Since the opening of Celebration in 1996, Central Florida has played host to a slew of new developments dreamed up by New Urbanists. Communities like Baldwin Park, which was built at the site of a closed naval base and opened in the early 2000s, offer lots of parks, spiffy new single and multi-family housing mixed with small-scale retail, and office space, all of it walkable. They're meant to look like a small town's downtown, albeit one ruled by a benevolent dictator with excellent taste.
These places sell pretty well, and to the right (read: financially well-off) people. But how do they compare to actual small-town downtowns? Over Thanksgiving, the Orlando Sentinel launched a Sweet 16-style contest to determine Central Florida's "other best downtown." The first best downtown being that of downtown Orlando, naturally, which Sentinel columnist Beth Kassab praises despite it having "hardly any shopping and only an average dining scene." The contest ends Dec. 16.
The match-ups can be viewed as a pitched battle between organic downtowns and New Urbanist-engineered developments. Take a look at how the bracket has played out thus far:
The Villages, Avalon Park, Baldwin Park, Celebration, and Altamonte Springs Uptown are all planned developments. They also are all losing this bracket contest. Downtown Winter Park, home to Rollins College and the Morse Museum, beat Uptown Altamonte, which is nice, but also carefully planned to make it feel like a historic downtown. Winter Garden, a small city
south west of Orlando (and where, I should note, I spent part of my childhood) beat slick, self-contained Celebration. Yes, Avalon Park beat College Park, but College Park is a neighborhood in Orlando, not really a downtown. And yes, Celebration beat Kissimmee, but cut Kissimmee a break: Osceola County wasn't all that great before the mortgage crisis, then it got walloped, and now families are living in motels.
Anyway, as the screenshot above shows, the bracket is down to four downtowns: DeLand (a smallish college town where I spent four years eating and drinking), the aforementioned Winter Garden, adorable Mount Dora (Mecca to antique collectors) and Avalon Park. Only one planned development made it to the final four, and it's about to get knocked out: With 8,026 votes, Mount Dora is polling at 61.5 percent to Avalon's 38.5. Winter Garden and DeLand, two old towns with organic, centrally located downtowns, are neck and neck with more than 10,000 votes each.
Does this poll prove, once and for all, that real downtowns are better than nostalgic developments designed to look like downtowns? Well, no. For one thing, this is an unscientific Internet poll. Also, in addition to having historical downtowns, both Winter Garden and Winter Park have retail developments (Winter Park Village and Winter Garden Village)—so it's possible the people who voted for these downtowns were thinking of their nearby shopping-restaurant-movie theater plazas.
Still, if we assume that the poll reflects the preferences of a decent sample of Central Floridians, and that people are actually voting for the places they think they're voting for, perhaps we can learn something from it. Authentic downtowns, for all their warts, have plenty of appeal even in the capital of the manufactured community.
Top image: A bike rally in downtown DeLand (which I voted for). (Courtesy Mainstreet DeLand Association)