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Skyplex Wins Orange County's OK

Orange County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved the proposed Skyplex Orlando development on International Drive, which features a 501-foot roller coaster, despite intense lobbying from Universal Orlando.

For months, Universal leaders have fought the project, citing concerns about traffic in the area while focusing on the height of the roller coaster. Lobbying efforts included sending thousands of mailers to neighborhoods across Orange County.

Also on Tuesday, there was a signal that Universal has big development plans nearby. Two Orange County commissioners said that Universal’s chief lobbyist told them the theme-park company has a contract to purchase 474 acres of properties about 2 miles away.

Commissioners Pete Clarke and Ted Edwards did not know what the properties east of Universal Boulevard near the Orange County Convention Center would be used for, but “the impression is whatever it is, it would be big,” Edwards said. “It’s exciting.”

Universal had no comment.

The additional acreage would be a huge boon to Universal, which has ambitious plans but has been stymied by the fact it has limited land. The property would be large enough for a third theme park.

Skyplex attorney Hal Kantor said Tuesday that he thinks Universal Orlando is motivated to oppose Skyplex because it is angling to buy the 474 acres known as Colony properties.

““If Universal acquires that site, then they start acting more like Disney. That’s what I think this whole thing’s about. It’s hundreds of acres,” Kantor said.

Commissioners approved the rezoning request for Skyplex after 46 people spoke during the nearly three-hour public meeting. An overwhelming majority, including 41 I-Drive business leaders, residents in neighboring Tangelo Park and others, threw support behind the embattled project.

Joshua Wallack, developer of Skyplex, said Universal was “too aggressive” in efforts to thwart his project, and his team downplayed fears the tower would emit too much light and would be an eyesore to nearby communities.

“When you actually look at it,” said Wallack after the meeting, “it’s this tiny Jimmy Dean sausage on the horizon.”

Wallack said construction of the tower would be started first and that he is looking for funding from Chinese backers. He hopes the complex will open in 2018.

The $500 million project, which would be built at the intersection of International Drive and Sand Lake Road, needed final county approval before moving forward in planning and construction.

The Federal Aviation Authority ruled in July that the 501-foot roller coaster, which would be the tallest in the world, did not pose a threat to aviation traffic. The FAA approved the tower’s height up to 700 feet.

Plans for that tower include a thrill-drop ride built inside the framework of the roller coaster, an observation deck and a rotating restaurant, said Wallack. Kantor said the tower would not be taller than 600 feet.

In October, the Orange County Planning and Zoning Commission had voted 4-3 against recommending the Skyplex parcel for rezoning.

Two of the five people who spoke Tuesday against the Skyplex development were Peter Latham, Universal’s attorney, and John McReynolds, Universal’s head of external affairs.

During their allotted two minutes, the amount of time speakers were granted, they reiterated concerns presented at previous meetings, which they emphasized weren’t driven from a competitive standpoint.

“We are here to talk about compromise and talk about what is an appropriate height,” said McReynolds.

Universal has a height limit of 200 feet on rides and attractions, a limit set by Orlando government and ordinances.

Latham focused on the amount of traffic the new development would bring, saying Wallack’s team has not done adequate research into that.

Three county residents spoke against the project, concerned about the public-safety aspect of any traffic the complex would result in and the visual impact it would have on the skyline.

Those in favor of the project, including Orlando attorney and real-estate agent Mark NeJame, said the development was necessary for the continued growth of North I-Drive.

NeJame, born and raised in Orlando, said he has seen the region become more accepting and progressive, and voting against the project would have been a step in the wrong direction.

“This city is nothing like what it’s been,” he said.

Chuck Whittall, president of Unicorp National Developments, the developer of the I-Drive 360 entertainment complex south of the Skyplex site, said he chose to unite with Wallack instead of fight him because it betters the community.

“The more critical mass is better for all of us,” said Whittall. “Growth sparks growth.”

Commissioner Victoria Siplin represents the district Skyplex will be built in. She said Tuesday that she was impressed by the showing of solidarity among business owners in her district.

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said she was surprised at the unanimous vote and the turnout.

“And I think the thing that’s important to remember is this wouldn’t fit most places, but I-Drive is the place for projects like this, and that came across loud and clear,” Jacobs said.

For more information, visit www.skyplex.com.