As a high school student, Damien Madsen spent a lot of time inside the brick building off Park Avenue next to the Alfond Inn.
Before and after shifts waiting tables at a nearby restaurant, the Winter Park library is where he’d go to study for upcoming exams and read. The focus then was on his future.
He went to UCF, started a career in commercial real estate, and eventually became managing director of the Winter Park office for Birmingham-based Harbert Realty Services, returning to work in the downtown area he calls home.
Now, he’s hoping to return to the now-empty space a short walk away that played such a vital role in his upbringing. His focus now: The former library’s future.
With help from Birmingham-based construction firm Brasfield & Gorrie and the architecture team of Orlando-based HuntonBrady, Harbert Realty Services is embarking on an expected $10.5 million effort to renovate the bottom floor of the former library into a nutritional cafeteria with multiple health and wellness tenants. The top floors would be transformed into a co-working hub with office and meeting space.
The extensive scope of work involves the installation of a new elevator, a new stairway, and extra windows to let in more natural light. Every inch of flooring would be stripped and replaced. New interior walls will go up. The bathrooms would be completely redone in order to meet ADA compliance. An outdoor gathering spot would be created near the entrance of the cafeteria with tables, chairs, and benches beneath the shade of large trees.
It would cost as much as constructing a whole new building from the ground up, Madsen told GrowthSpotter. But to him, it’s worth much more than the capital investment.
“This is a passion project,” he said. “The idea of taking a building that I’m extremely familiar with and has been a part of my life growing up and then creating a new life for that building for the next generations — that is what really excites me. We are looking at it more in terms of what can we do for the city of Winter Park versus what can we do in terms of adding a new building to the market.”
But before Madsen can begin what he expects to be a year-long process, he’ll need a green light from the city. The plan for the old library is expected to go before the Winter Park City Commission for a vote on August 11.
Winter Park built a new library on Morse Road in 2021, leaving behind an empty building in the heart of its downtown corridor.
With the former library deserted, the city invited the private sector to bring forward redevelopment ideas. A selection committee was tabbed, expected to pick their favorite among the proposals. Their role in the process, however, was reduced when only one bid came in.
It’s now up to the commission to determine what’s next. They can approve the project proposed by Madsen and his team or they could go in a different direction, such as starting the bidding process over to see if a second go-around yields more results. They could also elect to put the building up for sale.
While the commission has previously dismissed the notion of selling the property, City Manager Randy Knight said at a recent meeting that the city would get a better deal if it did so. It’s worth another round of discussion, he said.
“I don’t see the commission changing their minds, but we just feel obligated to say “Are you sure?’ You could sell this property and it’s going to be a better deal for the city from a financial standpoint,” he said.
As of now, the city intends to maintain ownership of the building. What Madsen would be asked to pay the city under a lease agreement will also be worked out in future commission meetings, said city spokeswoman Clarissa Howard.
As part of his proposal to the city, Madsen submitted renderings of how the 35,000-square-foot former library would look once work is complete.
“When we stumble across a deal like the Winter Park library that’s so unique, we really kind of roll up our sleeves and really pursue it aggressively and try to make it work,” Madsen said. “What we’re doing with the building, the amount of capital we are putting into the building, it’s the equivalent of building a new building. It’s going to take as much money to redevelop it as it would to build from the ground up.”
He added, “Because the city of Winter Park wanted to preserve the building, we said ‘OK, we can do it. it’s just going to require some creative thinking on how to use the building and make it work.’ But there is value in the building itself. I’m a big fan of trying to reuse things without just knocking them down.”
Floor plans of the bottom level show an L-shaped lobby with a stairwell and elevator in the center. To the right, the lobby leads to three rooms tenants can lease for medical, health, and fitness services or programs. The largest room totals 3,303 square feet, while the smallest measures in at 1,536. The first room visitors would see when they turn right at the lobby totals 1,806 square feet.
To the immediate left of the lobby is a cafe that Madsen says will offer healthy and natural menu items. While he doesn’t anticipate it wearing a national or regional brand, Madsen envisions something similar to Clean Eatz, a franchise based out of Wilmington, N.C. that has locations in Orlando, Winter Garden and Clermont.
There, guests can order salads, bowls, flatbreads, smoothies, turkey burgers, and wraps.
“It’ll be a health and wellness cafe with kind of a nutritionist vibe to it,” Madsen said. “We don’t want to test out a new concept, so we are going to explore successful concepts that are health and wellness related.”
At the southwest edge of the former library building, the cafe leads out to a circular outdoor seating area. Renderings show it as a gathering spot.
“We wanted to bring something to the Winter Park community that everybody could use,” Madsen added. “We believe everybody, whether they adhere to a health and wellness regimen (or not) there’s always an idea that you want to be healthier and feel well about yourself. We thought it was a good idea to bring the Winter Park market. Everything we’ve decided to do is based on providing something to the city of Winter Park and the community can use.”
The top two floors of the library building would be reserved for coworking space — a place where people can work, network, exchange ideas, hold meetings, etc.
Madsen said he’d like to see it eventually host speaker series on myriad topics.
He explained the concept at a June 30 meeting with city staff.
“That is a very, very in-demand type of space right now,” he told city staff. “This year, because of the pandemic, there’s an absolute fundamental shift in how people use office space and it’s here to stay, it’s not going away.”
He added, “The hybrid model, of people working at home or working in an office, is also here to stay. During the pandemic, we realized that a lot of people who were either laid off or left their jobs have now decided to start their own businesses or collaborate with others to start businesses. We think this is an opportunity for those people to use a space in Winter Park that allows them to do that. So the top two floors I think is pretty much dead-on what we should do.”
Madsen noted that while the interior needs some work — such as new elevators, stairs, flooring, the construction of a cafeteria, remodeled bathrooms, and more — the exterior of the building would remain relatively unchanged, save for the addition of extra windows.
“One of the things that the building lacks is windows,” he said.
He added, “we are working within the confines of the core and shell building, and we are keeping essentially the same look with the brick and everything.”
Chris Evans, the vice president and division manager with Brasfield & Gorrie, said It will take thoughtful effort from the team to update the building while still maintaining much of the original architecture.
“The library renovation project is a unique opportunity to sustain and reinvigorate a building that has been part of Winter Park history for a long time,” he said. “We have enjoyed longstanding relationships with Harbert and with the Winter Park community, and it’s a privilege to be considered for a project with this level of community impact.”
Built in 1979, the structure sits directly beside the upscale 112-room Alfond Inn, which is in the midst of a makeover. Once complete, the hotel will be expanded with another 71 luxury guestrooms and suites and a new light-filled lobby Café serving coffee, crepes and light bites, transitioning to beer and wine in the evenings.
The old library property is within walking distance of the boutiques and restaurants that line Park Avenue. And it’s across the street from an 81-bed student housing facility for Rollins College, with the rest of the campus for the private college stretching to the west.
“It’s a building that I’ve been familiar with for my entire life,” Madsen said of the old library, recollecting on his high school memories " Even though it’s not really a historic building, it really is an iconic building. Winter Park is near and dear to me.”