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Building Communities, Building Connections.

Central Florida’s New Urbanism Story



Central Florida, known for its iconic theme parks and bustling urban centers, has also emerged as a dynamic hub for the New Urbanism movement. In recent decades, the region has undergone a remarkable transformation, embracing, and evolving the principles of New Urbanism to create vibrant, sustainable communities that foster a sense of connection and well-being.

 

From the meticulously planned streets of Celebration to the historic charm of Winter Park, Central Florida has become a laboratory for innovative urban design, where walkability, mixed land uses, and community engagement are paramount. In this article (originally published in The Architectural Guide to Central Florida) Planner and Urbanist, Eliza Harris Juliano/CNU-A, delves into the evolution of the New Urbanism movement in Central Florida, exploring the pioneering developments, the challenges faced, and the enduring impact on the region’s built environment and quality of life.

Through a lens of architecture, planning, and community activism, she unravels the story of how Central Florida has embraced and reshaped the New Urbanism movement, offering valuable lessons and inspiration for cities around the world.


Downtown Celebration (Photo Credit: Geoffrey Mouen.)


The New Urbanism in Central Florida

                                                               

Florida has long been considered an intellectual hub of New Urbanism, bookended by seminal New Urbanist project Seaside (1981) and the Miami Department of Architecture led by Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) cofounder Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (Dean 1995 2014). In the center of the state, Orlando and Central Florida have an impressive array of New Urbanism ranging from complete “new towns” to mixed income redevelopments and downtown revitalization efforts.

 

Pioneering New Towns in CFL from the 1990s to Today

 

Celebration

“Everyone on the team really was a true believer. They thought this radical and somewhat untested idea of New Urbanism could have the chance to happen at scale with serious money and ambitions behind it.”                                        

                                                                                       —Michael Beirut (ref: Byrnes)


At Celebration’s founding, the New Urbanism was still in its infancy. Although Seaside had been founded over ten years prior, the term “New Urbanism” had only been coined in 1991 and the Charter expressing consensus around its principles signed in 1996. That same year, Disney’s new “utopian town” welcomed its first residents to a firestorm of media attention with highly sought slots to buy homes given out by lottery. Disney had commissioned a raft of experts to design the perfect town on a greenfield site three miles from its campus.

Twenty-eight years later, Celebration is a bustling town of more than 12,000 residents where the pastor’s daughter works in the dress shop and Realtors show homes by golf cart. While the original village can be crossed in a 15-minute walk, newer villages, offices, and a strip commercial center are separated by wetlands and an expressway. Unlike Seaside, which relied on a barebones Form-Based Code to guide the efforts of individual architects, in Celebration production home builders followed a Pattern Book which specified details for each historic style. Playing in stark contrast to the traditional southern stylings of most of the homes and buildings, nationally known architects, including Michael Graves, Philip Johnson, and Cesar Pelli, were invited to give an eclectic flair to key civic buildings. Aldo Rossi’s only U.S. project frames an important entry vista.


Former Naval Recruit Training Center, Orlando, now the site of Baldwin Park. (Photo Credit: Panoramio.)


Baldwin Park


In 1999, the Navy decommissioned over 1,000 acres of land just three miles from downtown Orlando. Baldwin Park would be a direct outgrowth of the historic city with more than 25 connections to adjacent neighborhoods. The City sought developer bids for a New Urbanist-style development with slow, connected streets, controlled architecture, and a generous mix of public and privately maintained parks and trails. Classically styled community buildings terminate vistas and grace neighborhood parks. Among the architectural controls was an “anti-monotony” rule because, like Celebration, the majority of the homes would be built by production home builders. The city hired an architect responsible for ensuring the development lived up to its promise. Baldwin Park weathered the Great Recession better than most with unique offerings like three-story attached “City Homes,” many of which face a green pedestrianized way rather than a street.


Buildings engage the sidewalk. The Gehl Door Average is high.


The neighborhood’s mixed-use center struggled to stay full, but a large number of apartments, along with the end of the recession, reversed this trend. While generally viewed as affluent, living options range from multimillion dollar homes to granny flats for rent all in close proximity on public streets without gates or guardhouses.

Other Central Florida New Towns

The success of Baldwin Park and Celebration spawned other neo-traditional efforts in Central Florida including Avalon Park, Oakland Park, and the Horizon West Sector Plan. Laureate Park in Lake Nona features homes with a funky mix of contemporary materials and styling in a traditional matrix. Even the bustling retirement community, the Villages builds its commercial centers as themed villages, albeit without housing.


New Urbanism in the City


Long before Celebration started construction, Rick Bernhardt, Orlando’s Chief Planner from 1982-1999 and a signatory to the Charter of the New Urbanism, was encoding the principles of the New Urbanism into an area called the “Traditional City” which included not just the core business district but nearby historic neighborhoods. Consistent urban-oriented buildings downtown, rather than blank walls and parking garages, are thanks to this forward-thinking code. City staff continues to build on the code, adding new neighborhood plans, refining downtown requirements, and overseeing the Architectural Review Board for downtown buildings.


Another key player in the development of downtown is New Urbanist developer Craig Ustler. Taking a neighborhood-based approach Ustler Development Group (UDG) built five projects in the South Eola area from 2001- 2011 starting with award winning mixed-use building Thornton Park Central which made the key connection between the Thornton Park’s historic main street and the South Eola district with a focus on providing entertainment and community gathering spaces. UDG is also spearheading Orlando’s Creative Village, a 68-acre downtown development site made possible by the demolition of the old arena. Phase 1 of Creative Village was completed in August 2022.

The City of Winter Park also has several important New Urbanist contributions. In 1997, Dover Kohl & Partners led the redesign of Park Avenue, taking the already successful main street to a new level of design: widening the sidewalks, adding landscaping, narrowing travel lanes, and re-bricking the street to make the area more attractive and friendly to pedestrians and outdoor dining. The project was accomplished so seamlessly that most visitors assume it is historic.


Suburban Retrofit in Central Florida


Dover Kohl also provided the initial design for the conversion of the aging Winter Park Mall into Winter Park Village which included the conversion of a department store into lofts and the creation of a mini main street. With Winter Park Village’s most recent reimagining by Charlan Brock Architects and Dix.Hite & Partners, equal footing for pedestrians and vehicles was a high priority.  The goal was to increase walkability, add visual appeal, and allow for special events.


For Winter Park Village’s most recent reimagining, equal footing for pedestrians and vehicles was a high priority.


Back in Orlando, the SoDo development was proposed as a typical big box strip center. City staff worked with the developers to create a mixed-use block which incorporates a Target store with rooftop parking, residential, offices, structured parking, and small stores. The project’s influence has grown with townhouses mirroring the project’s design and street presence on the facing block. Other area suburban infill/retrofit projects include Veranda Park in MetroWest, Winter Springs Town Center, Colonial Town Park in Lake Mary, and The Village at Lake Lily in Maitland.


New Urbanism in Distressed Neighborhoods


Hampton Park in Orlando’s Traditional City was part of HOPE VI project, a federal program which converted distressed public housing projects into mixed-income housing developments with improved designs, generally incorporating a New Urbanist flavor. The 17acre neighborhood blends gracefully into the adjacent historic neighborhoods and transitions to larger buildings as it approaches a busier Bumby Avenue. The Orlando Neighborhood Improvement Corporation has executed several other urban projects with an affordability focus including CityView at Hughes Square in the Parramore neighborhood. The Packing District is a 202-acre transformational project centered at the intersection of Princeton Street and Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando, preserving, and recapturing a defining part of our community's history while providing a vibrant base of living and commerce.


Literally on "the other side of the tracks,” Hannibal Square is a historically black neighborhood in Winter Park. In 1997 a private group commissioned DPZ, the office of two of CNU’s founders, to engage city leaders and residents to create a better vision for the neighborhood. Today, elegant architecture on New England Avenue skillfully hides parking and is in small increments that nest comfortably with the scale of the historic neighborhood. While new growth blends physically with the urban fabric, it has been criticized because new apartments and stores (such as a high-end French restaurant) are not accessible to the neighborhood's low-income residents.


Conclusion


The influence of the New Urbanism can be observed throughout Central Florida. Nationally recognized New Towns and steady stewardship of the region’s central city have inspired cities throughout the region to design more human-scale, multimodal places. The opening of SunRail in 2014 was another major step forward allowing Central Florida to build its first Transit Oriented Developments and motivating towns on and off the route to think urban.



This story is one of many featured in The Architectural Guide to Central Florida. We invite you to dive deeper into our community's architecture to uncover its hidden tales. Support OFA and buy the book today!






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