I wrote the following letter to the City Commission last July.
I offer it to provide perspective on David Strong’s obsession with having the city buy the current post office property.
July 8, 2008
Dear Mayor and Commissioners,
Certainly the Carlisle saga has been a painful process for all and the $4 million spent to make the project go away was substantial. We are seriously considering spending an additional $7 million in taxpayer funds to build new postal facilities for the United States Postal Service (USPS) in order to acquire the existing 2 acre post office site, and making this commitment without a vote of the citizens.
I ask you to consider the consequences and another approach. There are two issues, the park expansion plan and the method of financing that plan.
Issue #1 – Park Expansion.
USPS decision makers must pursue a fair and just value for any land they give up if they are to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities. The appraisal of the current 2-acre post office site completed as part of the Carlisle settlement process values the land at more than $7,000,000. Recent communications with the USPS indicate they are flexible with commitments built into the existing contract. However, by the time they get finished with their assessment of fair value and by the time we get finished with the architectural designs for any new facilities we prefer as a City, it is likely we will have a commitment of taxpayer funds over $7 million if we go down this road.
The current “preferred” plan involving acquisition of the post office property for an estimated $7 million gives us control of only 1 acre of new land for added park space with 1 acre being a retail postal facility. By adding the southern acre of the post office property to the Carolina Avenue right of way and Parking Lot B (both already owned by the City) we realize a potential 2.5 acres of new park space. Note that this plan leaves Parking Lot A on the South side of Morse Blvd. as a surface parking lot.
The consultants studying the alternatives (ZHA) estimate the cost per space of underground parking with park above to be $30,000 to $35,000 per parking space. If we leave the post office as is, green all of Lots A and B (as well as some or all of the Carolina Avenue right of way) with park above and underground parking below we can realize as much as 2.9 acres of new park plus 250 or more parking spaces at an estimated cost of $7.5 million to $8.75 million.
Why would we spend $7 million to control one additional acre of land that would enable us to generate 2.5 acres of new park space with less parking when we can spend about the same amount and realize as much as 2.9 acres of new park space AND 250 or more underground parking spaces?
Issue #2 – Financing.
The current “preferred” plan requires selling the remainder of currently unused City land, primarily the 5 acre site on Denning Drive. This course of action dramatically limits our City’s flexibility to respond to emergencies and future opportunities. How will the City respond to hurricanes as we experienced in 2004 and to other emergencies in the absence of cash reserves and available assets such as the Denning site? The total cost of the hurricane clean up of 2004 exceeded $18,000,000 of which most was eventually refunded by FEMA but the City had sufficient reserves at the outset to respond quickly and effectively. Those reserves do not exist today.
Revenues that support City government and services have declined while mandates from the State have forced spending cuts. Further mandates from both the Federal and State governments can be expected with unknown but certainly costly consequences (especially water and environmental mandates). Prospects for increasing City revenues in the coming years are extremely limited due to falling or stagnant real estate values, Save Our Homes credits on the revaluation of new home purchases, State mandated limitations on the City Commission’s flexibility to vote tax increases, and practical limits on increases in fees and taxes that would unfairly penalize consumers of City services, water, and electric.
In addition, the recent action of the City Commission to rescind the Comprehensive Plan means it is unlikely there will be investment in Winter Park commercial real estate sufficient to meaningfully impact our commercial property tax revenue for at least several more years. On top of these realities we are facing an inflationary environment for fuel and other essentials that will put upward pressure on City salaries and operating costs at a time when revenues and prospects for revenue increases are tightly constrained.
Faced with these constraints, prospects for rebuilding our General Fund Reserves to provide for emergencies and opportunities are extremely weak. This conclusion is supported by the planning analysis prepared by Commissioner Anderson which projects it will take 5 years or more to rebuild our reserves to levels that existed before we paid the Carlisle developers.
Please note that I am not judging the payment to the Carlisle developers or the decision to rescind the Comprehensive Plan as being “good” or “bad.” I only point out the consequences of these actions in the context of financial reality and note the related effect on our City’s flexibility to respond to emergencies and opportunities in the coming years. This is not about imposing a point of view. It is about making the right long term decision for Winter Park.
Accordingly, it is important that any City Commission decision to invest in expanding the park between New York Avenue and the railroad track be ratified by a citizen vote agreeing to finance the investment so we can retain existing City financial and asset (land) reserves and related flexibility.
Now for the good news.
I don’t know anyone who thinks it is a bad idea to expand central park between New York Avenue and the railroad track. The challenge is how to do it right.
The essential question is how do we expand central park while meeting the needs of differing constituencies, addressing financial realities, and anticipating future needs? I suggest a path to an outcome the vast majority of Winter Park residents can embrace.
A Plan that works:
- Let the option on the post office land lapse or negotiate an extension well into the future.
- Refuse any park grant monies that may be awarded by the Florida Community Trust and pay any monies then due to the Carlisle developers.
- Turn all City owned land between the railroad tracks and New York Avenue known as parking lots A and B and some or all of the Carolina Avenue right of way into park, providing as much as 2.9 acres of new park space.
- Create underground parking for 250 or more spaces in the Lot A and Lot B areas on either side of Morse Blvd.
- Fund the plan with a voter referendum.
- Re-initiate the HOPE park donation fund for this revised plan.
This revised plan meets the needs of both park advocates and parking advocates, while being financially responsible.
- It gets the City as much as 2.9 acres of new park space AND 250 or more underground parking spaces for about the same price as the current “preferred” plan which nets us 2.5 acres of new park space and a reduction in parking.
- It assures the pedestrian and park character of central park is expanded by greening Lots A and B.
- It provides public parking essential to the economic viability of Park Avenue while assuring parking is adequate to support the continued appropriate redevelopment along New York Avenue as an extension of Park Avenue as our commercial core.
- It provides a charitable funding vehicle that park advocates and parking advocates can both support. I will personally commit $50,000 to this revised plan and work to solicit charitable funds from all sources, getting park advocates and parking advocates working together toward a common goal. The more money we can raise the less money will need to be borrowed, increasing the likelihood of passage of a bond referendum taken to the voters.
- It retains the City owned Denning Drive property for later use, keeping this significant asset as part of the City’s effective reserves available to deal with emergencies and opportunities.
- It eliminates the financial risk inherent in consuming all unused City owned land to build new facilities for the USPS at a time when the prospects for rebuilding our cash reserves are extremely weak.
- It gives the City breathing room to adapt to the very real financial pressures we face.
- It puts responsibility for major City investments where it belongs, with the voters.
I hope you agree that it is time for the emotions that have driven recent events to subside and for reasoned judgment to come forward. Please seriously consider a revised plan that reconciles the priorities of differing constituencies while giving us both more park and parking for the same price as park alone, and that addressed financial realities, reduces financial risk, and provides flexibility for the future.
Sincerely, Pete Weldon
700 Via Lombardy
Winter Park, FL 32789
Phone: (407) 645-1002