Maylen Dominguez Arlen's mother wanted her to move back to Orlando, especially since a baby was on the way. But Dominguez Arlen wasn't convinced-at first.
Sure, her mom-Orlando custom-home builder Carmen Dominguez-sang the praises of the city's evolving downtown area. But Dominguez Arlen was living in L.A. How could Orlando's long-dormant downtown possibly measure up to such an ultra-cool place?
"Mom was trying to lure us into coming back here," says Dominguez Arlen. "But I was very influenced by what was going on in L.A. architecture."
Dominguez Arlen, 33, didn't want to give up the vibrant city life she'd grown accustomed to out west. Turns out, she didn't have to. A tour of downtown Orlando convinced her that things were changing-and she was impressed.
The Yale graduate saw hip contemporary homes next to restored craftsman-style bungalows. She saw a mélange of fancy eateries, shops and new businesses and noted the revitalization of charming neighborhoods just off the downtown center.
Dominguez Arlen and her husband, Philip Arlen, learned what everyone who's been downtown lately knows-there's a renaissance going on. The heart of the city is being reborn with new office space, renewed neighborhoods and exciting social, cultural and entertainment opportunities you won't find in the 'burbs.
Indeed, more than $2 billion in new construction is planned or already under way downtown, including 700,000 square feet of retail and entertainment space and more than 7,000 residential units, according to the Downtown Development Board.
The board, which created a development program for the city's core, wants to foster modern, mixed-use towers with shops below and condominiums above. But at the same time, downtown boosters are pushing preservation and restoration of the city's charming older neighborhoods.
More specifically, the board's plan is to preserve historic communities such as Lake Eola Heights and Lake Cherokee while adding a corridor of pedestrian-oriented commercial and residential projects along Osceola Avenue to create a hub for the South Eola neighborhood.
Dominguez Arlen liked what she saw well enough to move back to Orlando. She now lives in the popular Thornton Park area, where she can walk to work. "This downtown community isn't contrived," she says. "This is a real downtown. Why not use it?"
Dominguez Arlen and her sister Cristina have partnered to open a chic store downtown called Marimekko, which will feature Marimekko clothing, accessories and home décor.
David Edwards, a 30-year-old Rollins College graduate who builds and restores homes downtown, says he understands what's drawing people to the area. "It's new and exciting," says Edwards of David Edwards Construction in Winter Park. "And it's starting to feel more like a city, with a real downtown area. Downtown is becoming a nice place to live."
Edwards says he's seeing an influx of buyers ranging from single professionals to families with small children to empty-nesters. All are living downtown, in part, to avoid some of suburbia's headaches. "They're giving up big box stores for small shops, and they get a plethora of dining options, plentiful nightlife and beautiful parks," Edwards notes. "It's a fun place."
The residential neighborhoods just off the downtown center are a draw for buyers who want the charm of historic homes, but don't want to commute.
"Buyers are coming downtown with money to add on and remodel," Edwards adds. "I've seen these older homes become more polished. They keep the original character, but they add modern kitchens and amenities."
One of the best examples of the changing downtown dynamic is Thornton Park, which borders Orlando's landmark Lake Eola.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of entrepreneurs Phil Rampy and Craig Ustler, Thornton Park has been reborn as a community of restored bungalows and contemporary condominiums. And the neighborhood has its own trendy business district.
The new heart of the area is Thornton Park Central, which is just east of the central business district. This $31 million project-developed by Rampy and Ustler-opened its doors in January 2002, and at the time was touted as the first significant condominium project downtown in a decade. Its success meant that others quickly followed.
At five stories, Thornton Park Central encompasses 20,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space, 40,000 square feet of professional office space and 56 residential lofts, each with private balconies and reserved parking.
The residential areas in or just off downtown each have a distinct character that contributes to the overall flavor of downtown.
The Central Business District, for example, offers mixed-use, high-rise buildings where you can live, work and play. Uptown is situated between Orange and Magnolia avenues, with a mixed-use corridor along Park Lake Street. Parramore Heritage, which is separated from the rest of downtown by Interstate 4, is being revived with a well-planned system of parks and open spaces. And the Lake Eola community, which rambles around the city's signature park, is growing while preserving its historic charm.
Housing choices and prices in downtown are quite diverse, says Suzy Masson Barnes, a real estate agent with Olde Town Brokers Florida Realty Group in Winter Park.
For example, Masson Barnes recently listed a 5,000-square-foot estate home on Delaney Avenue for $1.8 million. Also on the market, however, was a 1,200-square-foot bungalow for $282,500.
Meanwhile, condo buyers could purchase a four-bedroom penthouse with more than 5,000 square feet for $4.3 million. Or they could snatch a more affordable 411-square-foot studio unit with a parking spot for $144,900.
Living where the action is may be appealing to young singles, Masson Barnes says, but there's no shortage of families and empty nesters who want to call the city home these days, too.
For downtown residents, work may be just a few steps away. Among the area's major employers are the Orange County courthouse, the Orlando Sentinel newspaper and two of the largest hospitals in the state, Florida Hospital and Orlando Regional Medical Center, which have more than 12,000 employees between them.Meanwhile, there's plenty of space for new businesses to set up shop. Some 11 million square feet of office space already exists, according to the Downtown Development Board, while another 2 million square feet is planned.
Plus, over the next decade downtown will be bolstered by a new arena for the NBA's Orlando Magic, a state-of-the-art performing arts center and a facelift for the 70-year-old Citrus Bowl. With a combined value of more than $1 billion, the projects represent the largest public building effort in the city's history.
The three buildings, to be funded by a combination of various taxes and private donations, would be roughly linked in a corridor stretching west from the performing arts center across from City Hall to the Citrus Bowl. The arena will sit between the two. "These facilities will make downtown--the heart of Orange County-a world-class urban center," says Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty.
In short, downtown Orlando has never looked so good. The city's center is more busy and vibrant than ever. And while that rebirth is certainly in full swing, many observers say there's no reason to think it is going to end anytime soon.
"Downtown is changing," Barnes Masson says. "It's going to be a real city with more shops, more retail, more restaurants. People are going to want to be a part of that energy. So I think we should just sit back and enjoy the ride."