Revitalizing Neighborhoods: Orlando's ViMi District

May 31, 2011 2 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Orlando's "ViMi" District's rebirth was fueled in the early 1980s when the Vietnamese flooded into the area in search of opportunities beyond the shadow of old Saigon.

About ViMi

Just northeast of Downtown Orlando, this expanding enclave of authentic Asian restaurants, shops and markets is home to one of the largest Vietnamese-American communities in Florida.  Vietnamese, Korean, Thai and Chinese restaurants crowd along Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue; and grocery stores, stocked with everything from alternative medicines to exotic produce, cater mostly to Asian customers.

ViMi = Intersection of Virginia and Mills

Just for fun, drive up Mills Avenue the 13 or so blocks north of Colonial Drive to Virginia Drive, before you hit Loch Haven Park. In that stretch, the odds and ends of mismatched businesses and structures are eye-filling, to say the least; there's Phng D곳ng Restaurant & Club, Wally's Mills Avenue Liquors, Devotion Tattoo, Track Shack, Simonet Electronic, Feng Shui Concepts, Exotic Bonsai Gardens.

Everyone calls it the ViMi (Virginia-Mills) district, but that's an unofficial designation attributed to the early-settling gay community, not a term used in city-of-Orlando jargon. ViMi's boundaries -- also unofficial -- loosely incorporate a clutch of gay-related storefronts, as well as Asian markets and restaurants and a slew of other eclectic entries: machine shops, beauty salons, auto garages and miscellaneous repair shops. It's not downtown proper, but a colorful spillover on the other side of Colonial.

To some, the messy clutter is begging for a uniform makeover. To others, the urban-cool factor is irresistible, and they're moving their businesses into the neighborhood. Rent is cheaper than downtown, but the location is still centralized and well traveled, and parking's not a test of patience. Best of all, the sprawl has not yet been homogenized by corporate ventures. It's a bustling enclave of indie operations.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Today, there is a fight to decide whether ViMi should remain an organic urban community.

In downtown’s blight period of the ’80s, the Vietnamese were first to resuscitate the area, followed soon after by the gay contingent, which launched a sort of gay grotto that included Out and About Books, Rainbow City, Twisted Palms and the Cactus Club. While all of those businesses have since vacated the avenue, other eclectic merchants have filled the gaps: Friends Restaurant, the Peacock Room, Copperhead Salon.

The preservationists say the threat now is the city thrusting its ubiquitous, character-killing “mixed-use” plans where they don’t belong.

The requisite growing pains that have emerged from the city’s own “Mills Avenue and Colonial Drive Urban Design & Strategic Plan,” which was finalized in 2003, and the subsequent agreement for the imminent Mills Park development, aren’t of the simple Cracker conservationist variety. The proposed (and adopted) idea of mixed-use retail and residential buildings dotting the old ViMi streetscape – itself to be refurbished with wider sidewalks and more pedestrian-friendly amenities – sounds a lot like every other halfhearted Orlando attempt at casual, upscale living. Worse still, it stands in bleak contrast with the neighborhood’s colorful past.

However, due to the diversity of the affected area – boutique businesses, artists, old merchants, historically gay interests, a substantial Vietnamese population and the bordering high-end residential areas – three distinct perspectives (and naming designations) have emerged. The preservationists, in the form of the ViMi Design District, want to keep the area raw to attract the creative class. The Asian community, presenting an idea called the XOBO District, hopes to transform the Colonial interchange into a mini-metropolis complete with new high-rises. Meanwhile, the new Mills Park development is endeavoring to establish its own Uptown Arts and Business District directly in line with the city’s plan.

The three can’t agree on where the area needs to go. A martini might be in order.

Applying The ViMi Revitalization Approach to Urban Jacksonville

The ViMi District is another successful example of what preserved, pedestrian-friendly building fabric can become when urban pioneers, and the creativity they bring, enter the scene.  ViMi has taken on a life of its own without expensive streetscape projects or one-trick-pony urban renewal schemes.  ViMi's success is partially due to the ability to cluster complementing uses within a compact setting, which is directly the result of having existing buildings available to be used as cheap rents.  As we tackle our own urban revitalization issues, the preservation of existing building stock is an important consideration to keep mind to.

For more information on Orlando's ViMi District:

Experiencing A Piece of Multicultural Orlando: The ViMi District

Article by Ennis Davis