Pioneering planned community marks first decade
Orlando Sentinel (Florida)
November 10, 2006 Friday
Pioneering planned community marks first decade
Daphne Sashin, Sentinel Staff Writer
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CELEBRATION — In another time or another place, Emma and Tara Stephens’ small-town childhood might not have seemed quite so extraordinary.
The twin sisters learned to fish at the lake in the center of town and walked to the annual Fourth of July parade. When they were younger, they lived so close to school that their dad could stand on the front porch and wave goodbye as they walked into class.
Now 16, Emma and Tara can ride their bikes to their after-school jobs at a local ice-cream shop, where they recognize most of the customers.
“It’s a really cool place to grow up,” Tara said. “There’s a close-knit, family feeling.”
Ten years ago, Walt Disney Co. welcomed its first families into a town built around families, foot traffic and community. To the rest of the country, Celebration was a precedent-setting experiment in suburban planning — and a test of whether a company that specialized in theme parks could engineer a true community.
Today, interviews with 40 current and former homeowners suggest that Celebration has lived up to its promise as a different kind of suburb.
The town that celebrates its 10th Founders Day this weekend is home to nearly 10,000 people. There are doctors’ offices, dry cleaners, salons, a day-care center and at least 11 religious congregations. There are groups for retirees, divorces, artists and Brazilians; a Montessori school, a Little League, Special Olympics and a memorial garden honoring members of the community who have died — all initiated by residents.
Celebration also has its share of real-life problems. Among residents’ gripes: a shortage of downtown parking; the lack of a supermarket; a high school that gives some parents heartburn; numerous complaints of shoddy home construction; and second-home owners who are rarely there. The high home prices and lack of diversity — nearly 84 percent of Celebration voters are white — feeds the town’s reputation as an elitist enclave.
“It does have its ups and downs, but that’s what makes it even more special,” said Rosario Michelle Ramirez Matabuena, 22, whose family moved from Falls Church, Va., in 1996. “Celebration is what it is because of me, because of people like me that came to live here . . . to start something new and start something great.”
Return to New Urbanism
Disney’s decision to build a pedestrian-oriented community with front porches, a mix of housing types and shops was significant at a time when suburban developers were building sprawling compounds of houses whose owners had to get in their cars to do anything. Celebration gave instant credibility to the planners advocating a return to the design principles of the 1920s and ’30s, known as New Urbanism, said planner Victor Dover of Dover, Kohl & Partners in Coral Gables.
“Celebration wasn’t the first New Urbanist community, but it was the first one on such a scale and the first one to be undertaken by such a large, bottom-line corporation,” said Dover, who created the master plan for Winter Park’s Park Avenue makeover. “It sent a message to the investment community that this idea of building a town rather than just sprawl was an idea that could make you money.”
Since then, hundreds of developments have copied or improved on Celebration’s features, including Baldwin Park in Orlando and Winter Springs Town Center.
Buyers showed they were willing to pay a premium to know their neighbors and spend less time in their cars, even if it meant sacrificing big backyards and living by a thick book of rules regarding the design and upkeep of their properties.
As a testament to its staying power, Celebration was the second-top-selling community in Metro Orlando last year, with 1,067 closings, including 122 condominium conversions. Prices now start at just less than $200,000 for a one-bedroom condo.
That should change as traditional neighborhoods become more common, Dover said.
“There’s little about a connected community that’s inherently more expensive to build,” Dover said. “When it becomes more common to have neighborhoods with these design conventions . . . the prices will be more normal.”
Celebration’s design continues to foster social connections even as the town grows. Front porches and side alleys make it easy for neighbors to interact. Parks and coffee shops just a bike ride away create natural meeting places.
“That creates a sort of general trust among people that we’re sharing the same place — that we are in this place together,” said Kevin Leyden, an associate professor of political science at West Virginia University who studies how the design of a community affects people physically, socially and mentally.
The residential owners association’s Town Hall and the Celebration Foundation, also funded by homeowners, created a newspaper and intranet where people could make connections. Town Hall began home-spun traditions such as the annual Easter egg hunt and the July Fourth parade.
Celebration is not immune from crime. But families feel a sense of security because they know so many neighbors, said Terri Florio, whose family moved to Celebration in 1996. Her youngest child, Grace, is now 15.
“If Gracie’s downtown on Friday night with her friends . . . there’s probably 20 sets of parents that know her that are going to report on her if anything is not kosher,” Florio said.
Some leave disappointed
It wasn’t for everyone. Some people bought in as a real-estate investment and moved on. Others were disappointed by the Osceola County School Board’s decision to build a large, regional high school in Celebration after residents were promised a progressive school that would take students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Jessica Carrion, a mother of two, said she loves Celebration but worries what she’ll do when it’s time to send her oldest to high school.
“We’re very torn,” said Carrion, 30, whose parents moved to Celebration in 1997. She and her husband followed two years later.
School Board member Jay Wheeler said he understands parents’ worries — in three years, Celebration High School has never earned higher than a C grade — but says a child can still get a good education there.
In 1998, Beth Moriarty thought she’d spend the rest of her life in Celebration. But five years later, she and her husband moved to Baldwin Park, which echoes Celebration’s style but has the amenities that go with being in the middle of Orlando.
“It’s not billing itself as the great New Urbanism experiment that you’re going to have a different life simply by moving there,” Moriarty said of Baldwin Park. Unlike in Celebration, she said, she doesn’t have to get in her car to buy a light bulb.
In Celebration, residents must leave the neighborhood to pick up groceries or school supplies. But the other day, Risa Wight’s three children had orthodontist appointments, soccer, speech therapy, tutoring, religion classes and flag football — all in Celebration.
“With three children going in different directions, it’s still manageable, because everything is so close,” Wight said. “Now virtually everything we’re involved with is right here in town.”