The benefits of a town architect


Alberto Vargas

Issue Date:

Thu, 2006-06-01

Page Number:


As a planned community founded in the early 1880s, Winter Park, Florida, has been studied as a prototype for Florida’s New Urbanism, especially with regard to its town center, Park Avenue. It also has a rich residential architectural tradition. In recent years, the city of 26,000 residents near Orlando has used principles of New Urbanism to enhance the qualities that already make it a good place to live.

I have been on the planning staff for the last 12 years; one of my roles is city architect. My focus has been to interpret the architectural and design style of the city and to apply these historic patterns in new public and private projects to strengthen the city’s unique sense of place. Not many municipalities have a town or city architect. However, the position can serve many vital roles: as seed planter, place maker, project coordinator, course corrector, and technical facilitator.

Seed planter
The Bank of America building at 250 Park Avenue, originally built as a 1960s glass box, was always known as the worst-looking building on Winter Park’s main street. The building was set back too far compared to other buildings, and it related poorly to the city’s architectural vernacular. One of the my first tasks was to create a series of “what if” renderings that showed its transformation into an elegant mixed-use building in the style of the early 1900s.

At the time, the owners of the building were not interested in making changes, and they sold the building at the turn of the millennium to the Battaglia family, which owns real estate in the city. When family members saw the sketches and asked for a meeting, the seed began to germinate. I explained the ideas of changing the façade, bringing it closer to the street, and activating the street with retail. ACi Architects of Winter Park and Baker Barrios Architects of Orlando — the latter were the architects of record — converted the idea into a plan that was carried out. The building now has a restaurant on the corner, other retail stores at street level, and offices above. The Bank of America office is still there. With the addition of detailed relief panels depicting oranges on the facade, the building has become more related to its location. The oranges reflect the importance of the citrus industry not only to the town but also to the Battaglia family, whose wealth was created through citrus growing.

Place maker
The place making role includes many activities, from micro to macro scale. A significant portion of historic Winter Park was built during the Arts and Crafts period and was influenced by design movements inspired by that period, such as the Prairie Style. The Arts and Crafts and Prairie styles were manifested in a distinct local way. At the micro scale, I borrowed cues from the vernacular to create what I call “Winter Park” designs for street amenities, including kiosks, newspaper box enclosures, directional signage, and decorative hangers. For the city’s historic westside community of Hannibal Square, the city designed monuments to memorialize the contributions of the African-American community.

Sometimes the city architect can be called upon to draw urban design plans for multiple blocks. I created an infill analysis of three city blocks along New England Avenue, an area that makes the transition from largely retail uses to a residential neighborhood. Many of the buildings are set back from the street with parking in front. The plan calls for mixed-use development, parking in the rear, on-street parking, streetscape improvements, and a new parking piazza. I also provided input in drafting and revising design guidelines for two sections of the city, one created by the Gantt Partnership, the other by Dover, Kohl & Partners.

Project coordinator
When Winter Park was looking into enhancing its historic public golf course, the city issued a request for bids to construct a custom entry feature. The bids exceeded the city’s budget. Refusing to accept that the design was too expensive to build, I assumed the role of the project coordinator. The construction components were broken down and were directly contracted to specific brick masons, metal fabricators, and pre-cast fabricators to build the feature as designed. As a result, entrance was added within the prescribed budget.

Course corrector
In the late 1990s, the city issued a request for proposals to design and build a new public safety building for the police and fire departments. The selected architect came up with a design at odds with contextual architecture and urbanism in the city. The architect placed the parking in front and used an industrial design aesthetic — which had nothing in common with the city’s Arts and Crafts tradition for civic buildings. During the ensuing negotiations, I became heavily involved in discussions of building placement and architecture. Examples of civic and institutional buildings from Rollins College in Winter Park and the city’s historic municipal hall served as inspiration for a new design. Using the same program and plan, the architect created a design more in keeping with the city’s vernacular. The placement ended up better, too; the building addresses the street in a forthright manner.

Technical facilitator
In the fall of 2000, when the community rallied to stop the demolition of the historic Robert Bruce Barbour House called “Casa Feliz,” the challenge was to find a suitable public property to which the home could be relocated. Because of the size and weight of the home (1,000 tons), new locations were limited to a few within a short distance of the existing site. Convincing the public that a proposed site could work required sophisticated visual imaging — the kind that can be carried out by an architect on staff. “Before” and “after” computer images illustrated that a tight site next to the ninth fairway of the city’s golf course would be ideal for this architectural treasure. Artisans and craftsmen restored the house to its original 1933 condition and the building is now host to community events, business meetings, and weddings.

Place making in established communities requires the skills and knowledge of a city/town architect. Although many jurisdictions have yet to establish such a position, in Winter Park this post has proven valuable, providing vision while adding layers of design elements to the urban fabric.

Alberto Vargas is assistant planning director and community redevelopment manager for Winter Park, Florida. For the past 12 years, he has served as the city’s staff architect. He has a master’s degree in architecture from Florida A & M University.

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