One of the region's rare economic-development engines – SunRail – has spurred few new apartments, shops or offices along its route as the commuter-train system prepares to roll out nine months from now.
Just north of downtown Orlando, a 248-unit apartment complex, the Ivy Residences, expects to open near Florida Hospital in time for SunRail's planned debut next May. But other stations have spawned little or no construction ahead of the launch of the system's first 31-mile segment, which runs from south of Orlando to DeBary in southwest Volusia County.
"This is just the reality of the real-estate market," said Craig Ustler, developer of the Ivy Residences. "Contrary to what it looks like from the outside, it takes years and years of upfront planning and underwriting to get deals done, especially during a recession."
SunRail is a "big win" for Central Florida, Ustler added, but it cannot turn around the region's real-estate market or solve larger macroeconomic issues remaining from the 2007-09 recession.
Across from the main station in downtown Orlando, RIDA Development Corp. has been slow to start work on its 2-acre Crescent Central Station mixed-use project; recently, a block of apartments was announced for part of the site. Nothing is underway near the Winter Park station. Construction has started on a subsidized, low-income senior-citizen midrise near the Maitland stop, but no private development is planned for the next station up the line, in Altamonte Springs. And construction has yet to start on projects in Longwood, Lake Mary and Sanford.
Here's a look at what's going on at each station site:
Apartment developers have been busy building throughout downtown, but RIDA Development Corp. has yet to go vertical with its long-awaited Crescent Central Station on 2 acres across from the Orange County Courthouse. With rentals, shopping and an urban park, the first phase isn't scheduled to be ready until about a year after SunRail starts.
Of all the stations, the one offering the fewest development opportunities is the Winter Park location, which will be a half-block off Park Avenue. The city's planning director, Jeff Briggs, noted that the storefronts along the famous shopping-and-dining avenue are all leased for the first time in years, and most of the property near the station has been developed. "It's difficult for much to go on in Winter Park, because we're completely developed, and we have the scale and character of Park Avenue to be concerned about," he said. "We're not suddenly going to go from three stories to six stories [in height] because SunRail is coming along with 20 passengers a day."
The sole project underway near Maitland's SunRail stop is a federally subsidized, low-income midrise for the elderly. Being developed by Atlantic Housing Partners, Uptown Maitland is being built with a two-story parking garage, ground-floor retail and 93 units outfitted with high-end finishes. Parts of the upper floors are expected to have views of the Winter Park chain of lakes. The project, slated for completion in December, is likely to generate little daily commuter ridership for the rail project, however. "SunRail has brought a lot of interest to downtown Maitland, which was really stagnant during the Great Recession. There are many, many projects that are flying around for mixed use, retail and a parking garage," Maitland Planning Director Dick Wells said. "They're not real yet, but they're legitimate. It hasn't done anything concrete, but it's restarted a conversation that's good and healthy."
This Seminole County city's growth-management director, Tim Wilson, said Altamonte Springs is working on codes to accommodate station-related projects. But so far, no projects have been proposed. He said he considers SunRail-related development — the tracks cross State Road 436 near Ronald Reagan Boulevard in a relatively undeveloped area — to be a 15- to 20-year process.
Longwood officials are reviewing plans for a public/private development called Western Park, with 202 apartments to be built next to the station. "They initially hoped to be up and running by the time the train started running, but it's a complex site, as a lot of infill sites are, and it slowed them down," Community Development Director Sheryl Bower said. Although the project is unlikely to be ready when SunRail begins operating, the rail service has sparked lots of development interest, "and we hadn't had that for a long time," Bower added. For instance, four Victorian-style "live/work" houses are being built about two blocks from the Longwood station, in the city's historic district. Real-estate broker Roger Soderstrom said his company is seeing "tremendous" interest in the project and other housing near the stations.
This city invested $2.3 million in land near its SunRail station and plans to sell the 3.2-acre site at a similar price to apartment developer Epoch Properties Inc., led by James Pugh. Epoch is on track to build Station House, with about 200 units and a parking garage. But so far the deal has not closed. The city's community-development director, John Omana, said the luxury apartments have cleared regulatory channels, and "we have been told we are ahead of the game with this new development."
Riverview Town Homes, a gated community of about 200 units, is 60 percent to 80 percent complete on a site next to Sanford's station, the northernmost stop in Seminole. The project was first conceived a decade ago, long before SunRail was approved, but it will benefit from commuter rail, said Russ Gibson, the city's director of planning and development. The city is also considering zoning changes for a 66-acre project with townhomes, single-family houses, shopping and offices that's about a half-mile from the station. Gibson said construction of that project, Cedar Point, could start before the end of this year. The area around the station is somewhat of a "blank slate," Gibson said, because it is largely undeveloped and halfway between Sanford's historic downtown and the regional mall on Interstate 4 near the city's western edge. Gibson said that, generally speaking, the stations farther from downtown Orlando are more about commuters than economic development — at least in the near term.
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