Orlando’s historic districts: a history of protecting history

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1980 started off as kind of a bleak year. Mortgage rates hovered around 16 percent, the country was hobbling in an economic malaise, and disco had officially been declared dead. Growth in downtown Orlando, like many southern towns, was focused on adding modern conveniences, with little regard to protecting significant historic architectural charms. Formerly glorious circa 1890 buildings were summarily being demolished to make way for “surface parking,” which is a slightly more palatable way of saying parking lot.

Spooked by the fast evaporation of parts of Orlando’s history, a chorus of community leaders and anxious citizens organized efforts to slow down the demolition madness. Their mantra: Once you tear it down, it doesn’t come back. Their purpose was not to impede modern growth, but rather to protect and stabilize property values by creating a process to encourage new development that would harmonize with existing historical structures.

(Photo by Katie Bray)

Perhaps inspired by a new wave of architectural preservationist movements in Savannah and Charleston, or Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ heroic (and rare) public advocacy in the effort to save New York’s Grand Central Station from destruction, Orlando created its first historic preservation district, The Downtown Orlando Historic District. The next 20 years would see the formation of five more preservation zones: Lake Cherokee, Lake Copeland, Lake Eola Heights, Lake Lawsona and Colonialtown South. The city agency that oversees the districts is the Historic Preservation Board and its members are appointed volunteer Orlando citizens.

The creation of a historic district is complex and widely misunderstood. First, property owners, and not the City of Orlando, petition to create a district. Signatures of at least 15 percent of owners within a proposed geographical boundary begin the initiative. This typically involves a long series of public meetings, planning meetings, city staff meetings, and, if history is any gauge, a few heated conversations between some neighbors not keen on their inclusion in the district. If the efforts to form a new district are successful, the City Council eventually passes an ordinance that officially codifies its establishment and governing rules. Contrast the model of the historic district’s gradual emergence in older neighborhoods to the difference of a modern homeowner’s association in a contemporary (usually gated) community. There, the HOA rules run with the land upon the initial development of the neighborhood. Upon buying the premises, the owner consents to the HOA’s rules and restrictions.

Another largely unknown premise of Orlando’s historic preservation districts is that during their creation process, each decides the extent to which its rules apply to owners. For example, in one district (Colonialtown South), paint colors are not under the purview of the Historic Preservation Board, but in another (Lake Cherokee), paint colors are reviewed.

One of the hsitoric homes in Lake Cherokee District. (Photo by Katie Bray)

Throughout the years, critics of historic districts have often claimed them to be overreaching or some sort of government land grab. But the goals of the historic preservation board are not to micromanage neighbors. The intent is to protect property values in historic districts — by using a democratically selected, vote-yourself-into-a district process — that seeks to ensure architecture and aesthetics in a neighborhood remain true to the prevailing architecturally significant period.

Likewise, fewer protections are afforded to a structure that does not contribute to the historic core of a district. Think a random 1972 house built in an area where, say, homes are nearly all the bungalow style of the 1920’s. Once an historic district is in place, demolition of that 1972 home would be less of an issue, especially when the owner commits to build a new structure that would reflect the historic characteristics of the original homes — in this case, bungalows. But without historic preservation rules in place, that 1972 home could be demolished and a large zero-lot-line McMansion could ostensibly go up, along with the blood pressure of the neighbors. Therein lies the preservation board’s method to balance development with genuine preservation integrity.

No new district has emerged in nearly 20 years, most likely because the creation process was quite memorably contentious when forming Colonialtown South in 2000. Eyes are now on quaint unprotected neighborhoods like Colonialtown North, where several architectural gems have gotten flattened and replaced with charmless, over scale structures. Maybe Orlandoans should channel a bit of our predecessors’ concerns that made 1980 a good year after all for Orlando’s historic buildings.

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