Pointe Orlando and the Mercado unveil makeovers for the I-Drive properties

Pointe Orlando and the Mercado, competing retail centers on International Drive in south Orlando, are about to take different paths with multimillion-dollar makeovers.

Located within a half mile of each other just north of the Orange County Convention Center, the centers are struggling with vacancies and the loss of key tenants in recent years. Both have a mix of small shops, restaurants and entertainment. But owners of the separate centers are now crafting plans that would give the properties more distinctive looks and clearer competitive angles.

A towering hotel-condominium project will anchor the Mercado, the older and smaller of the two centers, according to the new owners of the property. Hotel-condos are hot right now, and such a project would clearly differentiate the site from Pointe Orlando, which is anchored by a movie theater and is now in the early stages of renovation.

Pointe Orlando's new look will be open, lushly landscaped and more accessible to I-Drive for people on foot and by automobile, said Susan Godorov, marketing director.

"It's going to be very inviting, with lots of extensive landscaping," Godorov said. Part of the existing structure will be torn down to make way for an outdoor lounging area, green space, outdoor seating for cafes and a major water feature -- a pond with fountains surrounded by brick pavers.

Preliminary work at Pointe Orlando recently began and will continue into 2006, Godorov said. The owner, New Plan Excel Realty Trust, a New York-based real estate company, is gutting the old FAO Schwarz toy store building to make room for more restaurants. The existing ticket tower for the Muvico theater will be torn down along with part of the building that formerly housed several shops including Abercrombie & Fitch.

"That will really open the project to I-Drive," Godorov said. The existing buildings will get a new, unifying color scheme with a silver patina, she said, and the property will be interspersed with palm trees and lots of greenery.

Mercado was recently bought by Aqua Development LLC, an affiliate of Orlando-based Unicorp National Developments Inc. Unicorp is a strip center developer that has taken on larger town center projects in recent years, including the upscale Baldwin Park center in Orlando.

Charles Whittall, one of the partners and directors in Unicorp and Aqua, said the preliminary plan for the aging Mercado calls for six condo-hotel towers to be built on the property, along with 130,000 square feet of retail and numerous water-oriented amenities.

"The goal is we're trying to build the next generation of hotels on I-Drive -- an attraction in itself," Whittall said. He said the development price tag, including the $20 million land acquisition, will probably total about $750 million, and the project would encompass about 2.4 million square feet. That would be even larger than the 2.1 million square feet of exhibit space at the nearby Orange County Convention Center.

All of the 2,100 units in the hotel-condo would be sold to individual buyers, Whittall said, but those owners who choose to do so could have their unit or units rented out as a hotel room. Smaller condo-hotels typically have a percentage of rooms reserved by the developer solely for hotel use, but the Aqua project would be large enough, Whittall said, that plenty should be available for hotel use without reserving a block.

The units, averaging 800 to 1,000 square feet, would likely sell for about $550 to $800 per square foot, Whittall said, or about $400,000 to $800,000.

One of the unique features of the project, he said, would be a two-acre fountain fronting the property on I-Drive, where hourly water shows with music and lasers would entertain passers-by. That water feature alone would cost $4 million to $5 million, Whittall estimated.

Business people along I-Drive said the improvements to Pointe Orlando and Mercado are long overdue.

"I'm thrilled" with the plans for both projects, said John Morgan, an Orlando attorney who owns the WonderWorks attraction on the north side of Pointe Orlando. "There's no glitz and glitter" to the current Pointe Orlando design, Morgan said.

The plans for the Mercado are even more ambitious than the Pointe Orlando makeover, Morgan said, but the Pointe Orlando changes are confirmed and will happen much more quickly. The Mercado plans, he said, seem more speculative.

"If they can pull it off, that's great, but I'll believe it when I see it," Morgan said of the Mercado project.

Tourists checking out the shops and restaurants along I-Drive said the Mercado and Pointe Orlando need some new tenants and more excitement.

"It does seem a bit quiet," said Troy Robinson, 32, from Middlesborough, England, as he relaxed at an umbrella-table at Mercado last week.

Jerry W. Jackson can be reached at jwjackson@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5721.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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