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The Future of "Orlampa" and the Middle of the I-4 Corridor

October 5, 2010 | WMFE - The population of the I-4 corridor is expected to double over the next forty years, merging Orlando and Tampa into a "Mega-region." People who live in the mostly rural area between the two cities are wondering how those changes will transform the place they call home. Planners think a lot could depend on the success or failure of a high-speed rail line expected to run right down the median of I-4.

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Central Polk County is about halfway between Orlando and Tampa.  Less than a mile from the roar of Interstate 4, the land is still dominated by cattle and citrus.  It’s changed very little since I-4 opened in the 1960s, but some people have never let go of their high hopes for the area.

Not far off the highway, a road sign welcomes travelers to the future site of “Orlampa.”  There is actually a company called “Orlampa,” which owns the nearby Fantasy of Flight attraction.

Vice President Jesse Douthit says the sign was meant as a humorous attention grabber, but the concept is no joke.

 “Within the super-region of Orlando and Tampa, including Polk County, we’re potentially the tenth largest economy in the United States,” he says, “That includes New York City and all the other big boys.”

There may not be much evidence of growth here, but the county’s population has roughly tripled from about 200,000 just before I-4 was completed to nearly 600,000 now.  Most of the growth has been concentrated in eastern and western parts Polk, as Orlando and Tampa sprawled into the countryside.

Projections show the county’s population will easily top a million in twenty years. The dilemma for planners is how to concentrate that growth in the center of the county, while preserving some of the area’s rural character and protecting vital wilderness like the nearby Green Swamp.

Polk’s Long Range Planning Director Jennifer Stults says the key will be to limit growth to the vicinity of a new high speed rail station planned for the area.

 “When you concentrate development in the right places, you can leave open other pieces of land,” she says, “whether it’s for conservation, recreation, [or] agricultural uses.”

The exact location for the rail stop hasn’t been determined, but it will likely be near the “Orlampa” area.  Stults says the long term vision is for a compact mini-city with the station as the centerpiece. The community would have multi-family housing, office space and shops within easy walking or biking distance from schools and recreation.

Bruce Stephenson, professor of Environmental Studies at Rollins College in Winter Park, says that type of development is already happening in Europe, and it reflects the way people will want to live in 2030 and 2050.

 “They’ll be active, they’ll be vital,” he says, “for the simple fact that you can get around by walking and taking a train.” 

The concept of easily walkable, compact development, known in planning circles as “New Urbanism,” is nothing new. Until now, it has mostly been used to lure the so-called “creative class” of entrepreneurial young people into declining sections of existing cities. The prospect of growing such a community in what is now mainly pasture land is relatively unusual and ambitious.

But planning experts like Stephenson say it’s the only way the region can thrive over the next few decades.

“We’re not going to be building any more suburban subdivisions stretching across the curvature of the earth,” Stephenson says. “If I-4 and the automobile is our future in the year 2030, we are going to be a backwater region will and our economy will only get worse.”

But there are critics of the high speed rail project.  They point to studies, including one from Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, indicating that Floridians, unlike Europeans, will be reluctant to part with the freedom and autonomy of their cars.

Many say rail’s success or failure will decide whether central Polk County becomes a utopia of new urbanism, an ugly spectacle of sprawl and congestion or something in the middle.

 

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