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Developer pitches downtown plan

OCN investigates special developer agreement, mayor's complaints that Council saw 25-year plan late in the game

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A development plan that could reshape Oviedo’s historic downtown is expected to be submitted to the city, according to Dave Axel, longtime representative for the Evans family, which owns about 28 acres there.

Axel provided OCN a map that he said was created to give himself and the city a visual of what’s possible in the downtown area. It includes a mix of multi-story residential buildings with retail on the ground floors, parking garages, and a hotel. 

Axel said the conceptual plan focuses on connecting area parks and trail systems to encourage walkability as well as creating “a sense of place,” meaning a cohesive connection between the buildings there.

On June 20, the Oviedo City Council approved a massive update to its comprehensive plan, a 25-year blueprint for the additional 16,000 residents who are expected to call the city home by 2045, according to state population projections. Florida municipalities are mandated to make room for expected growth in the comprehensive plan, which is updated every 10 years.

The most drastic changes are in Oviedo on the Park, the historic downtown and the Oviedo Mall area, which will allow up to 50 dwelling units per acre (or up to 100, if a developer qualifies for bonuses, which are awarded for things like sustainable building and affordable housing), projects that mix residential and commercial and vertical building.

Because of an agreement between the city and several subsidiaries owned by the Evans family made in 2019, Axel was given a seat at the planning table as the comprehensive plan was being updated. He met with city staff every other week to provide input but did not have any voting or veto power.

The agreement, called the Geneva Drive Realignment Agreement, centered around land that the city needed to create a road grid system, which city officials say will help ease local traffic congestion. For years, the city tried to acquire the land it needed to realign Geneva Drive but could not afford the high price the landowners had set, Oviedo City Manager Bryan Cobb said.

The Evans family agreed to spend millions of dollars buying the land at the owners’ elevated prices and cleaning the land up, Axel said, in exchange for nearby city-owned land so they could puzzle the grid together. As part of the agreement, Axel got to weigh in on the citywide comprehensive plan update on the family’s behalf, as well as updates to the land development code that dictates the rules for future development.

“I’m controlling, so to speak, for my client what could be assembled to be about 28 acres. The 28 acres will not function right if the rules and the plans don’t help the wider area,” Axel said.

The agreement questioned

OCN began researching the agreement after several Oviedo City Council members questioned the integrity of the deal.

Councilwoman Natalie Teuchert said during a February Council meeting that she felt it was unfair for the Evans family, who have owned land in Oviedo for five generations, to have influence over the rules they’d have to follow as they seek to develop their land.

“The agreement indicates that the representative, who is Mr. Axel, would work as part of the team writing the comprehensive plan and the land development code,” she said. “It does not make sense to me to have the [Geneva Drive Realignment Agreement] representative essentially sitting on both sides of the desk.”

Deputy Mayor Bob Pollack said it made sense to him. “We should have a representative from that area because that is one of the largest areas that’s going to be impacted by this. I understand what you’re saying but they’re not going to be the final approver. They’re going to provide that recommendation and it’s still going to go to the [LPA] and to us.”

Axel said the agreement is fair. “Everyone’s like, ‘This is nefarious. You have more influence than someone else.’ I go, ‘I should.’ I only have it because I work for them and they only have it because they made the agreement and they got to make the agreement because they went upfront, without any promises whatsoever, and wrote very big checks to consolidate all the property and get the magic pieces of land that made this road realignment occur and paid to redesign Broadway [Street] and hired the planner that helped the city figure this all out and paid the lawyer that negotiated the pond agreement,” Axel said.

Teuchert said she likes what the Evans family has planned for the downtown area but wishes they’d gone about it a different way.

“I think they have a really cool vision for downtown and the future. I just don’t want them on both sides of the table,” she said.

Cobb said that Axel’s input was taken as a suggestion and if the city’s staff disagreed, those disagreements were voiced.

“It was a collaboration. It wasn’t a, ‘Oh we like this so you have to do it’,” Cobb said. “There was a back and forth of how we settled on things. It wasn’t an acceptance, it was a true collaboration, where all groups brought something to the table and everyone worked together on it. We got a lot of information (from the land owners).”

Cobb said the reason the agreement’s reach went beyond the land the Evans family owns is because it’s all interconnected.

“You’ll hear people often refer to a city’s street network much like a circulation system inside a human, like the blood flow, where if you stop it one way it finds another way to go around that stop. Pretty much that’s the way the city is. We’re just barely 16 square miles. We’re not big,” he said. “When you look at the old downtown, if something on the west side is failing, it’s going to influence the old downtown. If Oviedo on the Park starts to fail, it’s going to influence what’s around it. You can’t really look at it with tunnel vision.”

Axel said the crux of the Geneva Drive Realignment Agreement was that the Evans family was spending a lot of money on the land and wanted a say in what it turned out to be. But he said it’s not just about the money. It’s also that the Evans family has called Oviedo home for many generations and wants to see it thrive.

“If the city’s going to expend public dollars to try to achieve these things, if my client’s going to expend private dollars to try to achieve these things, the end result has to get that money back for both parties and better,” he said. “But you know, you don’t go through all this trouble just to get your dollars back. It doesn’t make sense.”

Cobb said this agreement is special. 

“This agreement is really different from anything we’ve ever done. We’ve done land swaps before but never something on this level and never something to that importance,” he said. 

OCN asked nearby municipalities if they’ve had such agreements. Winter Springs City Clerk Christian Gowan said this is the fifth municipality he’s worked for and a deal such as this one is common.

Seminole County is currently updating its comprehensive plan. Planning and Development Manager Mary Moskowitz said many people weigh in during the planning process, including residents, stakeholders, such as developers, and schools, but she’s not aware of any agreement where one stakeholder gets more input opportunities on the plan’s update than others.

University of Central Florida Political Science Professor Aubrey Jewett said that this agreement might be more expansive than typical such agreements, since it allows the landowner input on the entire comprehensive plan and not just the area where the land is owned, but he said it’s still not atypical and can be helpful when it means landowners and municipalities working in concert.

“Ideally, in a democracy, we’d all have an equal say but that’s not always the case. People who own, develop, sell, build on land – those are the folks who usually have more influence on local government,” he said. “They’re big and they provide jobs and they pay lots of taxes and they write campaign checks. It’s up to the elected officials to look out for the rest of us to make sure the plans that are approved are not only good for the big landowner but the community at large as well.”

The Council’s seat at the table

Mayor Megan Sladek said the Council only got to see the updated comprehensive plan maps on Feb. 28, which is less than two months before the Council’s hearing was scheduled to send the plan to the state for approval.

“They don’t treat us like landowners. I don’t get a special seat at the table like Axel did. You’d think the politicians would get a seat at the table but we get the least seat at the table,” she said. “Everyone else got to touch it and we were very last.”
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Jewett said this is the real cause for alarm.

“The elected officials should ideally be a part of that process all the way through. If the mayor’s complaining that they weren’t in on the ground floor, that’s a little concerning,” he said, adding that if that were the case, and he were an elected official, “I wouldn’t be happy about that either.”

In 2020, the city’s consultants held visioning workshops with the public, asking them to identify areas where they thought growth should occur. The consultants then gathered input from the Local Planning Agency Board and the City Council and started writing the draft.

Cobb said there may have been meetings between staff and an individual Council member to discuss the drafts but that a public meeting or work session was the only time Council got to “dig into it.”  

“The time frame between those work sessions and them coming back with the actual drafts, that was a pretty long time frame,” Cobb said. “When you think about all the things they worked on in between those two times, you know, it’s not going to be fresh on your mind.”

He added that the meetings after the visioning process were more conceptual and not the level of detail that resulted months later.

But Sladek said she felt that because the Council saw the plans after they were detailed, it was harder to achieve the changes she wanted to see.

That said, Sladek said she’s happy with a lot of the changes that resulted from the comprehensive plan, such as the removal of land-use percentages – a big sticking point for Axel, he said. This means that instead of an area having to have a certain percentage be commercial or housing, it’s market driven.

Sladek said her mother wanted to build a replica of her 1940s home on Broadway Street that was torn down 10 years ago and operate it as commercial, a plan she and her siblings wanted to honor after her mother passed. But the previous percentage rule said that because the area reached its commercial cap, it had to be built as housing. Sladek said the family sold the land. It will be developed as townhomes.

She said the comprehensive plan update will allow flexibility “for when people want to be creative or honor history”.

Axel unofficially showed the conceptual downtown development plan to city staff, which he said was received well but he knows there will be people in town who won’t approve.

“There will always be people who will say it’s too many apartments. There will always be people saying it’s too dense, it’s too tall,” he said.

“We’re trying to create, in this spot, a place where people feel like they’re in the middle of a city. We’re trying to create the core of what’s still a little place.”

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