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City board wants more design changes for downtown apartment tower

City board wants more design changes for downtown apartment tower
Mid America Apartments revised its design and added an 11th floor to the proposed apartment tower at 336 N. Orange Ave., but it failed to win approval from the city's Appearance Review Board. (FINFROCK)

Unsatisfied with the fairly bland parking garage and lack of ground floor retail at a prominent downtown corner, Orlando’s Appearance Review Board withheld approval Thursday of a proposed 11-story apartment building next to the Bank of America tower.

Tennessee-based Mid America Apartment Communities (MAA) paid $6 million in April for the 2-acre corner lot at 336 N. Orange Ave. The developer won approval in late March to rezone the site, which currently serves as a parking lot for St. James Catholic Cathedral. Since that time, MAA has revised the plan to add the 11th floor (previously it was 10) and to expand the unit count to 368 -- up from 325.

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Matthew Smith, Senior Vice President of Investments for MAA, told GrowthSpotter the company was eager to pull building permits and break ground as soon as it cleared the final approvals, but the ARB deferred action on the project’s Major Certificate of Appearance Approval until the developer and architect made several design changes.

The Diocese of Orlando sold the property to MAA on the condition that the developer provide 200 parking spaces in its garage. The first three floors of the garage are reserved for the church’s exclusive use, but that also added height to the parking structure that gave some members of the ARB pause.

This is the view of the parking garage from the southwest corner, with Bank of America tower in the background. The developer plans to plant climbing vines to cover the base of the garage.
This is the view of the parking garage from the southwest corner, with Bank of America tower in the background. The developer plans to plant climbing vines to cover the base of the garage. (FINFROCK)

The board agreed with the ARB staff in requesting that the design-build contractor, Finfrock, enhance the parapet on the roof to add more visual interest to the skyline. They also wanted changes to the landscaping plan and to the western elevation of the parking garage, which would be seen from Interstate 4.

Michael Mulhall wanted to know why this project wasn’t being held to the same standard as the Modera Central.

“What I’m asking for is that it doesn’t look like a hideous, bare-bones garage in the middle of our downtown,” he said.

ARB Director Doug Metzger explained that the developer of Modera Central used the colorful screening on the garage to fulfill the required public art component of the building because they were seeking a density bonus. MAA isn’t seeking a density bonus, so it’s not required to provide public art.

This nighttime view of the fitness center at the corner of Orange and Robinson. The ARB wanted the corner to redesigned so it could be redeveloped as retail uses in the future.
This nighttime view of the fitness center at the corner of Orange and Robinson. The ARB wanted the corner to redesigned so it could be redeveloped as retail uses in the future. (FRINFROCK)

The ARB also revisited one of the most controversial elements of the project - the lack of ground-floor retail uses on Orange Avenue. The project meets the legal requirement of the downtown design guidelines by dedicating half of the frontage on Orange Avenue for retail. The southern half of the block is reserved for the leasing office and fitness center, but it was designed in such as way that it could be converted for retail use in the future.

The issue was hotly debated by the Municipal Planning Board in December but ultimately won approval. Smith made a convincing argument that the parking agreement with the church would make the additional retail unfeasible.

Again Mulhall was the most critical of the site plan, saying the project creates a “dead space” at the southeast corner. “Robinson is not anywhere near where it should be for a downtown block. This is Orange and Robinson -- it’s a critical block."

Jason Burton, assistant division manager for planning, reiterated to the board that they can not regulate the site planning, which falls under the jurisdiction of the MPB. They can, however, ask that the developer tweak the design of its amenity spaces so it looks more like a retail site.

The MAA project is one of three residential towers now planned on vacant lots immediately surrounding the BoA tower. New York-based developer Property Markets Group (PMG) breaks ground this year on its “X Orlando” tri-tower apartment development at 424 N. Orange Ave.

Miami-based MEC Development Associates wants to build a 41-story mixed-use tower across the street. It would be Orlando’s tallest skyscraper. The “Zoi House” would have 25 floors of residential use, along with ground-floor retail and boutique office-commercial space.

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at lkinsler@GrowthSpotter.com or (407) 420-6261, or tweet me at @LKinslerOGrowth. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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