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In this future redevelopment concept for Universal Boulevard, traffic on the thoroughfare moves through six central lanes, with wide tree-lined sidewalks on either side, and dedicated frontage roads with angled street-front parking.
In this future redevelopment concept for Universal Boulevard, traffic on the thoroughfare moves through six central lanes, with wide tree-lined sidewalks on either side, and dedicated frontage roads with angled street-front parking. (Orange County Planning Staff)

While International Drive and the Convention Plaza District should absorb an urban design and mixed-use energy over the next 25 years from the new 2040 Strategic Vision Plan, just a few hundred feet to the east is a clean slate along Universal Boulevard that Orange County planning staff see even greater potential for.

The I-Drive Vision Plan was accepted for review Tuesday by Orange County's Board of County Commissioners. A detailed development code will follow in mid-December for BCC review, and updates to the county's Comprehensive Plan could come by March or April 2016.

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A seven-subdistrict future for the tourism corridor faces initial review by County Commissioners on Tuesday. While a battle over height limits for I-Drive attractions has grabbed the most attention, the plan's vision is much bigger than that.

In that 108-page book, Planning Manager Alberto Vargas and his team delved into how the vast width of Universal Boulevard could be harnessed to provide features I-Drive never can -- like on-street parking.

"Universal Boulevard offers the best potential for a multi-way boulevard that serves the need to move cars, but also offers frontage roads on either side that can civilize and support that new building frontage," Vargas said.

Universal Boulevard provides a complementary north-south thoroughfare to International Drive that is currently far less developed and trafficked. More than 500 acres east of Universal are in various stages of sale and development, between land soon to be owned by Colony Capital and property owned by various LLC affiliates of Atlanta-based developer Stan Thomas.

CBRE's Orlando land services team was formally hired in mid-October, and Colony now wants to sell all 474 acres across 19 parcels as a package, with expectations of $150 million or more.

The boulevard's sheer width -- at 280 feet in some areas -- offers the broadest canvas Orange County planning staff could ask for while re-imagining the purpose of Universal in the coming years.

It also means design of the street and scale of the buildings will require a different treatment in order to achieve a walkable urbanism the I-Drive Vision Plan aims for.

Vargas and staff propose a redesign for Universal Boulevard that features six traffic-focused lanes on either side of a central tree-lined median, similar to the boulevard's state today. But on either side of those lanes would be wide, landscaped sidewalks, which are then bordered to the right by a frontage road with angled on-street parking that serves street-front buildings.

The landscaped walkway provides aesthetic appeal and shade, but just as importantly provides protection from traffic and an enclosure for buildings and the people walking by them, Vargas and staff wrote in the plan.

A single row of angled parking that fronts each building invites cars to pull off the main thoroughfare and park without placing an extensive, unattractive parking lot between pedestrian activity and the building itself.

County planning staff were inspired by the multi-way boulevard concept of Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, the vibrant promenade known as La Rambla in Barcelona, Cleveland's 6.8-mile HealthLine along Euclid Avenue, Winter Park's Park Avenue and College Park's Edgewater Drive.

At its current width of 280 feet, buildings that front Universal Boulevard may be best served with heights of 70 feet or more, which offers at least a 1:4 ratio to fulfill inclusive urban design concepts that planning staff emphasize as key in redeveloping the I-Drive District.

The District Apartments was highlighted on south Universal Boulevard as a good example of height-to-width ratio for an urban redesign of the boulevard.
The District Apartments was highlighted on south Universal Boulevard as a good example of height-to-width ratio for an urban redesign of the boulevard. (Orange County Planning Staff)

The District Apartments along south Universal Boulevard, near the corner with Destination Parkway, is a multi-family complex with ground-floor retail that offers a successful example of urban design standards along Universal, Vargas said.

While the I-Drive Vision Plan is not officially on the books yet with code that developers must adhere to, county planning staff have encouraged a handful of new project applicants to embrace the plan's core concepts this year, while the Vision Plan's steering committee was still holding meetings.

New York-based investment group Empire Equities submitted a development plan in August for a 365-room hotel tower and three-story parking garage, on a Universal Boulevard parcel just north of the Orange County Convention Center. Vargas said the applicant has embraced core concepts of the Vision Plan, like moving the building closer to the street front.

"We've had a productive dialogue with some developers who have entitlements in that area," Vargas said. "When we sit down with them, we've tried to explain the goals of this vision and make them comfortable with how they can be successful incorporating these design standards into their plans," instead of relying on traditional suburban designs they're used to.

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Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at bmoser@growthspotter.com, (407) 420-5685 or @bobmoser333. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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