Orlando builders, homeowners tussle over new duplex rules

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By Jeff Weiner

Published September 30, 2016


When Noah Adelman and his wife bought a World War II-era home in Colonialtown North in 2001, the Miami transplants hoped they had left the bustle of South Florida behind for more of a small-town feel.


But in the 15 years since, other small houses like theirs have been torn down to make way for two-story duplexes, packing more residents into the downtown Orlando neighborhood and overloading the narrow, brick-paved streets.

"We see townhouses going up that are ... very flat, plain structures," he said. "It's out of character for the neighborhood and it's not very appealing, if you want to have a neighborhood that people want to move to and raise a family."

After more than a year of study and debate, the city of Orlando hopes to move forward soon with new rules to regulate the development of duplexes and other multifamily housing in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown.

The proposed restrictions have inspired vocal support and opposition. When the city's planning staff laid out the latest draft during a Municipal Planning Board workshop Wednesday at City Hall, about 50 people turned out.

Bill Murphy, a longtime local developer, argued the city's proposals would result in "killing the whole idea of duplexes."

Old and new homes sit side-by-side in Colonialtown North, which traditionally has been a single-family neighborhood. Orlando planners hope to rein in duplex development in downtown neighborhoods, but face resistance.

Jeff Schnellmann, representing the Greater Orlando Builders Association, warned that the restrictions risked taking away the rights of landowners to build what they want on their property.

Jill Rose, a single mother, argued duplex development is making downtown living more accessible, allowing her to live in a neighborhood close to her job and downtown's amenities.

"I can actually afford to live in College Park now," she said

Orlando officials say their goal is not to ban duplexes, but rather to encourage designs that look more like the single-family homes around them.

Colonialtown North resident Noah Adelman and his wife bought a World War II-era home in Colonialtown North in 2001 to leave the bustle of South Florida behind for more of a small-town feel. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda / Orlando Sentinel)

The city's primary targets are side-by-side duplexes, which often feature two identical, two-story units attached to each other with large, front-facing garages. Planners prefer so-called "tandem" housing, with one unit behind the other.

The proposed changes are not citywide, but would apply in many downtown-area neighborhoods.

Currently, officials are considering several new rules, including:

  • Prohibiting duplexes on some corner lots, where planners say their large size is even more apparent.

  • Permitting tandem housing wherever duplexes are allowed, and allowing so-called "court homes," which feature four units, two in front and two in back, which share a central driveway leading to garages grouped in the rear.

  • Restricting the size of garages to no more than half of a duplex's front face and requiring them to be set back at least five feet from the front of the house. These changes aim to reduce the visual impact of garages.

  • Prohibiting the same building from being built on two adjacent lots, and mandating that side-by-side duplex units with front garages cannot be mirror images of each other.

Also proposed is an appearance-review process and design guidelines, to ensure that new duplexes and tandems have an architectural style in keeping with the neighborhood.

The recommendations drew praise from residents in several neighborhoods that have seen an influx of duplexes in recent months.

"Within two blocks there's 10 different, giant, monstrosity-box duplexes," said Joshua Call, a resident of the Milk District, near Orlando Executive Airport. " ... I believe the aesthetic of the city is one of the reasons that people want to live here."

Colonialtown North resident Eliza Harris Juliano also praised the proposals.

"I've seen some great duplexes in our neighborhood, and I've seen some really ugly duplexes ... I moved to this neighborhood because it's a walkable neighborhood, and I want new development to be supportive of that," she said.

Not all builders opposed the proposed restrictions. Micah Clymer of Homes by Carousel, who said he's built 15 or 20 duplexes in the city, praised the proposed review process as "fantastic" during the workshop Wednesday.

Planning board Vice Chair Mark Suarez, a College Park resident, argued that duplexes have been allowed to outgrow their original intended purpose.

"I would be more understanding if it was a duplex meant for a single person, or an old retired person ... If you're going to build a single family home, build a single family home," he said.

But board member Jennifer Tobin warned against overreaching.

"I am very hesitant to see the city pursue anything that is going to be controversial, and I think the property rights question is going to be controversial," she said.

Dang said planners will recalibrate the recommendations in light of the workshop discussion, but the board likely won't see a new draft until at least December. Any rules they approve would also require approval by the City Council.

Having spent more than a decade restoring and repairing it, Adelman said he doesn't plan on ever leaving his 1940-built house in Colonialtown. His hope is that the neighborhood won't change too much around him.

"I think, as the city wants to keep its identity as a quaint town, especially in the neighborhoods like this, that they need to put some rules and regulations in place to hopefully keep it that way," he said.