Urban Living Fit For You

Special To The Sentinel

Citrus groves as far as the eye could see used to be the dominant sight along the roads of Central Florida. Today, the area is a bustling metropolis of high-tech businesses, tourism-savvy enterprises, and a lifestyle of fun in the sun. The epicenter for this increase in activity is downtown Orlando – the heart of a new urban living boom.

In 1998 developers began building rental apartments in the city center. These apartment projects were the first significant projects in more than a decade to address residential needs downtown. The first project completed was the 244-unit Post Parkside, located on east Central Boulevard overlooking Lake Eola. The project was completely leased before construction was finished in late 2000. The Echelon, Delaney Park, and the Waverly quickly followed this project. In all, more than 1,500 new apartments were created in the two to three year period of 1998-2001, and remain to this day leased at a staggering 98 percent occupancy rate.

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While the apartment needs were being addressed, developers began buying up existing properties, such as older hotels, older apartment buildings, and old office complexes, with the hopes of converting them into condominiums.

Consider one of downtown Orlando's most successful conversion projects, The Metropolitan at Lake Eola. Formerly the Harley Hotel, the developers bought the old hotel and converted it into 128 condo units. When it was announced they would begin taking contracts on the units, starting at $110,000, more than 1,000 people put their names on the waiting list. When the contracts were available, the units sold out in less than a week.

The Waverly at Lake Eola started its life as a luxury-apartment high-rise, but due to the condo boom, the developer converted more than 60 percent of its 230 units to condos and sold all of them in less than four months.

While the conversions in downtown Orlando have been hot, they pale in comparison to the number of new condo projects. Since the trend to move to downtown Orlando began three years ago, more than a half-dozen new condo projects have been announced, including 55 West, The Plaza, The Sanctuary, The Vue at Lake Eola, Eola South and The Jackson. In all, there are 19 new and conversion condo projects in the works for downtown, which would account for more than 3,500 new units on the market in the next three years. Even with the completion of all of the projects slated, there still may not be enough space to satiate the demand for urban housing.

The urban housing market in Orlando is a market that didn't exist before. Until a few years ago, only a relative handful of people, mostly elderly residents in retirement towers, lived in the city. Today, those buying units downtown are the young professionals who work downtown. The targeting of these young professionals began in 2000 once the trend was uncovered that the average age of those moving into the city center was 33. What has appealed to these buyers so far are condos, smaller town homes and duplex projects ranging in price from $150,000 to $210,000.

What makes living in downtown so appealing is that it offers everything. Urban dwellers can just head outside their homes and walk to do errands, visit neighborhood cleaners, bakeries, markets, restaurants, or bars. Just about anything that is needed can be found within walking distance. And besides walking to get errands done, living in downtown Orlando gives residents access to a variety of entertainment options, including taking in an Orlando Magic game or concert at the TD Waterhouse Centre, or going to an opera, ballet or orchestra performance at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Center. All types of music, performance and visual arts are available within several blocks of the downtown district.

As if there weren't enough options available, downtown Orlando has a plan to create a Cultural Corridor for the area by 2020. The Cultural Corridor will start at Anderson Street and continue along Magnolia Avenue to the north of Colonial Drive, through the Uptown community, where it will end at the Loch Haven Park cultural center – home of the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, Orlando Science Center, Orlando Museum of Art and the Mennello Museum of American Art.

Magnolia Avenue will serve as the main thoroughfare of the cultural corridor, lined with theaters, art galleries and quality retail, dining and entertainment venues. Displays of art will take on many forms, from banners along the road to decorated buildings and public art pieces appearing on the grounds of many civic buildings, including the Orange County Regional History Center, Post Office and Orlando Library. The Cultural Corridor will continue from Magnolia Avenue west to the Orlando Centroplex, then it will head north through Uptown.

Uptown offers much to celebrate in terms of culture. Today, the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center, a scaled-down replica of the Statue of Liberty and the abundance of water and open space accentuate the Uptown experience. In 20 years, a sculpture park located at Orange Avenue and Park Lake Street and opportunities for public art displays and theater and gallery spaces will further emphasize the experience.

The boom in urban living in downtown Orlando does not appear to be a fad in housing, but a trend being driven by jobs, economy and demographics. The workforce of downtown wants to live and play closer to home, and this demand has developed a new urban landscape for Orlando that continues to grow and thrive. New spaces and new places signal a new way of living in the big O – Orlando.

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