Universal Boulevard can offer a clean slate for urban redesign over the next 25 years, as part of the new 2040 Strategic Vision Plan for a 4,000-acre study area around International Drive.
But with a decision to come in the next month by Orange County commissioners on adopting a new transect-based development code for the tourism corridor, some property owners on Universal are in conflict with a potential height requirement of four stories along the frontage of primary roads.
The issue was raised Friday at the final meeting of the Convention Plaza District Review Group, a group made up of county planners and I-Drive stakeholders who've met 54 times over the past 18 months.
In writing the new Regulating Plan and code, planners delved into how the vast width of Universal Boulevard could be harnessed to provide features I-Drive never can -- like on-street parking.
The boulevard's width -- at 280 feet in some areas -- offers a broader canvas for reimagining street design and building scale, to achieve a walkable urbanism the I-Drive Vision Plan aims for.
County planners have proposed that buildings fronting Universal Boulevard stand at four stories or more, to fulfill inclusive urban design concepts that planning staff emphasize as key in redeveloping the I-Drive District.
That height requirement was the "big elephant in the room" on Friday, said planning manager Alberto Vargas. He introduced the debate of enforcing new building height-to-width ratios in the code, or allowing land owners to easily develop with their vested rights.
Brad Goeb, director in Orlando for Universal City Property Management III, an affiliate of developer Stan Thomas' Thomas Enterprises out of Newnan, Georgia, said he was concerned his group's undeveloped frontage on Universal Boulevard would be harder to sell in the near-term with a height requirement.
Ryan Holihan, acquisitions director for Sunrise-based Global Fund Investments, echoed the concern. His group owns the Publix-anchored Lake Cay Commons Plaza on the corner of Universal Boulevard and Destination Parkway, where they're trying to sell or develop two outparcels (0.75 and 0.84 acres) that front Universal.
"If I had to have two stories or more there, that just kills the development opportunity for what is, and has been for years now, a standard retail center," he said.
Enforcing a new height requirement on the frontage of primary roads like I-Drive and Universal Boulevard is the only way to turn around decades of short-term, market-based developer decisions that have led to a suburban landscape in the tourism corridor, said Marcos Bastian, chief planner with Orange County who helped write the Regulating Plan.
"Urban development opportunity will never come if you continue to allow the same single-story projects, which will occupy that space for another 30 years," he said.
The challenge is, without a firm height requirement to enforce, all the undeveloped land along Universal Boulevard and Destination Parkway is included in existing Planned Developments (PDs), with unused entitlements that will allow for more of the same. Market forces may push vertical development on that land, but it's not guaranteed.
If height requirements are included in the Regulating Plan's final approval, existing land owners with vested entitlements will have options.
Those with PDs can amend the Land Use Plan to comply with the new code quickly, without a public hearing. Owners who want to use their existing PD can apply for a vested rights determination by county staff.
The new Regulating Plan standards and code will go before the Planning & Zoning Commission on June 21, followed by two public hearings before County Commissioners to adopt the code on Aug. 2 and Aug. 16.
Undeveloped land along the tourism corridor is becoming increasingly scarce and priced at a premium, but a handful of scheduled roadway improvement projects will open up isolated parcels, or increase frontage value exponentially.
The following roadway project updates were highlighted at Friday's meeting:
DARYL CARTER PARKWAY
Daryl Carter Parkway, to be extended 1.6 miles connecting Palm Parkway to Apopka-Vineland Road, is now slated for construction to start February 2017 and run through February 2019. The four-lane road will offer a new connection from Apopka-Vineland to International Drive when finished.
Nearly 500 acres of undeveloped land would be opened up to new development by the extension, with three landowners participating in a Public Private Partnership with Orange County and the Florida Department of Transportation. The project is now on an accelerated schedule, with meetings in the next two to three months set to solidify construction funding.
Maury L. Carter & Associates represents 198 acres of undeveloped land across eight parcels along Daryl Carter Parkway south of I-4, and land north of it where the road extension will run.
More than 100 of those acres are now under contract and should close this year, with another 50 acres pending contract that could close in First Quarter 2017, president Daryl M. Carter told GrowthSpotter on Friday.
"That parkway extension will be a big plus to the county, area residents and land owners who've waited patiently and worked for this to come to fruition," he said.
Between the 15 acres of land Carter's group has already dedicated to right-of-way for the parkway extension, and money it's spent on design, permitting and utility investments, he estimates $10-$11 million in land and expenses have been invested from his side.
The extension of Destination Parkway from Universal Boulevard to Tradeshow Boulevard is now slated to start construction in November of this year and run through April 2018. The new four-lane road will be the last segment to connect International Drive to John Young Parkway.
Projected cost of the project by Orange County Public Works was $5.7 million, as of last year. The initial portion that connects S. John Young Parkway and Universal Boulevard was built in 2014. Tail ends of Destination Parkway between Universal and International Drive have also been laid.
Right along the portion of Destination Parkway that has yet to be built, three parcels totaling 76 acres of vacant commercial land (56 acres submerged) are owned by Redus Florida Land, an LLC affiliate of Wells Fargo Bank in Charlotte.
Two Stan Thomas affiliates own a combined 30 acres across four parcels fronting the future road. Another 27 acres across two separate parcels are among those Universal Orlando affiliate SLRC Holdings acquired in December. A 1.8-acre parcel with no road access in the middle of it all is owned by Tax Deed Enterprises II LLC, a Sarasota-based investor.
INTERNATIONAL DRIVE (from S. Westwood to N. Westwood Boulevard)
This project involves widening a 2.5-mile stretch of I-Drive to the median, from four lanes to six lanes, with wide sidewalks. Building codes in the future regulating plan will activate streetfront development. Work began last September, is now 35 percent complete, and runs through July 2017.
The largest undeveloped parcel along this 2.5-mile stretch is directly across from the Doubletree by Hilton at SeaWorld, a 28-acre site owned by Orange County -- just north of SeaWorld's Aquatica water park -- that's now home to a county water treatment plant.
In July of last year, Orange County planning staff mocked up a conceptual mixed-use development for this property in the vein of Orlando's SoDo complex, showing the potential it had for retail, office, apartments and public space.
The mock up was solely a concept meant to spur ideas about land redevelopment, but it drew immediate praise at that time from I-Drive stakeholders in attendance.
South of Aquatica on this stretch of I-Drive is a 22-acre parcel owned by SeaWorld, its current use listed as "planted timber" on the Orange County Property Appraiser's site. The land is part of a Planned Development, bordered by the water park to the north, retail and dining to the south, and single-family homes to the east.
Southeast of the intersection with Central Florida Parkway lies a 2.8-acre tract that Sanford developer Matt Gillio is floating for sale, with entitlements near final approval with the county for up to 175 rooms and 13,203 square feet.
The property neighbors a 2.38-acre parcel Gillio is entitling for a 140-room Cambria Suites, a a flag deal he's had set with Choice Hotels since mid-2015. Gillio and his broker representing the land previously told GrowthSpotter he's open to developing or selling both parcels.