by Betsy Owens
On Sunday, Mayor Steve Leary declared May 1 “Thaddeus Seymour Day” in honor of everyone’s favorite Rollins president emeritus (Hear, hear!) May 2, you may not realize, is “National Truffle Day” (in my house, every day is Truffle Day). But May 3? This sad little date has the ignoble distinction of being “National Lumpy Rug Day” (really and truly) and “National Two Different Colored Shoes Day” (look it up). To correct this injustice, and based on the actions of Winter Park’s Planning and Zoning Commission Tuesday night, I hereby declare May 3 to be “National Hug a P&Z Board Member Day.” Because Tuesday night in Winter Park, democracy functioned as it should, and our P&Z Board listened to what the West Side residents want, and don’t want, built in their neighborhood.
Under consideration was a proposal by Owens Realty Services (irony noted) to construct 6 3-story duplexes (for a total of 12 units) on 5 lots that the company owns at the corner of West Lyman Avenue and Hannibal Square. The project would require rezoning of two of the lots from the current R-1A (Single Family) to R-3 (or, according to the developer’s attorney, “R-3 light,” as the project would be slightly smaller than R-3 zoning would allow).
In some neighborhoods, the project would have been acceptable—maybe even desirable. The developer’s lawyer argued that the property would certainly look better with the townhouses than it does in its current barren state. In addition, she argued that 3-story townhouses would present a more gradual transition between the 5-story garage to the west and the small, single-family homes to the east of the property.
This rezoning request wasn’t nearly as ambitious as many of the requests over the years that have preceded it. But Tuesday evening something remarkable happened. People from both sides of the tracks (I stopped counting at 25) rose up with one voice and said, “Enough.”
Enough turning a blind eye to the unchecked gentrification of the historic West Side.
Enough buying into the impoverished mythology that the “highest and best use” for land brings about social and economic well-being.
Enough siding with developers over residents.
Indeed, the Owens project was voted down not because it was more lacking in merit than any other West Side development. It was voted down because Winter Park has finally reached the tipping point where we can no longer ignore the systematic erasure of a community that has contributed to Winter Park’s history in equal measure to the folks on the white side of the tracks.
Winter Park citizens, Tuesday evening, your Planning and Zoning Commission listened. They listened to city planner Jeff Briggs, who warned that the proposal was in direct opposition to the city’s comprehensive plan, which states that any upzoning from R-1A on the West Side is to be “strongly discouraged.”
They listened to Gerald Girand, who, as the owner of one of the new David Weekley villas just west of the railroad tracks, acknowledged that folks might have expected him to be for the project. Instead, he and his neighbors urged the commission to follow the comp plan and to not “subject Lyman Avenue to the slippery slope” of density.
They heard Glenn Franklin, whose home of 40 years would directly abut the proposed townhouses, question “why can’t they build lovely single family homes on Lyman Avenue like they do in the rest of Winter Park?” Resident Barry Greenstein, who once worked for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Washington and Maryland, agreed. Referring to townhouse clusters and apartment buildings, he said, the developers “don’t offer the same ‘products’ on the Isle of Sicily or in the Vias,” and warned that Winter Park’s zoning practices of the last 30 years could be considered discriminatory.
Longtime West Side residents Mary Daniels, Martha Bryant-Hall and Linda Walker-Chapell decried the gradual chipping away of the historic fabric of their neighborhood with incompatible structures and displaced residents. Of the 5-story parking garage that was to be ‘softened’ by the 3-story townhouses, Lurlene Fletcher complained “we didn’t want that thing to begin with!”
The developer’s logic in that case was particularly rich. “Since your neighborhood has already been marred with a 5-story parking garage, we’re going to lessen the blow with some 3-story townhouses.”
Laurel Habgood, a white woman who lives at 411 West Comstock, said that she and her husband relocated from out of town to the West Side in 2014 because of its diversity and history. “We don’t want to see that change,” she said.
You would have been proud of your P&Z board. After public comment, Pete Gottfried immediately moved to reject the proposal. Ross Johnston seconded, saying “calling this R-3 light is a smokescreen.” P&Z Chairman James Johnston spoke in favor of the project, but the other members weren’t having it. Tom Sacha said “when you buy property you should plan to build to the zoning you bought into.” Bob Hahn said that although the architectural renderings were good, the decision was a “social justice issue.” In the end, the vote was unanimous against the proposal.
What does the future hold for West Winter Park? With the profits to be made through developing what is analogous to the fertile banks of the Nile, we have certainly not heard the last of zoning change requests for that neighborhood. Like a giant Whack-A-Mole game, citizens will need to be vigilant in bird-dogging where the next ill-advised rezoning request pops up. But if Tuesday night was any indication, perhaps we’ve reached a new level of awareness in the City of Culture and Heritage. Let’s hope so, anyway.