At a Crossroads: Inviting Avalon Park has it all

cschelle@bradenton.comMarch 23, 2014 

AVALON PARK -- Avalon Park could double as Pleasantville with its idyllic village center offering everything residents need within walking distance. There's not much reason to leave the confines of the self-contained community.

"You really don't have to leave Avalon Park," said Kerri Loper, a resident and manager at In Style Hair salon. "We have everything here. My doctor's here, banks, supermarkets..."

East of Orlando in Orange County, nearly every storefront in Avalon Park is filled.

The YMCA on the corner of Avalon Lake Drive and Avalon Park Boulevard is bustling, while college students from nearby University of Central Florida are hanging out on the balconies above the stores having a beer and catching up on school work.

The village center's buildings open like bookends, with a lake in the middle reflecting the storefronts. Pizza shops, bars, banks, gas stations, churches, schools and doctor's offices are all in close proximity along with an art deco-inspired Publix. Residents and business owners here quickly describe Avalon Park as self-contained.

The 3,600 homes and apartments on 1,860 acres create a vibrant scene, along with 320,000 square feet of commercial space, most of it clustered around a village center on the southern end, with doctors' offices in cottage-style offices nearby.

The similarities between Avalon Park, a community comprised of six villages, and the proposed 1,300-acre Crossroads village in West Bradenton could share similar traits and theory -- both are designed by Orlando-based Canin Associates.

No firm plans have been filed yet for the Crossroads, but the draft code designed by Canin reveals similar ideals in these different communities. The layout of businesses will be a key difference because of the road network.

Avalon Park focuses on a hub-and-spoke design out from the village center, reaching out with tentacles of cul-de-sacs and county-maintained roads. An early proposal for the Crossroads features three commercial districts and a traditional city grid system connecting several roads in West Bradenton. Much like Avalon Park, the hub of activity will be focused around a lake.

Avalon Park's commercial district is built out with few vacancies. Maybe a few clothing shops would do, residents say, but neighboring community Waterford fills many of those gaps in a short drive with movies, big-box retailers and the Waterford Lakes Town Center, an open-air shopping center managed by Simon Malls, the owner of Ellenton Premium Outlets.

The commercial and residential space in Avalon is managed by the Avalon Park Group, which includes the community's founder and developer Beat Kahli, a Swiss-born investment banker. To jumpstart Avalon Park's commercial district, Kahli offered equity loans, some up to $12,500, to encourage businesses to open. Organizations and neighborhoods outside of Avalon Park also receive assistance through grants by the Avalon Park Foundation. The foundation targets the neighboring low-income community Bithlo and its charter school for help through fundraisers, and also pitches in to help families within Avalon Park who can't afford homeowners association fees. It also helped a family whose home was destroyed in a fire.

Outside Avalon Park's northern boundary, Benderson Development Co. is building a strip mall to serve commuters. A Wawa convenience store is about to open on the adjacent corner.

Loper moved to Avalon Park in 2006 for its small-town feel within a big city. The salon's business is growing as more homes are built, allowing her to attract new clients while retaining her regulars.

Residents here joke that Avalon Park has the stores and features that the folks in Baldwin Park want but don't have. There's a bakery and a coffee shop here. College-age students can find nice, affordable apartments.

Carla Bitterling, 72, sat on the banks of the lake with her granddaughter, Jianna Bitterling, who was catching up on homework. Jianna's parents moved here 10 years ago from Clermont.

"I like it because it's convenient for the kinds of stores I have to go to regularly," Carla Bitterling noted, rattling off the grocery store, gas station, YMCA and pizza place that the family frequents.

Dominick Dolnack works at Davis Bakery and Café, and enjoys the family-friendly vibe he gets from working in the community and getting to know regulars who frequent the bakery every day.

"It feels like a family when you come in here," said Dolnack, who lives about 15 miles away in Oviedo.

Michelle Owens, owner and director at Yoga East, represents the model citizen that these communities try to create: Folks who live, work and play in their own community.

"For me as a business owner, it's easy to market my business in that kind of community," she said. "People are out and about walking, riding their bike. We underestimated the impact that walk-by and drive-by traffic would have on our business, but since this is such a walkable place and people are out pushing strollers or riding their bikes, they see us."

The visibility is a blessing even with tight signage restrictions, she said. Rush-hour traffic was noticeable on a recent Monday, as 4 p.m. rolled around and Avalon Park Boulevard quickly filled with school buses, cars lined from stop sign to stop sign and parents walking their kids home from school, providing a moment for drivers to gaze at store signs and shops.

Community residents are vocal and honest about the businesses here.

"We hear from them when they don't like something, but we learn from that," Owens said, beaming with pride about her town. "They feel comfortable because they know us. At the same time, because they know us, they like to patronize our businesses."

Owens, who has operated her yoga studio for three years in Avalon Park, has lived there for a decade.

"Long before I was a business owner, I was a homeowner," Owens said. "I would say the thing that gave me the incentive and the courage to open my own business is that I did live here. I saw the strong, solid community it is."

The community has its own Facebook page maintained by the management group and an Avalon Park smartphone app to locate businesses or events.

"You really do know people and their families," Owens said. "This is the type of community if someone is having a run of bad luck, a family tragedy or even a family celebration, everybody pitches in."

Avalon Park was one of many Florida communities that benefited from the housing boom. It was able to insulate itself from some effects of the Great Recession as students searched for housing near the country's second-largest university. And Avalon Park is growing again, with more apartments under construction.

"We're poised for long-term growth, because if you look at the county's growth plans, this is smack dab in the middle of what they call Innovation Way, which is a high-tech corridor that goes from University of Central Florida all the way over to the airport," said Owens, a former principal planner for Orange County Government. "And Avalon Park sits right in the middle of that.

"Right now it may look like we're self-contained, but in five, 10 years we'll be in the middle of a high-tech hub."

Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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