Stakeholders give voice to long-standing resentments.
Karen Macneil of East Winter Garden, speaks out at the June 25, 2023, progress meeting at City Hall.
They came. They ate. They vented.
Property owners, entrepreneurs, residents, pastors and nonprofits working in East Winter Garden packed the city hall commission chambers earlier this week, following a buffet reception, for an update on the city’s latest efforts to bring new commercial and residential life to the historic Black community between Dillard Street and State Road 429.
It was just over a year ago that a series of working meetings with the Miami-based urban planning firm Dover, Kohl & Partners had taken place in the same commission chambers, as East Winter Garden stakeholders sketched out how they wanted their neighborhood to evolve. Those ideas were collected in the East Winter Garden Plan Update and published on the city’s site in December. According to the plan, $20 million of Community Redevelopment Area funds are earmarked for revitalization efforts.
In a surprise move, the city kicked off the presentation with a Q&A. Once folks seized the mic that District 3 Commissioner Mark Maciel, who represents East Winter Garden, passed around, they did not hold back. City manager Jon Williams later described the crowd to VoxPopuli as “passionate.” But the discontent was obvious.
“Obviously the idea behind the question and answer session was to solicit info from the residents and hear from them about what’s been transpiring over there and also get some suggestions,” Williams told VoxPopuli after the meeting. “They clearly communicated that.”
The issues meeting attendees raised are not new: lack of public spaces for adult recreation; lack of movement toward restoring Center Street as the commercial heart of the neighborhood; ongoing drainage problems, which have plagued the neighborhood for decades; and a lack of street and place names that honor and celebrate the leaders of this Black community. The neighborhood is still smarting from West Orange Habitat for Humanity’s choice to name its recent housing development, Criswell Court, after one of its own, rather than one of the Black community's heroes.
Places to hang out
“We were okay with widening the streets and … you guys talked about bringing the bike trail down on Center Street. That’s all well and fine,” said Annie Collins, who noted she’d grown up in the neighborhood. “But don’t push us out. The majority of the older men who go down there to play checkers, they feel that they’re being pushed out of their neighborhood.”
Collins was referring to the groups of older men who routinely gather outside of JJ’s Grocery, the Church of Christ and some private residences to kibitz, play cards and dominoes, and perhaps sip a beer out of a paper bag. With the lack of coffee bars, eateries, pizza places, ice cream parlors, wine bars — any place with public outdoor seating — “where can the men gather?” has been a perennial question.
Williams had said that the city had “set aside some space at Zanders Park,” where the men could hang out, adding, “from the city’s perspective, we cannot create an environment that would allow for any illegal activity.”
That idea was not well-received.
“When you’re talking about illegal drugs, I don’t know if you know it, but illegal drugs are up here as well,” fired back longtime East Winter Garden resident Karen Macneil once she had the mic. “In other words, we’re tired of having that label on our area. We’re tired of it. We. Are. Not. All. Drug. Dealers. We. Are. Not. All. Drug. Doers.”
Macneil was just getting warmed up. Her main point, apart from drugs and ongoing drainage problems in the area (something she has tried to bring attention to for years), was ensuring that Williams understood she was advocating for a Center Street gathering spot for adults, akin to what Plant Street offered “for the people up here.”
“Center Street has always been a commercial property for us,” she said sharply. “It’s been a place where we hung out at when we couldn’t come here and hang out. So we want something down there in these plans for our people to hang out at. We’re not going to go to the park where the children hang out at. That’s for the children. Y’all need to put something down there for us to hang out at. We know how to act. We’re not animals. And we’re tired of having that label put on us. Give us something down there for adults to have that’s nice — with a bathroom.”
Williams later told VoxPopuli that “private investment would dictate” whether eateries and coffee places like those on Plant Street would open on Center Street
Don Rogers who lives in Clermont and owns property in East Winter Garden, was outraged at what he saw as the city reneging on a plan to rebuild the business district by building houses along Center Street instead.
“The gave money to help the business people on Center Street. I ain’t seen no business they help down there," he said. "You putting all these houses down there, you knocking the Black people business area.”
Rogers was also incensed about the community resource center installed next to JJ’s Grocery on Center Street. “That’s not a building,” he fumed, “that’s a trailer. They ain’t put no trailer down here in Winter Garden. They ain’t put no trailers nowhere on the other side of Ninth Street. You know where trailers at? Up in Tallahassee where people that flood out and have to move in a hurry.”
Streets with Black names
Gary Haskell, another East Winter Garden native, spoke about the absence of streets named for the “movers and shakers” who shaped the neighborhood he grew up in.
“I’m tired of driving down North Street,” he said. “Who is North? Who is Bay? Who is Klondike?” He pointed to roadways named for Roper, Britt and West — families who built Winter Garden and Ocoee. “My grandfather Joe Johnson, provided affordable housing in the Britt Quarter. Mr. Holt had a cleaners. Buster Dyson had grocery stores and cab companies. We had men who took care of their people, and I think they should be recognized … and remembered for generations to come.”
Maciel addressed simmering resentments surrounding a Center Street rooming house that Rogers later claimed the city prevented his son from purchasing. “I wanted the city to buy it when it was for sale in 2017. The city could not buy it. The city did not want to buy it,” Maciel said as the crowd audibly grumbled around him.
“I thought it was a good property for the city to get to redevelop it. So I got some veteran friends of mine together, and we bought it. We were gonna do veteran housing. That didn't work. Mike, the former city manager, and I talked about that property ad nauseam. What are we going to do with it? What are we going to do with it?”
Maciel added that he reworked the plan again to create senior housing but that that got back-burnered. He said the city is still working to redevelop the property. “I can confirm we're in discussions to redevelop that property,” Williams said.
Maciel told VoxPopuli via text message that he did not learn of Rogers' claims until years after the purchase.
Harriett Bouler, cousin to the former District 3 commissioner Harold Bouler, counseled patience with the city while Charlie Mae Wilder, a former District 3 commissioner herself, urged community members to attend commission meetings — held the second and fourth Thursdays of each month.
“Come and let your face be seen in the place. If we had been coming, we wouldn’t have had all of this tonight,” she said, referencing the outpouring of resentments. “If you haven’t been coming before, try to make it your business to come and voice your opinion because your opinion is so important to us…”
Williams gave a quick rundown of the city’s projects in the area, including:
Approval for a 30,000 square foot office-retail structure at Plant and 11th Streets. Called The Point at Plant St., it will be anchored by Mosaic Hair Studio’s third location. (The others are in the Milk District and Ivanhoe Village.)
Purchase of 16 acres of land on W. Colonial Drive for a potential swap with Orange County Public Schools. The land swap will create an alternate site for Orange County Public Schools’ much-needed west side bus depot and preserve Orange Technical College, the site of the former segregated Drew High School. The East Winter Garden Plan Update contains several ideas for repurposing the vocational school, but none were addressed during the meeting.
Construction is poised to begin in mid- to late-fall on Orange County storm water improvements. The project includes new drains, ponds, water main upgrades and sidewalks. Like plaque in an artery, calcium build-up can narrow a water line and decrease flow, resulting in poor water pressure. "With the new upgrade lines, we’ll get the benefit of improved safety in the event of a fire. Water quality will be better because we won’t have any dead-ends where sediment can build up and we’ll also get better water pressure," Williams said.
Partnering with a developer for the West Orange Boys & Girls Club at Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, south of Shepard’s Hope, in front of the Community Garden. The initial approval included only the build-out of phase one of the project, but Williams will recommend additional funds be put into the next budget cycle to build out phase two to help address community needs after hours.
Design streetscape at Tenth and Center Streets. “We’ve been meeting with our design consultants to solicit proposals so we can to move forward with the streetscaping so we can create those public spaces that you folks have mentioned was desperately needed. And and we’re going place a significant focus on the intersection of Tenth and Center for an expanded public area.”
Restore Dyson Plaza. Williams said there was a proposed site plan and the city was providing a facade grant “to change the look of the building," including adding a heritage marker.
Establish a Legacy Fund for revitalization of existing homes. Williams said he is going to recommend that the city commission fund it at more than $1.2 million.
Seeking a partner to build affordable housing for seniors. “One of the problems we do find is finding somebody who can build the units in mass quantities, so we’re trying to work out that piece of the puzzle,” Williams said.