The city of Winter Park has given preliminary approval to a project slated to transform a decaying retail center along a major stretch in the posh city.

City Commission voted unanimously at the project's first reading Feb. 24 to approve Oviedo-based developer Hill Gray Seven LLC's plans to redevelop the Ranch Mall at 415 S. Orlando Ave. The final vote will be March 9.

Construction on the 25,000-square-foot, $20 million-plus project along U.S. Highway 17/92 may wrap up by mid-2021. A general contractor hasn't been named, but construction is expected to start this year. Orlando-based Eleven18 Architecture is the architect for the Hill Center project, and Z Development Services LLC is the engineer.

"It's a big hurdle, and we're really happy how it went," Gregg Hill, CEO of Hill Gray Seven, said of the vote. "We know it will set the standard on U.S. 17/92. We want something everyone in the city can be proud of."

The project, called Hill Center, will feature at least two, two-story buildings that rise up to 40 feet. CBRE Group Inc.'s (NYSE: CBRE) Senior Vice President James Mitchell is handling leasing.

Hill wants to attract high-end restaurants to the development, which is expected to have 180 parking spaces to accommodate the future restaurant and retail users. Hill Gray Seven also plans to occupy a 5,000-square-foot office on site for its roughly 10 full-time employees.

The development sits along Winter Park's "golden mile" — a one-mile stretch along U.S. Highway 17/92 between Lee Road and Fairbanks Avenue where major real estate activity is taking place — as previously reported by OBJ. More plans are percolating for shops, restaurants, hotels, office space and medical centers along this small Winter Park corridor than anywhere else in the 6,400-acre suburb. In fact, nearby property is trading millions of dollars per acre, which is among the highest prices in Central Florida.

"There's not really another corridor in Winter Park that could accommodate this accelerated development," Lee Zerivitz, managing partner of Winter Park-based City Commercial, who isn't involved in the four new proposed projects, previously said.

Winter Park, one of the most desirable retail submarkets in Central Florida, has a 2.4% average retail vacancy rate, which compares to the Orlando-area average of 4.5%, according to a CoStar Group (Nasdaq: CSGP) report. The submarket's average retail rental rate is $30.43 per square foot, which is third-highest in Central Florida and well above the region's average of $23.12 per square foot. In total, the submarket has 3.4 million square feet of retail space.

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