Approaching Demolition of University Shoppes Means Restaurants Must Relocate -- or Close

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University ShoppesMama Millie's will close after today.

Although it’s the second largest university by enrollment in the country, the University of Central Florida has always been missing a key element of college life -- a “college town” district close to the campus that is part of the local community but influenced by the student body. I’m thinking about the town square in Macomb, where I attended Western Illinois University, or the downtown area of Southern Illinois University - Carbondale, where I did my graduate studies. Even Arizona State University, the only school with more students than UCF, has Mill Avenue with its collection of shops, restaurants and nightspots that appeal to young people.

Downtown Orlando and Church Street would be a perfect “college town” district, but it’s a long drive from campus to get there and, even worse, a long drive back.

There are businesses along University Boulevard and Alafaya Trail that cater to the students, but they are spread out and lack the consolidation of a centralized village.

I suppose the University Shoppes, a sprawling strip mall on the corner of Alafaya Trail and University Boulevard, across from the main entrance to the campus, has served as the de facto college town for UCF. But it’s a ghost town these days, and soon it will be demolished to make way for an off-campus student housing project that is being developed by a company from Texas.

El CerroEl Cerro, which moved out of its soon-to-be-demolished building, moved across the street (in background) and is now called Habaneros.That’s why the businesses there, including several restaurants, have been scrambling to find new spaces to relocate. Some have already moved, including Miss Saigon, the little Vietnamese eatery. It is now on Collegiate Way. El Cerro, the Mexican restaurant in a separate structure from the main strip mall, but still slated to be razed, has moved directly across the street to a former Friendly’s ice cream shop and has been renamed Habaneros, the name held by other restaurants owned by the same people in the area.

Anmol, the Indian restaurant, closed before the summer and will not relocate. It is not known whether the owner simply took the occasion to retire or was not able to find a suitable place to relocate.

Millie Parker, the owner of Mama Millie’s Caribbean restaurant, would love to relocate, but she has been unable to find anything affordable nearby. “I don’t have any money,” she told me. As a result, Parker will close her restaurant after today, and unless there is a financial miracle, she will not reopen. When I asked what she would do instead, she simply shook her head and quietly said, “I don’t know.”

Lazy Moon Pizza will be closing soon, too, but it will reopen in a new space farther down University Boulevard. However, owner Timothy Brown said the space, which will have to be completely built out, would likely not be available until after the first of the year.{jcomments on}

And even then, he said he wasn’t sure how he would recapture the atmosphere that Lazy Moon currently has. It takes time to get the well-worn look of a college hangout, which Lazy Moon certainly has. It is the epitome of casual comfort and has “decorations,” such as decals slap-dashed on the kitchen hoods, that can’t be recreated without looking contrived.

Still, he looks at the positives the move will allow, such as having a properly equipped kitchen that will allow his cooks to once again make the sauce for the pizzas in house.

It’s not like the notice to vacate came completely out of the blue. Brown says that when he opened his restaurant seven and a half years ago, the owner of the mall had already been contemplating a redevelopment for five years before that.

Perhaps that’s why the strip mall looks the way it does. There doesn’t appear to have been much upkeep over the past few years. Years of calcified chewing gum dots the sidewalk. The facades look worn -- without neon “open” and beer signs in the windows, you’d think the spaces were unoccupied. As many of them now are.

UCF topped sixty thousand students this semester. On-campus housing can accommodate a mere fraction of them. Those who don’t commute from their parents’ homes -- which was the standard in the university’s early days when it was derisively called a commuter school -- rent flats in apartment complexes that cater specifically to students. That’s what will replace the University Shoppes. The plans apparently call for retail space on the ground floor of the complex, but as far as I know, none of the current businesses have been invited to become tenants.

And I really doubt that it will come anywhere close to feeling like a college town square.