Tall versus sprawl: How a Federal Aviation Authority decision could thwart downtown urbanism


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I remember when the article first came out over a decade ago. How exciting, everyone thought. Orlando is finally going to get its worldwide recognition as the burgeoning, sophisticated metropolis we downtowners knew it was becoming. Yet hearts and egos instantly sank as we got to the part of the piece that said, “You can see Orlando’s sprawl from outer space.”

Well, who reads National Geographic, anyway?? was the collective gut reaction.

This 2007 sucker punch was delivered by National Geographic when it came out with a shocking and excoriating (and highly misguided) story on the City Beautiful. It blistered the Orlando region on how it had supposedly become an example of soulless, bungling urban sprawl. It lampooned the citizens that sought such a place to call home. Few past leaders were spared from its bitter analysis — they even went after long-gone clergy and the Mouse and his kin.

We do have more than our fair share of ugly strip centers; even Winter Park is replete with unsophisticated mishmashes. We endure long jaunts between our area’s own Los Angeles-esque towns within towns. Since that depiction, however, the region has continued to exponentially grow its culture and diversity in jobs, population, and transit options. The creative class has been welcomed with open arms; they came and are still coming. They are drawn to Orlando’s new urbanism.

Neighbors in all directions have seen fundamental changes since the humiliating dis. The downtown urban core is filling in with residential condominiums and apartments, and it’s sprinkled with gems like our new architecturally significant Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, the Amway Center, the soccer stadium, and soon, UCF’s downtown campus. We have SunRail now, ridesharing apps have taken off, I-4 is under a mega super redo, bike- and vehicle-share services are here, and Lynx and Lyft have formed a new transit partnership.

That said, there’s much more work to do. We are still navigating — and frequently cooling our heels — in and around Orlando’s everyday traffic morass. Sometimes it can be nearly faster to drive to New Smyrna Beach from downtown than to mid-Winter Park. We all have the Waze app, and we know the drill.

So, what to do when a city like Orlando is on a reformist and sustainable path of urbanism, one that rejects sprawl? It requires a complex strategy, but now more than ever, going taller is a vital and important consideration.

However, it’s not that easy for Orlando. Its skyline has long been a hostage to the Federal Aviation Authority’s building height review because of downtown’s proximity to the Orlando Executive Airport, where only private planes land — no commercials flights.

Going higher in the Central Business District is not a novel idea to our leaders. In fact, much discussion has been had for decades as to adjusting flight patterns to negate the need for building height review, but this idea can only be pushed when downtown market conditions are just so. The last serious attempt was apparently in 1997 and eventually fell flat.

The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority told the Orlando Sentinel’s Mark Schlueb that flight patterns could be changed and therefore buildings could be higher “if there is substantial community interest in a particular project” (reported in “No Space Needle or Gateway Arch: What defines Orlando’s skyline?” January 25, 2015).

The market seems to be amenable again, as borne out by one developer’s preliminary proposal to build a cluster of three towers that exceed FAA height directives. According to the Orlando Business Journal, a developer, working in tandem with GOAA, recently requested agency review.

Approval from the FAA could propel Orlando lightyears ahead in urban sustainability and allow us to receive an approximately $2 billion economic impact. A decision is expected this spring.

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