Lake Wales officials are seeking proposals to reinvigorate and reinvent the downtown with a new mixed-use development on an underutilized parking lot.
They are asking private developers to submit plans that fulfill the vision of a pedestrian-friendly main street district that invites people to stop, live, work and play instead of the drive-through area it is now, Mark Bennett told GrowthSpotter.
Bennett, Lake Wales director of development services, said a request for proposal (RFP) to develop what is known as the Stuart and Wetmore Parking Lot Property was prompted by talks with a developer interested in downtown. He declined to name the developer. The RFP was issued by the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency with proposals due by 2 p.m. Jan. 8. Green solutions are encouraged, along with creative and innovative designs that still keep to the historic nature of downtown.
The city-owned property at the southeast corner of Stuart Avenue and Wetmore Street is .43 acres and currently used for surface parking. It lies within an opportunity zone and is “ideal for a mix of uses that further Plan goals such as retail, office, mixed use and/or live-work spaces with retail/office on first floor and residential above,” the RFP reads.
The federal Opportunity Zones program offers tax deferrals and possibly tax-free investments in economically-distressed communities. “It definitely could change the face of downtown,” Bennett said.
Lake Wales Connected, whose Downtown Redevelopment Plan includes the Stuart and Wetmore site, has two suggested plan ideas for potential developers. Lake Wales Connected plans were designed by Coral Gables-based Dover Kohl & Partners. Version 1 of the Stuart & Wetmore site envisions 24,450 square feet of space in a couple of buildings with 3 floors and a rooftop terrace. Version 2 is larger with 31,700 square feet, 4 floors and a rooftop terrace.
“The development of this parcel is expected to catalyze redevelopment, beautification, and provide for multifamily residential, retail, and office uses within Downtown,” according to the RFP, and Bennett agrees.
“We definitely want to see residential activity in downtown,” Bennett said.
No more than 50% of the development will be residential, according to the RFP. Lake Wales Comprehensive Plan is in the process of being amended to allow for a maximum residential density of 75 units per acre in the Downtown District, which will require a special approval from the City Commission.
The city would prefer to sell the property to the chosen developer, putting it back on the tax rolls, but the RFP says officials would consider a lease or other public-private partnership. The Polk County Property Appraiser’s Office has assigned a Just Market Value of $31,362 for the property. Just Market Value is typically 85% to 90% of the actual market value.
To complement any development at the Stuart and Wetmore site, the city is working on a plan to convert the existing one-way streets to two-way traffic so that drivers don’t just skip through town, Bennett said.
“While the downtown is nice, the fact that these one-way streets are made for vehicles, it doesn’t help with creating a pedestrian friendly environment where people want to interact,” he said.
The master plan also calls for designing new lighting, landscape and small-town charm with wider sidewalks and bike lanes. The existing angled parking would be replaced with parallel parking. The city recently had a mural painted at Stuart and Scenic Highway that depicts Lake Wales downtown as it appeared in the late 20s and early 30s.
“We’re making things happen on the public side,” he said. “We are seeing an increase in activity in the private sector.” Last week, the city’s Historic District Regulatory Board had two requests for façade improvements. “That is a positive sign because it shows people are improving their properties. Things are happening downtown.”
Haines City went through a similar RFP process in late 2019, and earlier this year struck a deal with local developer Feltrim Group to build a $15 million urban infill project in the heart of its downtown. Feltrim paid the city $800,000 for the city blocks adjacent to City Hall, and the City Council agreed to build a parking garage nearby.