A New York investment adviser was hoping to walk out of Wednesday's pre-application meeting with a green light from Osceola County staff to pursue plans for a motel conversion to affordable housing units, right at the Florida Turnpike exit on E192.
Instead he learned his proposed site, the Budgetel Inn & Suites, is subject to the county's current building moratorium -- meaning county officials would not even process an application until Oct. 29. In addition, members of the county's Development Review Committee were cool to the idea of renovating the 42-year-old motel.
"You're trying to salvage the existing building?" Principal Engineer Jose Gomez asked. "What we're trying to do is encourage demolition and new construction."
Ivan Hopkins, Managing Director for Mercurial Capital Partners, said he had been searching for hotel and motel properties in Florida that could be converted into "micro unit" apartments to provide affordable housing in growing communities. The concept is based on the winner of a New York design competition that featured a 300-square-foot studio apartment.
Similar projects in other urban areas, such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have utilized floorplans ranging from 400 to 500 square feet.
"The appeal of micro units is, for most, an interest in lower monthly rents, desirable location, and the ability to live alone," he said. "Right now I'm taking that concept to see if it's applicable to other markets. I believe everyone's entitled to a nice, safe, affordable place to live."
He's not the first to eye the E192 corridor for such a project. In April, a trio of local engineers bought the former Howard Johnson motel on Simpson Road (just across the Turnpike exit ramp) and are converting it into affordable housing.
Fire Marshal Dan McAvoy questioned the structural integrity of the motel properties, especially the vacant buildings at the rear of the property that have had interior demolition work. "We've had a lot of problems in the past with fires in those buildings," he said. "You could have a longevity issue, so you'd need to have someone take a look at that."
He also advised Hopkins and his partner, general contractor and electrical engineer Jim Blume, that they would have to install a sprinkler system and improve the access to fire hydrants on the property.
"Everything's basically been gutted on those buildings," he said. "There's a lot of work inside those buildings. Oh my God."
The project would also be subject to the new design standards being drafted for the E192 CRA district, which could have a drastic impact on redevelopment plans.
Assistant County Attorney Sarah Tait added a bit of levity to the meeting. "And did we mention there's ghosts?"
McAvoy then prompted Community Development Director Dave Tomek to explain the importance of the site to the development of the E192 redevelopment district, and its proximity to the new 500-acre research park just down the road. "That's a prime spot," McAvoy said.
Tomek said that converting the motel into roughly 200 studio apartments might be under-utilizing the 6-acre site. The current zoning would allow 60 dwelling units per acre.
"There's no height restriction," he said. "We're taking it away from the asphalt auto repair to uses that support the research park. So that's why we say if you can go to the highest density possible, it means you can go to the highest density possible."
Blume said he had initially hoped to leave Wednesday's meeting and begin drafting construction documents, but the reservations voiced by staff and the moratorium would force him to rethink the project schedule. He said he appreciated the candid feedback.
"Everything bothers me a whole lot," he said. "It's just the money factor and getting it safe. We're trying to meet today to try to figure it all out."
Hopkins is a former analyst for Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs who has an MBA from Harvard. He spent a decade as vice president of Black Enterprise/Greenwich Street Corporate Growth, a middle market private equity fund focused on media, consumer products and financial service companies.