The ongoing saga of Winter Park’s former library building began a new chapter on Thursday as commissioners discussed the parameters of a new request for proposal (RFP) for its reuse.
The 43-year-old building – vacant since October of 2021 – was in line for a multimillion dollar rehab to house co-working and health-related businesses until financial issues, and a change of heart over the repurposing plan, kept city leaders from giving their blessing. Thursday’s work session was the first step in a new RFP process that has already proven to be different from the first go-round.
City Commission expressed regret over the previous 45-day solicitation period and strict reuse limits that resulted in only one proposal (the one that was rejected). Limited parking and potential traffic impact on nearby residents were two reasons for excluding high-volume uses such as entertainment and food service. Consensus had been to keep the building intact and not permit residential use. And instead of an outright sale, which would have limited control over reuse, the city had insisted on a land lease where the developer assumed all renovation and maintenance costs.
Commissioner Kris Cruzada began the new discussion by suggesting RFP restrictions be loosened to allow proposals that include demolition and structural changes. “It would at least give us a plethora of options,” he said, adding that the solicitation period should be between six and nine months to allow developers time to find the right tenants and financing partnerships.
Commissioner Todd Weaver agreed with a six-month solicitation but felt the existing parking and traffic issues would limit the use of the building. He attempted to make the case for workforce housing, explaining that the second and third floors could accommodate a total of 16 apartment units that could house first responders and city services staff during emergency situations. “A lot of our employees had a rough time getting into the city after Ian,” he said. “That’s not only a service to our employees, it’s a service to the residents and businesses.”
Commissioner Shiela DeCiccio expressed concern with the city assuming renovation costs ranging from new windows and stairwells to plumbing and electrical fixtures.
DeCiccio, who supports the Winter Park Playhouse relocation proposal to the Seven Oaks Park parking lot, also left the door open for moving it into the library building as part of a pitch for a cultural hub. Her idea would house the Winter Park History Museum on the first floor with the playhouse and 501(C)(3) offices on upper floors. “It just compliments that area downtown,” she said. “I think it should be made into something that serves the citizens.”
“In my opinion, having it restricted to arts and culture would hurt us,” said Commissioner Marty Sullivan, hoping to receive a broad range of reuse proposals. He did, however, suggest the RFP guidelines could state that the city would “prefer arts and culture, or something that serves citizens in some way.”
There was no immediate consensus on language that would prioritize proposals offering a community benefit. City staff suggested a ranking system for desired elements that could be expressed in the RFP.
On the subject of allowing the building to be demolished, Mayor Phil Anderson previously stated that he was in favor of razing the structure and land banking the property with a temporary green space until a suitable use was found. His thoughts on the building’s range of possibilities had not changed much. “I think it’s good for a jail, it’s good for a museum, and it’s good for a library,” he said.
Anderson later added that, if demolition is permitted, the majority of proposals for the property would likely reflect a similar use. “The highest and most intense use that’s allowed under zoning, with the least amount of parking, is going to be residential,” he said.
At the end of the 68-minute discussion, commissioners agreed to leave demolition as an option for potential developers, and to consider nearly all uses where parking can be accommodated to-code. However, food service options remain banned because of parking and traffic issues, and the possibility of selling the property was unanimously rejected. Residential uses will be considered, city staff was instructed to research zoning for mixed-use options, and a four-month solicitation was deemed acceptable by all commissioners.
An RFP will be presented for further discussion, public comment and possible amendments at the May 10 city meeting.