Longwood hopes SunRail will spark revival of historic downtown

By Martin E. Comas, Orlando Sentinel

For decades, Longwood has struggled to draw new shops and restaurants to its historic downtown, which is filled with moss-draped trees, brick streets and some of Central Florida’s oldest buildings.

But the city has had little success. Empty storefronts line Ronald Reagan Boulevard, and a recent consultant’s report called the area near the intersection of Reagan and State Road 434 “shabby and run-down.”

Now, with SunRail trains scheduled to start pulling into a new station in 2014, Longwood sees an opportunity to turn the 20-block area into a vibrant community that will lure riders to step off the commuter train and into the city’s core to shop, eat and even live.

Construction on the SunRail station is scheduled to start next month. When completed, the station will be just a stroll away from the picturesque district, known for its Old Florida buildings in the carpenter Gothic style of steeply pitched roofs and wooden siding.

“We have this great historic downtown, but we’re not getting the foot traffic,” said Sheryl Bower, Longwood’s community development director. “Many people just don’t know what this historic area looks like or where it is.”

The district, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has more than three dozen structures built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Longwood was a growing hamlet that drew visitors traveling by rail between Sanford and Orlando. The buildings include the 1886 Longwood Hotel, now an office building, and the 1879 Christ Episcopal Church.

Longwood is not planning to develop the area itself. Instead, city officials hope the charm of the buildings, along with an influx of visitors from SunRail trains, will lead to private developers’ investing in new coffee shops, eateries, offices and apartments. The new business could lead to an increase in property-tax revenue that could be reinvested in the district, said Commissioner Joe Durso.

“It’s going to take some time,” Durso said. “This is a long-term process. … But we’re trying to pre-plan as opposed to post-plan.”

To get started, city officials are improving drainage around the station site. They’re also:

•Easing regulations to make it easier for developers to build multistory buildings that would have shops on the ground floors and residential units and offices on the top floors. The new regulations would extend to the area around South Seminole Hospital, which is just west of the historic district.

•Upgrading the city’s 6-acre Reiter Park on Warren Avenue near the district by building an amphitheater and playground and revamping basketball and tennis courts. The city plans to spend $1 million and has applied for a $500,000 state grant.

•Working with a developer to build a mixed-use complex next to the SunRail station that will accommodate apartments, offices and shops. The city would help pay for sewer and drainage costs.

The long-term vision calls for erecting decorative street signs leading visitors into the historic district; adding bicycle and pedestrian pathways; widening sidewalks; requiring that new buildings be closer to the street to promote an urban “feel”; and adding on-street parking along Reagan Boulevard, also known as County Road 427.

“I’m really optimistic that the train will encourage people to come into our historic downtown,” said Pamela Redditt, owner of the Cottage Gift Shop on West Church Avenue. “It will be nice to have a mix of professional offices and retail and eating establishments here.” Her shop is within the 1870 Inside-Outside House, named for its odd construction featuring support studs on the outside.

Still, Durso acknowledged that the stagnant economy makes investors hesitant to build.

“The economy is absolutely a hurdle at this point,” he said. “But we feel that the decline in property-tax revenues is starting to level off. The increase in unemployment has slowed. And there are signs that things are starting to turn around. In the next decade, things will look a lot better. So Longwood is taking steps to prepare for that time now.”

Durso said he hopes the new SunRail station will turn Longwood’s historic core into a “livable and walkable” community similar to Orlando’s Baldwin Park or Thornton Park soon after the $1.2 billion commuter train starts running in May 2014.

SunRail will link DeLand in Volusia County with downtown Orlando and Poinciana in Osceola County. And along the way, the train will stop in Lake Mary, Longwood, Altamonte Springs and Winter Park.

“We want to be one of the stops that riders will want to make it a point to get off and want to walk around and go to a restaurant or go to shops or even go to City Hall,” Commissioner Bob Cortes said. “We don’t want them just riding past Longwood.”

mcomas@tribune.com or 407-420-5718

 

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