Winter Park has long since built out to its horizons. Take a short drive around its perimeters and you’ll find concrete, brick, wood and grass where forests and swamps once stood.
Outside of wetland areas, the idea of protecting a rural boundary vanished decades ago, behind the shadowy façades of multi-million dollar homes to the north.
But take a short trip to a City Commission meeting, and after a long wait, chances are you’ll hear somebody arguing about development anyway.
With only a few house-sized enclaves of untouched dirt left in Winter Park, developers have few options to build: Bulldoze something else, or pay out the nose.
And with Winter Park’s history of growth and development comes a universal theme: improvement. It’s as simple as the ubiquitous maneuver in the board game Monopoly. If you improve upon a piece of land, you’re building on it. You’re turning bare land into something more economically valuable.
Adding more value is almost always seen as a good thing. Just ask any homeowner hoping to flip their property for more money.
But ask a senior citizen if they think higher property value is a good thing, and you’ll get a different story. On a fixed retirement income, higher property value means property taxes take a bigger and frequently unmanageable chunk of a small paycheck. Absent the shield of the homestead tax exemption, rising property tax may be the biggest fear for seniors, next to paying for health care.
Take a drive down one of the streets of Winter Park’s west side and you’ll likely see quite a few seniors — retirees who can’t afford a more expensive new vision of their neighborhood.
Winter Park’s west side has long been at odds with the threat of development. A slow westward redevelopment of the posh Hannibal Square commercial area has brought shops, restaurants and bars catering to a wealthier clientele ever closer to the perpetually lower-income residential area.
The contrast couldn’t be more stark than along Pennsylvania Avenue. Guests enjoying a $14 salad at the corner of Pennsylvania and New England Avenues could throw their fork across the street and hit a house worth less than $30,000.
There have been revolts. West side area residents have protested later serving times at Hannibal Square bars that asked to be open as late as those on Park Avenue. The restaurateurs could make more money if they could stay open later. But residents feared more noise and late-night traffic. The residents won.
But as Winter Park’s development moves westward, it’s grown more stealthy.
Monday night developer Dan Bellows asked the city to allow him to build apartments. Not the typical apartments, but apartments on top of garages behind houses along Symonds Avenue, along a flat tract of dry grass and weeds next to small, low-cost houses emptying out onto a brick-paved road.
The land that those would-be apartments would rise above happens to abut the Central Business District that’s allowed higher value buildings to creep steadily westward through Winter Park’s west side. He asked if he could build a three-story apartment building a few feet from a single-family home plot.
All the City Commission had to do was say yes. They refused. Score another victory for Winter Park’s most embattled neighborhood.