3 apartment projects coming to Downtown Orlando’s ‘North Quarter’

New Downtown Orlando Apartments

Downtown Orlando’s northern edge, has been newly branded as “North Quarter” and is slated to become home to about 1,300 renters.

Even though the city calls the North Orange Avenue area “Uptown,” the developers building three apartment projects, an office building and a hotel there have started marketing it as North Quarter.

“We came together several years ago, when we were contemplating what could happen in that district. We thought ‘Uptown’ was used in a lot of places and sounded kind of fancy,” said Craig Ustler, who plans a hotel and expects to announce plans for an office building along the North Orange corridor in coming months. “We just started calling it ‘North Quarter,’ and [now] we’re just rolling that out.

“Long-term, we’d like to see North Quarter have some different streetscape and have a little separation from the rest of the downtown,” Ustler added.

The city’s Downtown Development Board in the late 1990s dubbed the area from Colonial Drive as far north as Highland Avenue as “Uptown.” Uptown Place, a multifamily complex built on North Orange in 2002, still reflects that effort.

But Ustler said Uptown has become a somewhat common name in cities across the country — in 2005, for example, the city of Altamonte Springs named its new, 25-acre town center “Uptown Altamonte” — and doesn’t reflect the kind of urban-neighborhood feel that developers hope to create in downtown Orlando.

The three North Quarter apartment projects are:

•Pollack Shore’s SteelHouse, a 326-unit, $40 million complex on the northwest corner of Orange and Colonial, slated for completion early next year.

•GDC Properties’ NORA, a $28 million, mixed-use undertaking now under construction and scheduled to open with 246 units at Orange and Marks Street in the spring of 2014.

•The Sevens, by Pizzuti Cos. in partnership with Charlan Brock & Associates, a $34 million project at 777 N. Orange with 316 units and about 10,000 square feet of retail, on which work is scheduled to start next fall.

Also nearby, the Novare Group’s Sky House apartment tower at Livingston and Rosalind Avenue will bring 320 units to a block just south of the Orange County Courthouse when it opens in late 2013.

David Estilette, leasing manager for Uptown Place, said he had not heard about the “North Quarter” initiative but welcomes the competition because the lease rates for those apartments are likely to be higher than his. But he also said he’s not sure the downtown market can handle all the new rental units in the pipeline.

“It seems like they’re just flooding downtown with apartments, like they were with condos a few years ago,” said Estilette, who leases blocks of units in the North Orange building, which was built as apartments, converted to a condominium and transitioned partway back to rentals again. “It’s a great rental market, but what happens when you flood the market with all these rentals?”

Ustler said that so few apartments have been added to the market in recent years that Orlando should be able to continue absorbing new units for another decade. And unlike struggling condominiums that can’t sell their units, an apartment project can drop its monthly lease rates if necessary to fill itself up.

“The rental market has elasticity to it,” he said. “It might rent for less than the developer wanted, but it’s still viable.”

Ohio-based Pizzuti is furthest behind in the seeming race to build apartments in the North Quarter. The developer had long committed to building midrise offices on its site at Park Lake Street and North Orange. But that was a difficult position to maintain, with downtown’s office-vacancy rate at 18 percent — and its apartment-vacancy rate at 2.3 percent.

“They took a lot of pride in their plans for the [office] building and saw it as a signature building,” Ustler said. “But at some point the market became so overwhelmingly heading in another direction.”

The north end of downtown Orlando has been a bit of a no-man’s land, with stretches of undeveloped property. Several new office and residential buildings were constructed in the area along Orange and Magnolia avenues about eight years ago, but pedestrians must walk a mile, past panhandlers and a five-lane crossing at Colonial Drive, to get to the restaurants and lounges in the heart of the city center near Church Street.

Christopher Wrenn, who is overseeing the Sevens for Pizzuti, said any disconnect between North Quarter and the heart of downtown can be remedied with shuttle services and an expansion of the bus route used by the free downtown-circulator service known as Lymmo.

“The intersection of Orange and Colonial is an important gateway for Orlando, and I think, over time, you will see the character of this intersection continue to change for the better,” Wrenn said.

In addition to the apartment projects planned for the North Quarter, Ustler said he plans to announce a 15,000-square-foot office building at 800 N. Orange. He would not disclose lease information but said three “good local tenants” would each anchor a floor there.

Much farther north on North Orange, Ustler expects work to start in the summer of 2013 on 230 rental units that will become the first phase of Florida Hospital‘s Health Village Apartments Close.

Owen Beitsch, vice president of Orlando-based Real Estate Research Consultants, said the area’s new residential dynamic is a “wonderful complement” to the rest of downtown, though he questioned whether it will translate into more shops in the neighborhood.

The expected influx of residents will be mostly singles and young couples who will purchase little beyond food and entertainment nearby, Beitsch said. They would have more disposable income if they did not own cars, he said.

“These residents will still own cars and can choose to use them for discretionary purposes and retail activities away from downtown where the options are excellent and easily accessible,” he said.

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