Elements of Urbanism: Winter Haven

June 6, 2011 18 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville visits the downtown of a Central Florida city best known for being located near the former Cypress Gardens theme park: Winter Haven.

Tale of the Tape

Winter Haven Population 2010: 33,874 (City); 602,095 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1911)

Jacksonville Pop. 2010: 821,784 (City); 1,328,144 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City Population 1950: Jacksonville (204,517); Winter Haven (--,---)

Metropolitan Area Growth Rate (2000-2010)

Winter Haven: +24.42%
Jacksonville: +19.85%

Urban Area Population (2000 census)

Winter Haven: 153,924 (ranked 187th nationwide)
Jacksonville: 882,295 (ranked 43rd nationwide)

Urban Area Population Density (2000 census)

Winter Haven: 1477.7
Jacksonville: 2149.2

City Population Growth from 2000 to 2010

Winter Haven: +7,387
Jacksonville: +86,167

Convention Center Exhibition Space:

Winter Haven: N/A
Jacksonville: Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center (1986) - 78,500 square feet

Connected to Convention Center:

Winter Haven: N/A
Jacksonville: N/A

Tallest Building:

Winter Haven: Episcopal Catholic Apartments - 160 feet
Jacksonville: Bank of America Tower - 617 feet

Fortune 500 companies 2010 (City limits only):

Winter Haven: Zero (0)
Jacksonville: CSX (259), Winn-Dixie (306), Fidelity National Financial (366)


Urban infill obstacles:

Winter Haven: Auto arterials (1st Street and 6th Street SW/SE) cut off downtown from adjacent neighborhoods.
Jacksonville: State & Union Streets cut off Downtown Jacksonville from Springfield.


Downtown Nightlife:

Winter Haven: Central Park Area
Jacksonville: East Bay Street


Common Downtown Albatross:

Surface parking lots.

Whose Downtown is more walkable?

Winter Haven: 80 out of 100, according to walkscore.com
Jacksonville: 88 out of 100, according to walkscore.com

City Land Area
Winter Haven: 17.7 square miles
Jacksonville: 757.7 square miles

About Winter Haven

Winter Haven is a city in Polk County, Florida, United States. The population was 26,487 at the 2000 census. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2007 estimates, the city had a population of 32,577, making it the second most populated city in Polk County. It is a principal city of the Lakeland–Winter Haven Metropolitan Statistical Area.

The area was platted in 1884 and would first be known as Harris Corners. A year later, the name Winter Haven was suggested because of the area's pleasant climate. By the end of the century the population grew to around 400 and in 1911, the City of Winter Haven was incorporated. The Chain of Lakes canals were begun in 1915.

The streets of downtown Winter Haven are arranged in a grid plan. 1st Street (SR 549) is the north-south axis, with two sets of numbered streets running parallel - one to the east (e.g. 7th St. NE/SE), and one to the west (e.g. 6th St. NW/SW). Central Avenue (SR 542) is the west-east axis, with two sets of lettered avenues similarly running parallel on either side.
The first Florida boom took place in the 1920s as towns sprang up all over the peninsula. Florida's potential as a place to live and a place to visit was first realized then, but the Great Depression slowed growth in Florida until after World War II. In Winter Haven; however, the definitive event in the city's history happened in 1936 with the opening of Cypress Gardens by Dick and Julie Pope. The opening of Cypress Gardens ensured the city's future success. In 2009 it was announced that Legoland Florida would be built on the old Cypress Gardens site. This Legoland when opened in the fall of 2011 will be the largest Legoland park in the world.

Winter Haven is called "The Chain of Lakes City" because of its numerous fresh water lakes which touch or are contained within the city limits. 24 of the 45 lakes in Winter Haven are connected by a system of navigable canals better known as the "Chain of Lakes". Winter Haven has Florida's first theme park, Cypress Gardens Adventure Park (Closed Sept 2009, will become Legoland Florida). It is also the home of Winter Haven Hospital and Winter Haven's Gilbert Airport. Winter Haven also contains many buildings designed by Gene Leedy, one of the founders of the Sarasota School of Architecture. The Chain of Lakes City used to be the spring training home to the Philadelphia Phillies (1928–1937), Boston Red Sox (1966–1992) and the Cleveland Indians (1993–2008). The Red Sox moved to Fort Myers in 1992, and the Indians left after 2008 to return to Arizona.

An aerial of downtown Winter Haven in 1924. Photograph courtesy of the Florida State Archives.

Downtown Winter Haven's Dilemma

Growth and development in the City of Winter Haven has been a direct result of expansion of the Florida railroad system into Polk County in the early 1880's.  The railroad stimulated economic development in the area providing a means to export citrus products that have been the historic base of the regional economy.  Rail terminals established locations for packing houses with convenient access for product distribution.  The location of these facilities has unfortunately caused long term impacts on land use patterns and physical conditions in the vicinity of the downtown.  Abandonment of the Seaboard Coastline Railroad a century later has left a corridor of vacant and deteriorating properties in the center of the City.
http://www.egovlink.com/public_documents300/winterhaven/published_documents/WinterHaven/CRA/WH CRA Downtown Redevelopment Plan.pdf

The Solution

In 1995 Winter Haven was designated a Florida Main Street City and Main Street Winter Haven, Inc. was established to carry out the National Main Street Approach , a successful revitalization strategy used in over 2,200 cities across the United States.

Main Street Winter Haven, Inc. is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization that involves the entire community in revitalizing downtown. Our objective is to improve the image of downtown by facilitating change and growth in four distinct areas: Organization, Promotion, Design and Economic Development.

Part of the Main Street philosophy is that downtown belongs to the entire community. Everyone has a stake and a role to play in the revitalization of their downtown.

Change Agent

One element that all downtowns have in common is that the physical, social, and economic character will change. The challenge for Winter Haven in 1995 was to keep change from translating into decline. Main Street Winter Haven’s response was to become directly involved in causing positive change. The following is a sampling of some of those changes:

•Strong public/private partnership with the City of Winter Haven

•1997 Fifth Street streetscape

•Façade grant program

•USF Study of Façade Renovations

•Downtown Façade Guidelines

•Inventory of available buildings for sale or lease

•Market Analysis and Redevelopment Recommendations for retail & residential uses

•Downtowns Development Design Strategy – LDR Plan

•Partnership with City of Winter Haven and Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce for the Florida Outdoor Sculpture Competition and “Central Park Stroll”

•Leedy Lifetime Works Tour brochure, audio tour, and website

•Developed a downtown Sign Ordinance draft

•South Central Park Design – Martin & Vargas Design firm

Central Park

The focal point of Winter Haven's downtown district is its Central Park.  The two, 1.5 acre-block green spaces are located along the historic Central Avenue corridor.  Of the two parks, the northernmost park contains the Strang Memorial Fountain as its centerpiece. Surrounding the edges of both parks are a number of well-established specialty retail shops, restaurants, and commercial and office tenants.  The area shops surrounding the parks collectively create a hub of retail tenants in the downtown.
http://www.egovlink.com/public_documents300/winterhaven/published_documents/Winter Haven/CRA/WH CRA Downtown Redevelopment Plan.pdf

Real estate salesmen waiting for incoming rail passengers from the North in Central Park in 1924.  An average of 16 passenger trains and nine freight came through town daily.  Photograph courtesy of the Florida State Archives.

South Central Park

Future plans for the immediate area call for the construction of South Central Park.  This space will transform additional land that was once home to the railroad into a public space that will include: public restrooms, an interactive water feature, a green meadow for special events, a covered performance stage, and a pavilion.
Renderings & Construction Documents Here: http://www.slideshare.net/DonaldSMartin/winter-haven-floridas-south-central-park-plan

137 5th Street NW was originally the Lake Region Hotel. Today, it serves as an office building.

This building (above) at 58 4th Street NW was the original location of Publix in 1930. In 1940, this building (below) on Central Avenue opened as its replacement.

George Jenkins opened the first Publix in a storefront that's still standing across from a park in Winter Haven in 1930.

Ten years later, he closed down that store and opened something brand new. When I say brand new -- I mean something the world had never seen.

Jenkins referred to it as a "food palace," according to Shannon Patten, a spokeswoman for the Publix chain, which is now based in Lakeland.

"This Publix was a state-of-the-art grocery store, and it had innovations that had never been seen before," Patten explained. "Electronic-eye doors, air conditioning, piped-in music, and aisles so wide, that you could actually fit a car on them."

Patten says everyone knew the founder as "Mr. George," and he shared more than just a resemblance to his real-life friend Walt Disney.

Both found success by blending amazing new technology with the most old-fashioned customer service.

"Customers were so important to Mr. George, and he always told everybody that he wanted our customers to be treated like kings and queens," Patten said.

That quirky Publix name? Thank a failing movie theater chain called Paramount-Publix. At one point, the chain owned spectacular movie halls all over the country.

"It had closed down," Patten said. "And Mr. George just always liked the name Publix. So, he took it, and it stuck."

Publix is now one of the largest businesses in the entire Tampa Bay area, with more than 140,000 associates, and more than a thousand stores. And it all started with one store in Winter Haven.

The first "food palace" Publix in 1940. Photograph courtesy of the Florida State Archives.

Inside the downtown Publix store in 1940. Photograph courtesy of the Florida State Archives.

Central Avenue

The city's historic main street, Central Avenue, extends approximately five blocks through the Central Business District and functions as one of the main linkages within the historic business district.  The businesses along this street include a mix of offices, restaurants and small retail stores specializing in clothing, accessories, antiques, books and giftware.  The largest concentration of stores is located in the first two blocks of the street closest to Central Park between Fourth Street and Second Street.
http://www.egovlink.com/public_documents300/winterhaven/published_documents/Winter Haven/CRA/WH CRA Downtown Redevelopment Plan.pdf

Looking down Central Avenue in 1924. Photograph courtesy of the Florida State Archives.

The area around the Time Square Building (built in 1926), facing Central Park, is now home to a small cluster of restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues.

The Ritz Theatre was built in 1925 for vauderville and silent movies.

Built in 1925 for vaudeville and silent movies, the Ritz boasted an orchestra pit, stage, dressing areas and an organ. The orchestra pit, covered by a false floor years ago, is waiting to be rediscovered. Originally known as the Williamson Theatre in the Beymer-Mann building, it was a gathering place for civic organizations. The theater hosted live shows and movies, at first silent and then “talkies.” In addition, some of Winter Haven’s most prominent gentlemen cavorted as ladies in the “Mr. Winter Haven” pageants held in the early years of the theatre.
From 1932, when it was first remodeled, through the 1980s, the theater was called the Ritz. During that time the very first Publix Supermarket was opened a half block down Central Avenue. Generations of Central Florida residents acquired memories at the Ritz, watching cartoons on Saturday mornings or stealing their first kiss in the balcony on Saturday night. “Easy To Love,” starring Esther Williams and Van Johnson and filmed at nearby Cypress Gardens, was shown at the theater in the middle ‘50s. That was a time when a child could enjoy cartoons and popcorn for a quarter, and a teenager with high school I.D. could get in to the feature presentation for 15 cents.

The effects of age and the coming of multi-screen theaters caused the Ritz to go unused for a time before it reopened in 1989 as “Off Limits,” a teen dance club. The new owners removed the theater seating and installed tiered flooring to accommodate dancing and tables. Within a few years, in spite of large crowds of young people dancing to recorded music and cheering live performers such as M.C. Hammer, “Off Limits” closed its doors. The building stood vacant and unused until a group of concerned citizens formed a non-profit corporation, The Ritz Theatre 100, and purchased the building in 1997.

A marketing feasibility study has since revealed Winter Haven’s critical need for a multi-purpose venue capable of handling meetings for civic organizations, fund raising events, dance and music productions, movies, weddings, private parties, and a whole host of other functions. Ironically, the feasibility study architect has recommended retaining tiered floors but restoring the stage and orchestra pit. With this configuration, the Ritz can once again become the social gathering place it once was.

The Williamson Theatre in 1926.

Third Street

Third Street is a major connector into the historic business hub, connecting to Central Avenue at the heart of the historic district.  This intersection, Central Avenue and Third Street, is a highly visible crossroads, or 100% corner, of the downtown area.  From this intersection, the city's most attractive historic buildings and key open space gateways, to the west and to the south, are highly visible.
http://www.egovlink.com/public_documents300/winterhaven/published_documents/Winter Haven/CRA/WH CRA Downtown Redevelopment Plan.pdf

Olde Towne Square was constructed in 1928. It was the home of the city's post office until 1962. Today, this arcade is home to a number of small offices, retailers and restaurants.

Since 1995 Main Street Winter Haven has tracked downtown economic activity statistics. The reinvestment in downtown Winter Haven over the past 12 years is as follows:

Dollars Reinvested (1995 – 2007):
 Total amount of reinvestment in physical improvements
 from Public and Private sources

$30,600,000 +

Net gain in businesses:


Net gain in jobs:


Total number of projects:


The cumulative success of the Main Street Approach™ and Main Street programs on the local level from 1980 to December 2007 has earned a reputation as one of the most powerful economic development tools in the nation. To date the National Trust Main Street Center has tracked more than $44.9 Billion in public and private investment in over 2,200 Main Street programs.

The Haven Condominiums on 6th Street NW was originally known as the Haven Hotel.

Winter Haven Transit Center.

The Farmers Market District

The former Avenue B SW railroad crossing, a block south of Central Park.

A large cluster of historic, underutilized industrial buildings still remains along the abandoned railroad right-of-way, just south of Central Park. Long-term plans are to relocate the city's farmer's market to the area to serve as a catalyst for surrounding redevelopment.  Future plans also call for potential extending of the Winter Haven Rails to Trails greenway, a 12'-wide bike path into the area.

The abandoned rail line through downtown becomes active about a mile to the south in the vicinity of the former Bordo Citrus Products industrial complex. Bordo ceased operations after the Citrus Freeze of 1989. Today, the buildings are home to Rowe & Sons, a tangerine fruit packing and juice processor company, and a number of small industrial operations - combining to employ 500.

Winter Haven Amtrak Station adjacent to Rowe & Sons citrus processing operations.

Citi Centre

Located just south of Downtown, Citi Centre was once the site of the 400,000-square-foot indoor Winter Haven Mall. Anchored by Burdines (now Macy's) and Sears, the mall remained a popular shopping site from the early 1970s until the opening of nearby Eagle Ridge Mall in 1996. In 2000, the Trammell Crow Company demolished the shopping center and replaced it with an open-air retail center called Citi Centre.

Winter Haven Mall, long the subject of rumors as to its fate, will become an outdoor shopping center with a number of major anchor tenants.

Demolition of the 400,000-square-foot indoor mall built in the early 1970s began April 7 with a "sledgehammer ceremony" hosted by Trammell Crow Co. of Orlando. The company plans to replace the old mall with a new retail development called WinterHaven Citi Centre.

Plans for the new Citi Centre include a 163,000-square-foot Lowe's home improvement center, an expanded 75,000-square-foot Burdines department store and a relocated Belk department store that will move into a new 60,000-square-foot space. The old Winter HavenMall site began falling on difficult times after the opening of Eagle Ridge Mall in nearby Lake Wales in early 1997.

Sears Roebuck and Co. was the first anchor to leave after relocating to Eagle Ridge, followed by the closing of Byrons as part of a bankruptcy reorganization by its owner. Other smaller tenants began moving out one by one during the past two years.

Rumors also had Burdines heading to Eagle Ridge, despite longstanding commitments by its management that it would stay at WinterHaven Mall regardless.
Other rumors had the property turning into an outlet mall or even a housing development. But developers and previous owners maintained that the mall -- with its advantageous location between downtown and Cypress Gardens Boulevard -- would serve better as a retail site.

The Citi Centre plans are especially welcome by Belk, which has had a store in Winter Haven the past 55 years and had been looking to move from its outmoded location at Sixth Street Northwest.

Legoland Florida

Legoland Florida is a planned theme park in Winter Haven, Florida scheduled to open on Saturday October 15, 2011. Merlin Entertainments Group will operate the park which will encompass 145 acres of the former Cypress Gardens amusement park.

More than 50 rides, shows and attractions are planned for the park based on those at other Legoland parks. The jungle coaster ride from Legoland Windsor will be transferred to this theme park.[citation needed] Additionally, the historic gardens Cypress Gardens was known for will be maintained as part of the park.[citation needed] The Splash Island Waterpark will also be kept but will be a separately ticketed admission. An early park map released reveals the Cypress Gardens Triple Hurricane coaster and the Vekoma family inverted coaster will be renamed and incorporated into the park. The Starliner coaster, formerly of the Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Panama City, FL was dismantled for sale.An Early park map also reavled that the Island in the Sky ride will be kept and updated for 2011.

Legoland Florida map.

Taking Notes For Jacksonville

Although Winter Haven is significantly smaller than Jacksonville, here are three concepts that have been successful in Winter Haven that could be applied to improve our downtown's atmosphere.

1. Building Facades/Storefronts

Walking around downtown Winter Haven, one can't help but notice how building facades and storefronts have been designed to integrate with the street and sidewalks adjacent to them.  Simply painting buildings, highlighting their details and providing interactive storefronts at street level are affordable solutions to improving the downtown experience for the average pedestrian.

2. CRA Master Plan

Winter Haven has been successful at creating a downtown master plan that drives public realm investment, without being too restrictive on private-sector investment and opportunity. This is something that Jacksonville has failed to properly execute to date.

3. Streetscapes/4-Way Non-Signalized Intersections

In an effort to make the downtown more pedestrian-friendly, Winter Haven has done the unthinkable - in terms of transportation planning. The majority of traffic signals in downtown have been removed and replaced with four-way stop signs. This is an effective means of slowing automobile traffic down in all directions, which in turn makes the environment more pedestrian-friendly. In addition, the removal of traffic signals on every downtown block takes the long-term burden of maintaining this expensive infrastructure off the backs of local taxpayers.

Article by Ennis Davis.