Learning from Orlando

December 28, 2006 4 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Orlando is best known for it?s tourist attractions, particularly Walt Disney World, SeaWorld, and Universal Studios. Combined, these along with several smaller attractions pull in an estimated 52 million tourists a year and in the process make Orlando the second largest city in the country for number of hotel rooms.

This market has also contributed to several faux downtown / urban environments including Downtown Disney, Universal City Walk, a host of town center developments, Celebration and International Drive. Despite the competition and being far from the attractions, Downtown Orlando has recently grown to be an epicenter for redevelopment, with many projects currently under construction or planned. Despite the fierce competition from its suburbs and a physical location that is inferior to Downtown Jacksonville,  The City Beautiful  continues to thrive and is an interesting comparison to ours.


The city gets it's name from a Volusia County sugar mill and plantation owner, known as Orlando Reeves.  Pioneer settlers found his name carved into a tree and assumed it was a marker for his grave site.  They then referred to the area as "Orlando's Grave" and eventually "Orlando". 

The city was incorporated in 1875 when it became the hub of the Florida citrus industry.  In the mid-20th Century, Florida's largest inland city became a defense hub with Martin Marietta's missile plant, the Orlando Naval Training Center and McCoy Air Force Base serving as it's economic engines.  Nevertheless, it was still a small town with only 54,228 residents in 1960.  For comparison's sake, Jacksonville had a population of 57,699 in 1910.

Perhaps the most critical event for Orlando's economy occurred in 1965 when Walt Disney announced plans to build Walt Disney World. Although he had considered Miami and Tampa, one of the major reasons behind his decision not to locate in those cities was the threat of hurricanes. The famous vacation resort opened in October 1971, ushering in an explosive population and economic growth for the metropolitan area. As a result, tourism became the centerpiece of the area's economy and Orlando is consistently ranked as one of the top vacation destinations in the world.

Today, Orlando’s economy has diversified with tourism, convention, computer software and manufacturing leading private sector job growth.


Orlando Population 2005: 213,233 (City); 1,933,255 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1875)

Jacksonville Pop. 2005: 782,623 (City); 1,248,371 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1940: Jacksonville (173,000); Orlando (26,598)



The Downtown area could definitely benefit from pedestrian wayfaring signage, however visitors will have no problem finding signage directing them to public parking garages.



Orlando’s City Hall building (center), was completed in 1992. The old city hall was blown up in an explosion featured in the opening scene of Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon 3.




In February, as a part of its move to downtown, Central Florida News 13 promised to make its presence known in its new neighborhood. Keeping it’s word, the station erected an electronic headline crawl on it’s building (shown above) and a large electronic news screen facing popular Wall Street Plaza.



The main route through downtown is Orange Avenue, a one-way street on which traffic flows to the south. It is known by locals for its nightlife and for the tall office buildings that dot the roadway. This area is by far the busiest and is encountering intense development, some of which include the 400'  55 West on Church Street, The Vue, a 426' condo development soon to be the second tallest in the city, Tradition Towers, twin 415 ft buildings just west of Lake Eola, and PremierTrade Plaza, a large mixed-use development consisting of two office towers and a residential tower, called Solaire. A 12-screen movie theater is planned as well.



The Chicone Building houses Valencia Community College's Downtown Center.  Orlando is a city that believes in having as many educational establishments in the downtown core as possible. Recently the city went up against neighboring Tampa and Lakeland for Florida A&M's College of Law's Central Florida campus.  The new school opened in March of 2006.  Soon after, the city worked a deal with suburban University of Central Florida to convert an underutilized city-owned building into a new downtown campus for the university.  The deal will also convert a highrise Marriott hotel into a dormitory for the university's downtown students.



Orange Avenue, looking South about one block north of Wall Street Plaza. News 13’s electronic screen can be seen on the far right.



There’s no trolley bus roaming the streets in this city. Instead, there’s a BRT system called LYMMO which provides free rides along a 3 mile loop in the heart of the city. Unfortunately, BRT lanes eliminate on-street parallel parking. It should be no surprise that the streets in which the bus service runs, have limited street level retail establishments in operation. This should be a lesson for our leaders and JTA officials, since we currently have a downtown BRT system planned that will eliminate most of the parallel parking spaces on Forsyth and Bay Streets.



Cameron Kuhn's Premiere Trade Plaza, nearing completion, is the largest mixed-use development in the history of downtown Orlando. When complete, the project will contain three towers featuring 395,000 square feet of office condos, 103,000 square feet of retail, 300 residential units and a 12-screen movie theater.


Premiere Trade Plaza's night lighting scheme includes several things Metro Jacksonville has been advocating in the Lighting Laura Street Plan, something that Kuhn will also have to play a large role in, considering he owns several properties along the corridor.



In 2005, Federal and state funding was granted for the establishment of the Central Florida Commuter Rail service to operate on the CSX A line tracks between Deltona and Poinciana, passing through the downtown area and surrounding urban neighborhoods along the way. Federal and state funds will cover approximately 80% of the estimated $400 million cost for track modifications and construction of stations along the route. Pending approval by the county governments (Volusia, Seminole, Orange, and Osceola) involved and the set aside of matching funds, the line is projected to begin operations in 2009. Downtown will have two commuter rail stations. One will be on Church Street, a block away from this image, and another, eight blocks to the North.



Despite spiraling construction costs, since the project was originally announced in 2003, construction on the 32-story 55 West tower began a few months ago.  This 405 unit tower is replacing the northern half of Church Street Market, a fading urban retail center also owned by the developer.


A group of nightclubs and bars on Church Street. Orlando became the capital of pop music and mainstream music in the mid 1990s. Popular acts coming out of the city include Britney Spears, Mandy Moore, NSYNC, Creed, and the Backstreet Boys.



With eight unique bars and restaurants lining the pedestrian only street, Wall Street Plaza bills itself as the epicenter of nightlife in the Orange Avenue corridor.



Through the use of creative signage , outdoor seating and lighting, the developers of Wall Street have created a unique nightlife environment within the confines of existing historic buildings.



At night, the Plaza and its eight bars & restaurants play host to the local population seeking to get-a-way from the region’s tourist traps. For more information: www.wallstplaza.net



The Orange County Regional History Center is housed in the old Orange County Courthouse building, which was constructed in 1927. Heritage Square, the public space fronting the museum and Wall Street Plaza is Orlando’s answer to our Hemming Plaza.



Tijuana Flats Burrito Company is an Orlando-based chain with a hot sauce called "Smack My Ass and Call me Sally". The flagship location is located on the corner of Central Blvd, across from the Orange County Regional History Center, Heritage Square and Wall Street Plaza.


The "N'awlins" style Crooked Bayou is located next door to Tijuana Flats, both of which lease space in a Cameron Kuhn owned building.  Although Orlando has not been blessed with our downtown's natural features and rich history, it more than makes up for it because its restaurants and developments are located within a very compact setting.  This "Connectivity" has created a vibrant force of synergy that has pushed downtown to the brink of being a true 24/7 urban environment.  With the addition of commuter rail, more residential units and University of Central Florida's new urban campus, downtown is well on its way to being a place we still dream about.


Unlike our downtown trolley system, LYMMO takes pride in advertising the fact that service is free. Making this known, as well as providing easily identifiable stops and route signage is probably a major reason why it receives higher ridership. Maybe JTA should try to do the same with our downtown Trolley system, instead of worrying about attracting vagrants.



As said earlier, finding public parking garages is an easy thing to do. This is the garage for the main library. While the signage in this case may be excessive… it works.



Although there’s no major body of water, there are lakes. Orlando is rivaled only by Minneapolis in the number of natural lakes within the metropolitan area. Lake Eola, it’s greenway and chain of parks combine to serve as downtown’s major recreational area. With several high density mixed-uses bordering the park and a diverse amount of activity areas along the path of the greenway, this urban public space is one of the most vibrant in the State of Florida.



Cleanliness and upholding a positive image, are taken seriously by the city. There are several rules strictly enforced upon park patrons.



Lake Eola’s parks also serve as the connector between Downtown and Thorton Park (Orlando’s version of Five Points). The urban population has drastically increased in this area over the last ten years. To serve the growing residential base, a 30,000 SF urban Publix is being constructed in the base of a 16-story Art Deco condo tower called the Paramount.



At 35 stories, The Vue is tallest tower under construction in Downtown Orlando. Of interesting note, the project’s developer, Churchill Development Group, out of Chicagoland, came to Jacksonville in 2004 interested in buying the current County Courthouse parcel. Unfortunately, the courthouse delay has caused many projects like this from moving forward, while the private sector waits to see what the city will eventually do with their downtown properties.



Dynetech Center serves as a great example of selling excess city-owned downtown land. This former city surface parking lot, located a block away from The Vue, which can be seen in the background, was sold to Lincoln Property Company earlier this year.



The surface lot closed on January 15, 2006 and construction on the new tower began in Spring 2006. When complete, the 32-story Dynetech Centre will house Dynetech Corporation’s international headquarters, as well as 164 condo units and 7,250 SF of retail space.



This view captures the growing downtown skyline, as seen from above Colonial Blvd, near Fashion Square Mall.