ORLANDO -- Nestled behind a stretch of State Route 50 in northeast Orlando, Baldwin Park is hidden from most drivers as the corridor transforms from the specially designed chain restaurants, to a tired pattern of strip malls, to a rough looking gentlemen's club with bars on the windows.
Not many people would guess that behind all of this is a former Air Force base-cum-Naval training center transformed into a walkable, compact, planned community with lakefront views.
The 1,100-acre neighborhood boasts 8,000 residents
and more than 125 businesses after a city-approved development plan for the old base was built out a decade ago.
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Its retail district funnels traffic and dog walkers toward Lake Baldwin, where diners can hang out at the Gators Dockside for a casual lunch overlooking the water, or opt for one of the high-end restaurants along New Broad Street. A CVS Pharmacy stands on the corner, giving the village a mix of small businesses, such as salons, and chains like Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Subway, a smoothie shop and banks.
A component of this is envisioned for West Bradenton, spanning from a bustling IMG Academy on the eastern end to cars on Cortez Road heading to the beaches to the west. Between those bookmarks -- now farmland -- the Crossroads would serve as a new urban center of its own.
Whiting Preston's Crossroads development conjures a walkable, New Urbanism-inspired 1,300-acre development with 2.78 million square feet mixed-use retail, commercial offices, 6,500 homes and apartments to be built over 20 years. A 10-acre manmade lake is planned, mimicking the waterfront focus of Baldwin Park's housing and commercial district.
Residents can easily do just about anything in Baldwin Park. Jennifer Violand toted her wheeled bag along so she could get groceries at Publix after her appointment at Planet Beach spa tanning.
"You can just walk everywhere," said Violand, who just moved to Baldwin Park from Sarasota. "Look at me with my little cart!"
While the retail district is beautiful, the long-term vacancies in the 182,434-square-foot village center give existing businesses pause. The vacancy rate is at about 25 percent, with some commercial space vacant longer than five years, and pushing as many as nine years as the project was completed during the real estate crash.
"Restaurants seem to do fine in here, but as far as bringing people in, you kind of have to be a destination spot just because we are in the middle of the neighborhood, and you can't see us from main drives like Colonial or the other main roads where people see shopping malls," said Johanna Stewart, manager of the Farris and Foster's Famous Chocolate Factory.
The chocolate shop keeps a steady business as community kids come in for chocolate parties where they can make their own candy, and the shop offers romantic date nights for couples, Stewart said. The downtown used to include a kid's shoe store, a kid's boutique, a French furniture store, a wine store and a Barnie's Coffee and Tea that still have residents and business owners there wincing about their departures.
"Everyone's really friendly in here and wants to succeed," Stewart said. "It's hard to get people in here."
The coffee shop moved within the village but found there wasn't enough foot traffic to sustain its business, according to other business owners in Baldwin. Barnie's wanted to renegotiate its lease but couldn't, so moved closer to downtown Orlando.
Dale Petersen, vice president of the Baldwin Park Residential Owners Association, said a lot of the troubles can be attributed to the housing crash.
"The business environment went through a difficult time because it was just getting established as the crash occurred," Petersen said. "We have a new owner of the village in and we're bringing new businesses in."
The Dallas-based Tabani Group has purchased the Village Center for $28 million to manage and attract new tenants. Once the new businesses come in, the vacancy rate will be between 15-19 percent, according to commercial real estate experts in the community.
William Comer has owned and operated his Loco Motion bike shop since Baldwin Park's inception in 2004, and he's contemplating leaving. The commercial retail rental rates are going for $18 to $26 per square foot, plus community association fees set by previous management companies. McKinley, the latest group, is handling some renegotiations for more attractive lease rates as the center transitions ownership to Tabani.
Comer understands that the charge was in line with the neighborhood's high-end housing and top income bracket, but all the money inside those homes is not flowing to the village center's businesses.
"When they start telling you everyone's going to live in there and work and then play, that's a lie and they know it," Comer said. "They can look at the figures and most aren't."
Some of the fault lies with the community's design of being hidden from most, he said, and with that, folks who live here don't always shop here.
"The majority of people are not going to work in the community. I don't care what they say, I don't care what the freakin' politicians say or the developer says," Comer said. "Are they going to strike a big deal and put a big office building there? It's not going to happen."
Javier Fong, a civil engineer, has lived in Baldwin Park for nine years and finds himself frequently outside the village.
"We spend more time outside Baldwin Park than inside for leisure activities, and actually restaurants, too," Fong said as he walked his dog, Hannah.
The village needs a better variety of retailers, Fong said, beyond food and mainly high-end restaurants.
"I think if they had more variety of stores or more stores opened, people would spend more time here in downtown Baldwin Park instead of having to go outside," Fong said. "It seems like they can't attract that many merchants."
Hope remains for a resurgence, however, with Tabani's takeover. The Baldwin Park Merchants Association is working with nearby Rollins College to devise a marketing plan. It is also reaching out to residents and businesses to hear what they want, with most of them calling for a breakfast spot and the return of a coffee shop.
But it's ultimately up to the developer to sign the leases.
"I think if you came back here in a year you would see still a few vacancies, but certainly not what you see today. The new business owner has only been here for a month," Petersen said. "They've gone through the process of renegotiating leases and deal with existing business owners in way of support while they do the necessary marketing and recruiting to get new businesses in here."
Merchants and residents hope Tabani can renegotiate a strong non-compete lease that Publix holds. That prevented businesses like bakeries from coming to the village.
"Publix is both a blessing and a curse in the extent that it's wonderful to have a Publix location here, but part of the lease that they negotiated originally was that some things could not be offered in the community if they provide them," Petersen said.
Some business owners and residents say that if Baldwin Park could have a second try, they would open up the neighborhood to bring more cars and people to the village. Petersen thinks that the village center should run around the lake instead of perpendicular to the lake.
Michelle Owens, owner of Yoga East in nearby Avalon Park, has closely followed the paths of both Baldwin Park and her own Avalon Park, and believes once Baldwin figures out what it wants to be, it will succeed.
"They say Baldwin Park doesn't really know what it wants to be," Owens said. "Does it want to be part of downtown, does it want to be a regional shopping area or does it want to be a little local shopping area?"
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.