ranks last among top convention centers in the nation when it comes to walkability.

Visitors surveyed by OCCC overwhelmingly ranked walkability and public transport options as priority improvements for the I-Drive area.


The teeth behind the Vision Plan will be a Form-Based Code, still to be finished by planning staff through mid-December. It will include key rules necessary to build a walker's paradise on I-Drive, similar in ways to nationally recognized downtown Winter Park.

Some strategies could include increasing intersection density by setting maximum block size of 1,320 feet, prioritizing development within quarter-mile walk sheds (length of a five-minute walk), establishing minimum building heights to achieve the desired ratio of building height-to-street width, developing frontage standards to activate public sidewalks with shop windows, cafes and awnings, enhancing district-wide transit with premium services like bus rapid transit or a modern streetcar, providing a premium transit link between the district and Orlando International Airport, and including protected bike lanes and trails.

-- Completing the community with a diversity of uses, including residential throughout the district: While the I-Drive District has more than 7,000 hotel rooms built with another 13,000 entitled for future development, making it a complete district means prioritization for infill development with vertical mixed-use buildings that stack residential units above ground-floor retail, planning staff say in the Vision Plan.

There are currently about 2,000 multi-family units built in the district, with another 1,000 entitled. More residents in the area boosts the year-round customer base for restaurants and retail, and would activate public spaces, parks and public transit there.

The Vision Plan could propose amending Comprehensive Plan ordinance standards to allow for residential throughout the I-Drive District, accommodate vertical mixed-use development throughout while limiting some uses to certain subdistricts, and incentivizing mixed-income housing.


-- Providing civic and public gathering spaces with public art features that reinforce community identity and authenticity: Aside from walkability, a lack of civic open space is the most obvious deficiency on and around I-Drive, according to the report. There are no public parks within the 4,000-acre district.


National design and environmental groups champion open space for providing cooler urban temperatures, increasing property values, and offering free amenities to residents and visitors. A recurring recommendation for the I-Drive District has also been Place Branding, which includes building public spaces that help a district create an identity.

Ways to include this in future code include requiring new development to have civic open space, establishing standards for open space types like plazas, squares and "pocket parks," promoting and accommodating independent businesses that specialize in local goods, and developing a district-wide "Place Branding" theme.

-- Foster economic development by promoting and facilitating infill and redevelopment opportunities within the district: The county owns two properties in the district it could redevelop to serve as best-practice examples for infill under the new Vision Plan.

The first is a 12-acre site just south of the Hilton Orlando along Destination Parkway, within a quarter mile walk of OCCC. It currently houses a public parking garage, and could be the future site of a Destination Parkway Transit Center that connects with Orlando International Airport by train. This parcel has been pitched as a transit-oriented development that features office, residential and a future train station.

A detailed look at the undeveloped parcels that could gain value by their proximity to county transit projects in the works.

The other county-owned parcel is 28 acres in the SeaWorld subdistrict, just south of SR 528. At the July I-Drive Visioning Committee monthly meeting, planning staff mocked up a conceptual mixed-use development for the property. It included 102,450 square feet of big-box retail, 179,900 square feet of smaller retail, 177,300 square feet of office space, 57,600 square feet of institutional/public use, 300 residential units, 2,100 parking spaces, along with green space to spare.

Planning Manager Alberto Vargas cited Orlando's SoDo complex with Target as a similar mixed-use concept on a similar parcel size. Ways the Vision Plan code could prompt such redevelopment include codifying infill development opportunities for underutilized surface parking lots, or adopting shared parking requirements and promoting consolidation with parking garages and on-street parking.

-- Promoting efficiency and sustainability by incorporating green building practices, and capitalizing on local resources: The I-Drive District is planned to be the first in the county to adopt a new Sustainable Land Development Code.

Part of the Vision Plan and supporting code will be to implement Mayor Teresa Jacobs' "Our Home For life Sustainability Plan" at the district level, which involves reducing greenhouse gas emissions, incentivizing green building, using low-impact development practices, increasing renewable energy, providing affordable housing and increasing transit-oriented development.

Strategies in the Vision Plan to help with this include expanding the existing district energy system to accommodate new urban development, reducing potable water usage through efficiency measures and increasing water re-use systems, incentivizing green building certifications like LEED, and requiring low-impact development practices and "Florida Friendly" landscaping to capture storm water runoff.

25-Year Gameplan
The final Vision Plan may help prioritize public works projects in the I-Drive District over the next five, 15 and 25 years.

Bidding for GCs should now open in January 2016, with construction to start next June. The connection will provide direct access to 76 acres of undeveloped land.

Vargas highlighted Friday that in the next five years, the tourism corridor should see Destination Parkway connected between I-Drive and Universal Boulevard, an elevated pedestrian bridge built at Sand Lake Road and I-Drive, utility lines moved underground with Duke Energy north of Sand Lake Road, a Shingle Creek Trail built, bike-sharing program brought to the district and way-finding signage developed for all the subdistricts.

At 15 years, the area should have a circulator bus system in the OCCC subdistrict, a premium transit option to OIA, expansion of the district energy system, more public park space and an extension of Kirkman Road through property soon to be owned -- and re-sold -- by Colony Capital.

At 25 years, Vargas projects a wave of new parking garage structures will built throughout the district (though this could be accelerated), Mardarin Drive will be extended northeast to connect with Sand Lake Road, and urban "gateway" features will be built on Universal Boulevard.

The I-Drive Vision Plan's steering committee next meets on Nov. 20 at 9 a.m., at a location on OCCC property yet to be determined.

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