At a Crossroads: Orlando developments may give clues about Crossroads livability

mjohnson@bradenton.comMarch 23, 2014 

ORANGE COUNTY -- When the first residents move into homes and apartments in the planned Crossroads development a few years from now, they may find that the community has a bit of a split personality.

Initial plans for the 1,322-acre development on Manatee Fruit Farm' property in West Manatee resemble a mix of at least two community styles already built near Orlando. If those communities -- Baldwin Park and Avalon Park -- are any indication, people living at Crossroads could wind up loving their neighborhoods for their quiet walkability, but could also find themselves dreading a crowded commute in and out of their homes and work.

Crossroads developer Whiting Preston is pitching the development as a hybrid of the two communities. He hired urban planning consultants Canin Associates, Avalon Park's designer, to draft a design code for the West Bradenton development.

All three communities are similar in size, each spanning more than 1,000 acres and containing 3,600 to 6,500 households. But Preston's vision for Crossroads will combine the traditional, grid street system that dominates Baldwin Park with the hub-and-spoke network of major arterial roads that connects the six villages that comprise Avalon Park.

At street level, the two existing communities couldn't be more different.

Single-family homes in Baldwin Park often sell for more than $1 million, while condos in the $250,000 range are the most affordable purchase options. Rental apartments are prevalent, but start in the $1,300 range.

Avalon Park's housing stock is more affordable, selling for under $200,000 in some neighborhoods. Rentals are more affordable, and appeal to students at nearby colleges.

On a recent visit to both Orlando communities, the Bradenton Herald examined how the structures of the two contribute to how living there works and feels for residents. Those impressions may say something about how Crossroads appeals if built as proposed.

Baldwin: Walk, bike, enjoy

Built on the site of a former Air Force base turned Naval training center east of downtown Orlando, Baldwin Park models itself on the more idyllic designs of East Coast and southern communities. The community boasts more than 30 road exits and entrances, but only a couple of them could be classed as major arterials. Streets in Baldwin Park are generally narrow, and are lined with sidewalks and car park turnouts that slow traffic and encourage walking and bicycling.

Homes, townhomes and apartments sit just off those sidewalks, shading them with their porches and balconies. Big trees planted throughout neighborhoods further dapple the Central Florida sunlight. Parks, swimming pools and the centrally located Lake Baldwin give a sense of open space at the ends of even the tightest ranks of row houses.

Schools are at a walkable distance to most neighborhoods in Baldwin Park. The community has a preschool, elementary school, and middle school within its borders.

Even late morning on a weekday has families out walking babies in strollers, runners pacing park trails with their dogs, and bike riders rolling to the Publix store downtown. Weekends bring 10K races, picnickers and the odd festival to the public park that encircles Lake Baldwin and to a strip park that splits the northwest portion of the community.

On Sundays, residents who want to attend church in the community can choose between a Baptist congregation and a non-denominational church near the lake.

All of it has eight-year resident John Kinmonth and his wife, Josie, planning to live there for the rest of their lives, at least part time. The couple moved to Baldwin Park to be close to aging parents in Winter Park. Kinmonth works near enough to his house to walk or bike to work. He likes the fact that he can see his neighbors on the street every day.

"It's a front-porch community," says Kinmonth. "Everybody knows everybody, either by a face or by a dog."

Baldwin Park homes have their garages located behind them on alleys, leaving the fronts of houses as places to spend time outside. Those house fronts are uncluttered, per community restrictions. "For Sale" and "For Rent" signs are not allowed. Residents must also keep up home exteriors and landscaping.

The community's residents govern their neighborhoods through a residents association. An architectural review committee signs off on home design and any changes homeowners make to the exteriors of their houses. Control is strict.

"The first rule is you don't break any of the rules," Kinmonth said.

If Kinmonth has a complaint, it's that people in the community can be somewhat transient. According to the Baldwin Park Property Owners Association, more than half the community's residents live in apartments. However, Kinmonth said the diversity of housing does give the community a "diverse socio-economic range."

That percentage will go up because apartments are still being built. Lindsey Doherty, a former leasing manager in Baldwin Park who now sells houses for David Weekley Homes, said hundreds of units are under construction.

"It's booming," she said.

Two of Baldwin Park's apartment dwellers, David and Sara Hollamby, say apartment living is a good way to get access to a community that is too expensive for them to buy into. While on a walk with their dog near a stream and waterfall built along the community's main street, New Broad Street, Sara Hollamby said the couple chose to live at the edge of Baldwin Park, where rates for a two-bedroom apartment dip down to about $1,300 a month. Nearer downtown, similar apartments rented by Post Apartments push toward $1,700.

"It can get a bit pricey here," Sara Hollamby said.

Avalon: Traffic but great living

A few miles to the east, Avalon Park has a very different feel. Comprised of six village-like arrangements of houses, the community's 3,600 homes sprawl across approximately 2,000 acres, connected by a primary thoroughfare. Each of the villages is designed around curving boulevards and cul-de-sacs, cutting down on through traffic.

Beat Kahli, the Swiss investment banker who developed Avalon, took an active part in how the community grew. In Bradenton, Preston has not declared how active he will be in the development of his Crossroads community. Kahli's company, the Avalon Park Group, estimates the value of Avalon Park at $1.5 billion.

Residents say they like the design of the community overall. Unlike Baldwin Park, Avalon boasts a full range of schools, from preschool through high school. It's also home to a technical school dedicated to medical and personal cosmetic services. Nearby colleges include the University of Central Florida, Florida Technical College and Strayer University's East Orlando campus.

Avalon's parks are family friendly, including eight swimming pools, splash pools, and playground equipment. Each neighborhood has its own park facilities, making access easy.

Homes in some of Avalon's villages have their garages on alleys, much like in Baldwin Park. Others feature the standard garage-in-front home design. Few, if any, taller buildings and trees are designed into the neighborhoods, making for a sun-drenched walking landscape.

The community's downtown area has most every business residents might need, including grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and small shops. It also has apartments above many of those businesses.

But during the morning and evening rush hours, the hub-and-spoke design of the community is not ideal. Residents complain about traffic jams along the development's main north-south road, Avalon Park Boulevard. School buses, cars, and trucks idle slowly through Avalon's business district as they head toward the communities spurred to the east and west.

Getting to that main drag can be even more of a pain: Alafaya Trail, the main route into Avalon Park Boulevard, is being expanded to four lanes from two. It is similar to the situation at Crossroads, where the two-lane El Conquistador Parkway is planned to be the primary artery.

Resident Michelle Owens also owns and operates a yoga studio there. A former principal planner for Orange County, she said the road system has never matched the volume of the development's traffic.

"One of the big complaints is that Alafaya Trail is only just now being widened, but we've been here over 10 years," she said. "We're just now getting the road we need."

Kerri Loper, an Avalon Park resident and manager of one of the community's hair salons, said road construction has increased her commute from five minutes to 20.

"I know people have commutes that are so much more than that," she said. "When you're used to only taking five minutes, you're kinda frustrated."

Traffic aside, Avalon Park is a safe community, according to residents. The Avalon Park Property Owners Association won a 2010 award from Florida Community Association Journal for its safety and security program, thanks to its Neighborhood Watch program.

Carla Bitterling, a 72-year-old grandmother, found out how much neighbors watch out for another first hand.

One day, her 9-year-old granddaughter decided she wanted to run home from a visit she and her grandmother made to the lake. Bitterling let her do it, but followed in her car. The scene didn't go unnoticed.

"Here's my little red SUV following her, and all of a sudden this little car comes up next to me. The woman flashes her badge and she wants to know what I'm doing, from the passenger side of the car," Bitterling said, laughing. "It was undercover checking to see who's stalking little girls on the way. I said 'I'm the grandma.' She didn't just take my word, she asked her."

Fourteen years into its existence, the community has no more single-family homesites available for building, according to the property owners association. A few apartment buildings are still under construction, meaning the community will see a small future bump to its population.

At this point, residents are happy with their community. But if they had to do it all over again, Owens and others say they probably would take another look at traffic.

She encouraged Manatee County residents to fight for road improvements ahead of Crossroads' construction.

"Make sure the road infrastructure is there ahead of time regardless of what the traffic studies warrant," she said.

-- Herald reporter Charles Schelle contributed to this story.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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