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Winter Park moves to negotiate contract for library redevelopment project

A local developer is one step closer to getting the keys to Winter Park’s old downtown library in order to begin a $10.5 million redevelopment project.

After hearing a presentation about plans to redesign the vacant building into a co-working space with health and wellness components and a cafeteria on the ground floor, the city commission voted during a special meeting Thursday to negotiate the terms of an exclusive leasing contract with Harbert Realty Services.

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But before those details are finalized at a later date— such as the length of the lease agreement and how much the development team will pay the city per year as a tenant— city commissioners want to hear from residents who live near the 35,000-square-foot brick building next door to the Alfond Inn on New England Avenue.

“My concern is the neighborhood,” said City Commissioner Sheila DeCiccio. “I really want to hear from them before we go forward. So many times what we think is just great up here, the residents hear it and we get totally attacked.”

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The redevelopment plan was submitted by Damien Madsen, the managing director of the firm’s Winter Park office. As a long-time resident of the city who remembers studying in the former library as a teenager, he refers to this effort as a “passion project” fueled in part by a desire to give something back to his community that will benefit everyone for generations to come.

While Madsen has expressed flexibility in the ultimate usage for the bottom floor, the three commissioners present at the meeting spoke favorably of the concept as presented, particularly the idea to convert the top two floors into a destination where business professionals and aspiring entrepreneurs can set up shop for cheaper in a shared environment than they could lease stand-alone office space elsewhere.

The city needs more of these business incubator models, Mayor Phil Anderson said. He disagreed, however, with the lease parameters included in Harbert’s proposal to the city. They asked for a 60-year lease, during which they would pay the city $250,000 per year with a 10% rent escalation every 5 years.

Considering the city doesn’t want to sell the property and lose control of that prime downtown land, that’s too long of a lease term to Anderson.

“I’ve wrestled with sale or no sale,” he said. “Right now I’m on the side of holding on to the land; the longer you go out on the lease term the more it is like selling. I’m uncomfortable with a 60-year term because it’s too much like a sale. If we can get something done with a 30 or 40-year term, not precluding renewals, that would make me feel better about it.”

The city could eventually decide to sell down the road, he added. “If we did decide to sell, we have in place a buyer that would get the first look.”

In the coming weeks, the city will negotiate details of the lease with Harbert before it comes back to the commission for a final vote at a not-yet-determined date.

Commissioners Marty Sullivan and Todd Weaver were absent from Thursday’s meeting.

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Winter Park built a new library on Morse Road in 2021, leaving behind an empty three-story building in the heart of its downtown corridor within walking distance of Park Avenue.

For years, city leadership has pondered what to do with the former library. Hoping to see a new use for the deserted structure, the city put out a request for proposals, giving interested parties a month to place bids detailing their vision.

However, the city made it clear they didn’t want to see the building razed; they didn’t want it converted into an apartment building; they didn’t want anything that would draw too much traffic to the area since the parking lot was so small, with only 68 spaces.

What they received was the one lone bid from Harbert Realty Services and a team consisting of Birmingham-based contracting firm Brasfield & Gorrie and Orlando-based architecture firm HuntonBrady.

The extensive scope of work proposed by Harbert 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 in an earlier interview. But to him, it’s worth much more than the capital investment.

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“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.”

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. 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.

Madsen said he’s exploring other ideas for the bottom floor as well, such as a new home for the Winter Park History Museum and a gift shop with merchandise focused on the city and nearby Rollins College.

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.

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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.”

He told commissioners Thursday that he’s already received a commitment from one business ready to utilize the co-working space.

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.

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“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.”

The plans for the property impressed Commissioner Kris Cruzada.

“I’m liking what I’m hearing,” he told Madsen. “Your longstanding history with the community is a plus as well because you realize the space is important to the city of Winter Park.”

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at (407)-800-1161 or dwyatt@GrowthSpotter.com, or tweet me at @DustinWyattGS. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.


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