Mount Dorans love their historic downtown, the crown jewel of the city. So it was no surprise last week when residents and two city council members raised concerns about a new public right-of-way construction project that popped up seemingly without warning to residents at downtown’s biggest gateway.
The project, reportedly funded by Main Street Leasing (MSL), reconfigures the sidewalk and streetscape on the north side of Fifth Avenue stretching from Alexander Street to the corner of Donnelly Street in front of the two-story, New Orleans-style building. The project also includes a retaining wall and railings, thereby changing the streetscape.
At the September 12 Mount Dora City Council meeting, it was confirmed that Mount Dora Historic Preservation Board was not briefed on the project, nor was the City Council. Council Members Laurie Tillet and Crissy Stile strongly voiced their concerns to City Manager Robin Hayes about the lack of clarity on the project’s scope, details and process, and asked Hayes to stop work, thus preventing concrete for the sidewalks from being poured, until the Council could review the plans. Mayor Nick Girone flatly rebuffed the request by stating the project, allegedly paid for by MSL, was not on the meeting’s agenda. Hayes said the work was approved and would continue. She mentioned she only saw the plans for the first time that day for about 60 seconds, but anticipated giving the Council more information at an upcoming meeting.
According to documents provided by the City, the only final plan it has is a single-page engineering drawing of the ADA compliant sidewalk construction showing necessary specifications for rebar placement, measurements and other important functional details. However, the drawing does not convey views of the project’s design or elevation, as are required for commercial and residential projects that seek the City's review and approval. Since the City has no such documents, it’s impossible to know what the completed project and altered streetscape will look like and how it will affect the appearance of historic downtown’s most visible intersection.
In a quick about-face on September 13, the City issued a partial “Stop Work Order,” stating that “written construction approval was not obtained prior to work commencing” for the sidewalk and right of way. On the same day,Hayes notified the City Council by email that approval for pouring a sidewalk had not been approved.
The order did allow concrete to be poured for curbing to direct drainage, plus specific other elements needed for safety. A possible fly in the ointment was several vertical rebar poles, approximately 3 feet tall, that were set into the concrete after the Stop Work Order. At this point it’s unclear if that violated the order.
Mount Dora Buzz reached out to Larry Baker of Main Street Leasing for clarity about the overall project, but he did not return the call or reply to our email. All of the properties that abut the nearly block-long project are owned by MSL and the project was reportedly funded by the company.
The City’s lack of transparency surrounding the current project is remarkably similar to the controversial process surrounding the 2017 sidewalk and wall project that transformed the area in front of Cafe Gianni on Alexander Street.
The 2017 project was also not reviewed by the Historic Preservation Board, the CRA or the City Council in advance, nor did it have any plans, according to John Peters, the City’s Public Works official at the time. That property is also owned by MSL which proposed the change.
Later the lack of plans would prove problematic, when a portion of the project had to be redone due to significant drainage issues.
During the public backlash over the 2017 project and the City’s policy, city council members firmly advised Hayes they were dissatisfied with the process that eroded the public’s trust and that the City should be held to the same Historic Preservation Board approvals and permitting standards as residents and businesses. Council members also advised that multiple design options should have been presented, in order to ensure that the best remedy for downtown was selected. One council member at the time, Mark Slaby, passionately warned Hayes and his colleagues about the potential for incrementally destroying downtown’s uniqueness.
Fast forward two years: The City has again commenced a seemingly unvetted project on taxpayer property involving the same property owner without presenting options, without reviewing it with the Historic Preservation Board, and without having architectural plans of its finished design. The difference this time is that the project is on the most visible intersection of the historic district, and no one at the City knows what the completed project will look like.
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