Interview with Ken Dwyer, President-Pine Hills Community Council
Conducted by: West Orlando News Online
Date: January 27, 2011
WONO: There is a Pine Hills Redevelopment Task Force Report. Give us some background to that document?
Ken Dwyer: In February 2010, I, along with 13 others, was appointed to the Pine Hills Task Force by the County Commissioner. The Task Force Report is intended to build on prior work over the last decade and develop a market analysis for the area. The Report also formulates specific redevelopment initiatives, along with implementation strategies, necessary for Pine Hills to achieve success.
The members of the Task Force are either business people or residents of the area. Our chairman is JaJa Wade, who is on the YMCA Board of Directors, has a business in Pine Hills Road and is in the construction sector. Barbara Anderson, a member, is an Orlo Vista resident; businessman, Tim Haberkamp owns Hardee’s and has lived in the area for many decades and graduated from Evans High School. Also, there are Pinkie Freeman from the Pine Hills Safe Neighborhood Partnership and Gwen Parrish, who is the president of the Pine Hills Safe Neighborhood Community Partnership. So, that’s a sampling of the members. I am also on the communications part of Pine Hills Safe Neighborhood Community Partnership and I represent Pine Hills Community Council.
A consultant was hired to put the report together. So, the report is the outcome of the consultant and review by the Task Force.
WONO: What’s the status now of that Pine Hills Redevelopment Task Force Report and what are the next steps?
Ken Dwyer: It was approved by the County Commissioners about eight weeks ago. Now we are holding a series of meetings to prepare a redevelopment plan, which we call the Pine Hills Improvement District. Our next meeting will take place on February 21, at the Hiawassee Library. The primary purpose of these meetings is to get community input and buy-in of the residents in the area.
We were originally meeting once-a-month and speeded up our process to meeting every two weeks. I expect we will conclude those consultations around April or May. Then comes the issue of funding.
WONO: That was actually my next question. The Task Force Report made several recommendations. With the budget crunch, how optimistic are you that there would be funding to follow through on some of these recommendations?
Ken Dwyer: Well, if I said it was not going to be a challenge that would be an understatement.
The Task Force Report recommended the creation of a division within Orange County government that will, in part, focus on Pine Hills redevelopment. Another key recommendation is the establishment of a Redevelopment Corporation which is essentially a public-private partnership.
With government spending decreasing as taxes receipts decline, we are not expecting to receive a lot of financial assistance from Orange County. Despite this however, there are several things the government can do, most importantly, the zoning changes necessary in the area. Another is the funding that the Parks and Recreation Department has earmarked for the Pine Hills Trail Development.
The Pine Hills Trail is the bike trail that will connect Pine Hills to Winter Garden and the West Orange Trail. There are $5 million dollars set aside for this which is being coordinated by the Transportation Department, some of which has come from federal grant funding. So, just to complicate it for you—Metro Plan under the Transportation Department also has a stake in how these funds are disbursed.
The bottom line is, we see the $5 million as part of helping to re-develop and recreate Pine Hills; Orange County government perceives it as part of the Parks and Recreation program, and then, Metro Plan sees it as part of the transportation system. My hope is there is a common thread here–if we can get the bike-way to link up to the West Orange Trail, then it’s one dimension of Pine Hills opening up to the bigger world. Looked at from a transportation angle, it will make Pine Hills a bikeable community.
One of the advantages that Pine Hills has going into any program of redevelopment is our grid system. Our roads run north and south, east and west. It is much easier for people to get around, it is a bikeable community. In contrast, most of the newer developments in Orange County are built on a subdivision system, where there is one entrance in and you have one way out. With the exception of the western end, the Hiawassee Laurel Hills area, everything in Pine Hills is built on a grid system. The City of Ocoee is looking at how they could get back to a grid from their subdivision system.
WONO: Besides the grid system, what are some of Pine Hills’ other strengths?
Ken Dwyer: We have a lot of other big pluses. Pine Hills was started in 1948 with the building of a golf course. Then, the first phase of construction commenced in the early fifties and it continued through the sixties. So, in the area you have the retirement type communities and you can drive on Pine Hills road and see houses with flat roofs. And then you go into the next section, which is the more traditional houses from the seventies and eighties, with traditional hip roofs, which would be the bigger three bedrooms, two bathroom-type of structures. If you go over to Laurel Hills and Hiawassee, you see two-stories houses, narrower roads, the smaller lots of our more modern 1990s and 2000s developments. So in our area, which is about two to three miles, you see the whole construction gamut–from the mid-fifties all the way up to the 21st Century. There is also The Enclave, a subdivision off Hiawassee, which is in the process of being built.
Related to the history of the area, is the fact that a majority of residences are owner-occupied. In Pine Hills this goes from a low of 61 percent on the eastern side, to a high of 70 percent on the western side. By contrast, in the City of Orlando, the average is 50 percent and in Orange County, it is 60 percent. So, the people in Pine Hills are loyal to the community and that’s a big plus.
The fascinating thing is that five years ago when the Orlando Sentinel was doing a story on the area, and we thought it was not exactly helpful, but one of the things highlighted was that, the average income of our white community is equivalent to that in the metropolitan area, but the income of our African-American population is $2,000 higher than the metro average. So, here is an area where things are not supposed to be so good according to the Sentinel, and then the African-American community has a higher income, the white community has the average, and then added to this, there is higher household residential and home ownership.
Pine Hills is sort-of an overlooked area. If you live here, you feel safe. There are some problems on the main streets and thoroughfares that do not get into the more residential areas. There are commercial properties on the front or main streets, and then you go into the residential area, and in-between you throw in the apartment complexes. And it creates a kind of quirky situation that, if you are coming from the north, it doesn’t look the same as it does in the northeast. And I think that is one of the things we are trying to correct.
Let me give you an example. The Task Force Report recommended “quieting” Pine Hills Road and work is underway to correct that problem. Back in 1967, it was decided that Pine Hills Road should be widened. Well, how was this done? The road was made two-lanes wider by cutting the lawns of the people living on Pine Hills Road, which made the houses not marketable. Then, the zoning on Pine Hills Road was changed to professional offices, but it wasn’t done through a regular zoning change, rather through an administrative change. We have investors on Pine Hills Road buying property expecting that all they have to do is add to the house and redo things and then it is a professional office.
Andy Hill, one of our Task Force members, is a good example. He ended up paying an extra $5,000 or $10,000, to go through the process of re-zoning and future planning and everything else that you have to do. This is a disincentive for businesses wanting to invest. We have to make this area very, very positive for investors. As it stands, the legal and zoning structure is a disadvantage for anyone wanting to invest, and that has to be corrected.
WONO: One of the principal recommendations in the Task Force Report was the establishment of a mixed-used Town Center, at the Pine Hills and Silver Star intersection. Do you see that becoming a reality?
Ken Dwyer: Yes, I do, but this will become a reality in stages. The first thing is what I call the Winn-Dixie Shopping Center–the northwest corner–which is not going to change. It is a well-managed shopping center. The stores are always kept full. But, across the street on the southwestern side, you have what I call a mish mash of businesses and a shopping area that has really deteriorated and no longer functions as a retail center. It is being used for churches, storage, and daycare centers. That area being as large as it is, really lends itself to redevelopment as a mixed-use area, where you have offices and residences in the same location. Right now because of the zoning, and this is a big thing, you cannot have residences and businesses in the same buildings. So I think that would be one of the changes.
The southeast corner is occupied by the AT&T-Bell South, that is, a switching unit, which is not going to change. Our number one challenge is the area, next to Evans High School, on the northeast corner. The challenge there is, again, because Silver Star was widened by adding extra lanes to make it basically a six-lane thoroughfare, proper parking was eliminated. Therefore, the only good businesses that can survive are those that do not need parking. So, we have a pawn shop, a giant-sized billboard and small businesses in the area. And, because the businesses were designed before the road was widened, the frontages were eliminated, and parking is in the back, which is not the best arrangement. So, that’s the area where we would like to see the buildings reconstructed.
There are several ways to do this. I know that Commissioner Fred Brummer and Betina Bush are working to have the County purchase the land and do the redevelopment. For my part, I am trying to figure out how to get a private entrepreneur involved because, it’s an excellent retail area—an excellent area for business, it is just badly designed and constructed, because the highways have expanded.
If Pine Hills Road had never been enlarged, I think about a-third of the problems would not exist, because the properties on Pine Hill Road would be houses that could be resold for retail use. You would not have had to turn them into professional offices. If Silver Star had not been expanded you would not have the Progress Energy electrical substation right next to the road. So, in my view, Orange County’s desire to build roads and to do all those little expansions to get people moving east and west and north and south, has limited how Pine Hills itself could grow, therefore discouraging people from investing in the area.
WONO: What will become of that substation? Is there a way to make it more attractive?
Ken Dwyer: Excellent point. In my conversations with Progress Energy, the strange thing is, it looked even worse seven years ago when the fencing was not constructed. Progress Energy has worked to improve the area. What I would like to see is, and we have discussed several options, and one is having a covering on the fence area that would reflect the community—perhaps a banner.
The basic geographical problem is that, if Silver Star Road had not been expanded to a State highway, which has made it even more challenging, the problem would not be as great as it is. A good example is, we have discussed putting banners on the light poles on Silver Star Road, highlighting different events throughout the year, somewhat like what you see on Clark Road in Ocoee. But, because it is a State highway, the State does not permit having banners on State highways. But, we can do this on Pine Hills Road, so that is what we are looking at.
When the community was started in the fifties, there was no zoning and no master plan. So, we are sort of the victims of ad hoc development. For example, Hiawassee Road and Laurel Hills areas have mandatory Home Owners Associations (HOAs). Because you have a mandatory HOA, you have a structure in place for your neighborhood. In the area east of Hiawassee, because it was built earlier, there is no mandatory HOA, therefore we work as volunteers. This is a bigger challenge, especially if you have a turnover rate of people who buy houses, move in and then move out, which was the case in the late seventies, but much less so, the eighties and nineties.
WONO: How do you see Evans Community School transforming the area?
Ken Dwyer: That is a nice subject that you bring up. I’m not the expert on Evans. Betina Bush works with Dr. Christiansen, the principal, on a regular basis, but the aim is to adopt a community school concept—combining the best educational practices, with a wide range of vital in-house health and social services. This is being done in collaboration with several entities, including Children’s Home Society of Florida and the University of Central Florida. I think, turning Evans High into a community school will be a great spark plug for the area. Already, the surrounding buildings themselves are being uplifted because the Evans construction is such a major investment.
I should say though, the Pine Hills Community Council does have a problem in that, the school took the Methodist Church, the Spanish church, and several churches in the area, and most likely will be acquiring the Haitian church–all ongoing and functioning organizations–to add retention ponds and parking places.
One of the frustrations is that students of Evans High School mostly use the public LYNX transportation—that’s second to Jones High School—and there are about 1,800 students. By comparison, 300 students, on average, use the public transportation system at other schools. In other words, we have a high use of public transportation at Evans, so to acquire surrounding property for parking places is probably not the most logical thing to do. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive building and I expect it will help spark new development in the Pine Hills area.
WONO: Pine Hills area is a very culturally diverse area. Do you see that as a strength or weakness?
Ken Dwyer: I think, one of the challenges that you have with a culturally diverse area like Pine Hills is, people usually say well, “you lose the middle class.” In the Report it was stated that one out of five has a net worth of $250,000, and in Pine Hills, 4.2 percent actually has a net worth of $1 million. Again it goes back to the high ownership of houses. We have people with low incomes, but we have lots that are middle class. I think that is one of those things that makes for a strong neighborhood. We have people that have invested in the area and have not moved away.
Also, and again this is one of those interesting things, when I refer to the churches, I didn’t refer to their theological base, but their cultural base. We have Haitian churches, Spanish churches–we have an immigrant population and that has all the advantages of people who are here for one reason, they want to work. And the disadvantage is that they are here for one reason–to work–so they’re concentrating on their families, which gives them less time to see the community as a whole and participate in the work of the Pine Hills Community Council and Pine Hills Safe Neighborhood Partnership. So, the challenge is to involve these people more in the community, knowing that their number one concern is making sure they get their children through school, get them educated and off to college. That is a 20-year investment that immigrant populations are making. But they are making it in Pine Hills and we are trying to help them succeed in what they are trying to do.
WONO: With crime trending down in Pine Hills over the last few years, what’s the perception now of the area?
Ken Dwyer: Theperception is, there was a problem, but you didn’t see us running away from the problem. Ten years ago we began working with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, Captain Wilson, in particular, on programs aimed at “taking back the streets”, and we continue to do so. There is also “Business Watch”, which was started by Commissioner Brummer and is being implemented in collaboration with the Sheriff’s Office. The commitment from Orange County Sheriff Jerry Deming, to reduce and eliminate crime in the area, is unwavering.
The problem is how does the outside world see us and how the media reports on Pine Hills to the outside world. I am sure there are areas that have a higher crime problem, but they don’t get mentioned. The West Orange Chamber of Commerce, for example, has noted on many occasions that there has actually been more crime in other parts of Orange County than in the Pine Hills area. But that is not the perception in the media. At one end, we want to correct that wrong, and at the other end, the most important thing is how the residents of Pine Hills see themselves, which I believe for the most part is, positive. And I think that is because we have strong home-ownership. In our own minds, we know we have some problems with crime which we are working to control and eliminate. But, basically, it is crime that moves in from an outside area, as opposed to actually living in the area, which is also a challenge.
WONO: How does one get access to all the great work that is being done on a continuous basis in Pine Hills ?
Ken Dwyer: There is a website: pinehills.info where you can find information on what’s happening in the area. Also we have our local paper.
I should tell you that, on Thursday, February 10, Pine Hills Safe Neighborhood Community Partnership is meeting to discuss the matter of septic tanks. The State is trying to control pollution by making aquifers safe, and we are all in favor of that, but in the process of doing so, about a-third of the properties in Pine Hills are on septic tanks. They’re imposing a higher cost. What we have to do is make sure that the higher cost does not create an undue burden on the Pine Hills residents. So, Commissioner Brummer is trying to get the State to make sure the regulations will work for the people and not become an undue burden. Just to give you an example, I did put in a septic tank and then, I had to invest another $10,000 because of a change in the regulations. So, it’s a matter being vigilant, a matter of making sure, for example that the people in Pine Hills and the surroundings areas come to the meeting on February 10, which is being held at Pine Hills Community Center on Jennings Road, beginning at 7:00 p.m.
As you suggested, there is a lot happening and one of the keys is to make sure that we do not work in a vacuum. We have the Pine Hills Safe Neighborhood Community Partnership, the Council, Orlo Vista Safe Neighborhoods, Orlo Vista Chamber of Commerce—and we all work together as neighboring communities. For the past ten years we have tried to work with the City of Ocoee, which is our big neighbor to the west and there is also communication with the City of Orlando. We are trying not to become an island onto ourselves, because as Pine Hills stabilizes and becomes a wealthier community, we will then become an asset to the poorer communities, which are in south Apopka, Parramore, and Ivy Lane.
WONO: Would you care to make any final observations?
Ken Dwyer: I would like to encourage greater participation by residents in the community at the various meetings. It is absolutely critical that we have input from area residents as we go forward with the re-development plans.
As mentioned earlier, there is the upcoming meeting of the Pine Hills RedevelopmentTask Force. The meeting is open to all of the subdivisions in Pine Hills. The more people get involved, the more things will improve—the 13 members of the Task Force do not have all the answers and I cannot over-emphasize the importance of the Pine Hills Safe Neighborhood Community Partnership, as part of the process.
I really would like to identify persons who can volunteer, especially for the marketing programs, because like everything else, the Council has been working with its membership of approximately 120 people. Of course, you are dealing with 80 percent of the 120 that actually volunteer. We are a community of about 70,000 to 80,000 people. If we could increase the number of active volunteers that will be great. But, I don’t get discouraged because, as I said before, most residents are engaged in the task of raising their children.
WONO: Thank you.
Ken Dwyer: Thank you, too.