Maitland tries to sell downtown to developers

Sarah Wilson

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With hopes of spurring development interest in the city’s yet-to-be-realized downtown district, the Maitland City Council declared two more city-owned plots of land “open for business” last week.

The site of the old city hall building and the parking lot just north of it across Horatio Avenue were declared open for development at a special Community Redevelopment Agency meeting on Feb. 12. Adding the two additional parcels to the re-developable area, the city hopes, will spur new interest in the downtown area’s other available plots, such as the dilapidated Winn-Dixie out front of City Hall and up and down U.S. Highway 17-92.

“I see that property as useful to the extent of increasing other development,” Councilman John Lowndes said. “I don’t see it as a ‘If I build it they will come’ development.”

In addition to approving the sites for redevelopment, Lowndes included four suggestions for developers interested in the properties in his unanimously approved motion: that developers consider the strong public sentiment in favor of leaving some or all of the old city hall site property as open space; that the development plans include one or more adjacent parcels; that there be priority given to plans with retail frontage facing Independence Lane; and that the community favors plans that include structured parking.

“We want to give comfort to the citizens and also be fair to developers, who’d be wasting their time if they were to come in with something much different than what I’ve offered,” Lowndes said.

Even prior to the Council’s approval, CRA director Verl Emrick said two developers have been working on preliminary plans for both parcels, one that would include a five-story parking garage on the old city hall site, and another with plans for small retail shops and a specialty grocer – Earth Fare – taking up the Horatio-fronted parking lot and the land from there east to U.S. Highway 17-92.

Residents speaking out at the meeting were split over the idea of allowing the park-adjacent old city hall property – currently serving as a parking lot – to be redeveloped or whether it should be converted into additional open parkland.

Resident Lisa Lewenthal warned the city with the lyrical words of Joni Mitchell about paving paradise and putting up a parking lot.

“We haven’t created Maitland as a destination, a place where people want to come and spend time. We really have the beginnings of a beautiful central park,” Lewenthal said. “…I really feel we need to think so hard about the decisions we make today and how it’s going to impact future generations.”

“This is like a game of chess,” resident Barry Crooks said. “If you make this move of destroying this gem of land, you’ve just check-mated yourself.”

Others residents argued that with the already-limited amount of land available in the city’s downtown district, eliminating the additional land from potential development would further restrict ways for the city to increase its tax base.

Resident June Flowers said with Lake Lily and Quinn Strong Park just around the corner, there’s no shortage of parkland in the downtown vicinity.

“To say we need another park instead of getting more tax base, instead of getting someone to offer money to our city… It’s crazy,” she said.

“We have such a small footprint to develop our business core, we don’t have the luxury of giving that up,” resident Renee Stein Charlan added.

The vote to open the parcels for business didn’t resolve the debate either way, Mayor Howard Schieferdecker said, it just opens the opportunity for interested developers to come in and submit proposals for the property. Every proposed project, he said, will still be subject to full vetting by the City Council and staff.