There’s not a bad seat in this venue

Orlando welcomes new performing arts center

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By Sarah Sekula, published in USA TODAY // photo courtesy of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts

ORLANDO — On a breezy October afternoon, urban artist German Lemus rattles a can of spray paint. The sounds of a building being torn down nearby don’t faze him. Glass shatters. Construction workers shout. Bulldozers beep. Yet, his hands are steady. He swiftly adds a blue swoop of acrylic to his brick wall canvas.

“I’m trying to capture the movement of the city,” says the 38-year-old, who has been commissioned to create the piece. “There’s always a new building going up, there’s always a new mural going up. The city is changing.”

Glance across Anderson Street, and you’ll see what he means. There’s a distinctive multimillion-dollar building with soft pink hues glowing from within. The 105-foot cantilevered roof mimics that of a Florida porch. The wide-open patches of grass invite you to sit a spell. The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, which opened Nov. 6, is one of those architectural gems that you just can’t help but ogle.

Inside, its three theaters will showcase everything from The Phantom of the Opera and Pippin to comedy acts like Jerry Seinfeld and dance troupes like Pilobolus. Creative-types will drop in for cello classes, African drumming sessions and ukulele lessons. Tikes will revel in creative movement and fairytale acting.

“It is a game changer for our region,” says Craig Ustler, a developer who has lived in Orlando for 46 years and has studied downtowns across the country for more than 25.

But this new cultural gathering space, which takes up two city blocks, is not near the theme parks; it’s in the heart of downtown Orlando, a place many tourists never see. Or perhaps haven’t seen in a very long time.

“When I was growing up in the mid-80s, Church Street Station (a few blocks from where Lemus is painting) was the cool place the older kids went on the weekend,” says Marc Collins, who lives and works downtown. “It changed fast after Downtown Disney opened; it seemed like all the international traffic was entirely diverted there. Within just a couple of years it withered and died.”

Fast forward to 2014, and it’s a different story. Residents and visitors gather at Soco, a new restaurant serving up contemporary Southern cuisine. Set in the leafy Thornton Park neighborhood with cobblestone streets and historic bungalows, it easily coaxes folks to linger. Moms push tots in strollers around the mile-long Lake Eola, now surrounded by sculptures. Hipsters shop for local honey and handmade soaps at the farmers market. And hundreds of Lululemon-clad yogis crowd around for outdoor yoga sessions.

“We are putting a lot of the pieces in place that we have been working on for years,” says Ustler, who is credited with breathing life back into downtown after launching Thornton Park Central in 2001. “Community venues, transportation, cultural assets, sports, downtown living, food and entertainment and public space. It is all coming together in a wonderful way, and we are really starting to achieve critical mass.”

On a recent Thursday, his point is clear. Thousands of soccer-crazed fans are atwitter; waiting to march to the site where a new soccer stadium will be built. One young, bearded fan dressed as a lavender unicorn, becomes a magnet for photo-takers.

He is as thrilled about the new stadium as he is about Orlando City Soccer’s newest player, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, better known as Kaká. Next season, he will be the highest-paid player in MLS history, raking in nearly 7.2 million, according to Sports Illustrated. Not only that, but with 21.2 million Twitter followers (more than Beyonce), he’s insanely popular.

“I’ve spent a good part of my vacations here in the last couple of years,” says Kaká. “The city is growing, and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

The enthusiastic crowd mills about on Church Street. Notably, it has had quite the makeover since its glory days in the 80s. Take, for example, the foodies flocking to Rusty Spoon. This farm-to-table gastropub serves up craft beers and dishes dreamed up by Kathleen Blake, a James Beard Award semifinalist. Across the street, Mad Cow Theatre dazzles with classic and contemporary plays. And the swanky One80 Grey Goose Lounge, which sits atop Amway Center, is the go-to spot after Orlando Magic games.

Around the corner on Pine Street people are celebrating something entirely different. The street is shut down. Swarms of locals are decked out in Dia de los Muertos garb. And on the pop-up outdoor stage, a performance artist dressed as a mad hatter break dances and occasionally splashes paint on a canvas.

Indoors, at CityArts Factory, a collective of art galleries, people chitchat and nibble on hors d’ouvres.

“We have about 5,000 artworks pass through here each year,” says Barbara Hartley, executive director of the Downtown Arts District.

Upstairs, chuckles are not hard to come by as improv artists entertain at SAK Comedy Lab, where comedian Wayne Brady got his start.

What’s behind the growth spurt? In addition to the new venues, the City Beatiful is walkable and easy to navigate. The parking is affordable. And, of course, the year-round sunshine doesn’t hurt either.

When it comes to urban environments, “tourists seek out real and authentic places that are made great by locals and then become tourist attractions,” says Ustler. “If we build a great downtown and an awesome city for ourselves, others will find out, and they will come see what we are up to.”

Disney is wonderful and has its place,” he adds. “But locals love the real Orlando; it’s a fun and interesting place to be.”

No pixie dust necessary.

If you go

Where to stay: Aloft (407-380-3500; aloftorlandodowntown.com) is an affordable and modern boutique hotel where pear martinis, local artwork and fashion shows reign supreme. Rates start at $159. The Grand Bohemian (407-313-9000; grandbohemianhotel.com) is known for its rare art collection and jazz brunch. Rooms start at $224. The 17-room Eõ Inn and Spa (407-481-8485; eoinn.com) has a view of Lake Eola, a sun terrace and hot tub. Rooms start at $119.

Where to chow down: Pop into Artisan’s Table for the crowd-pleasing brisket burger (407-730-7499; artisanstableorlando.com). For award-winning steaks, pay a visit to Kres, a stylish see-and-be-seen restaurant. Or follow your nose to Le Gourmet Break (407-371-9476; le-gourmet-break.com), a French bakery serving homemade Nutella crepes and gourmet soups.

Information: 407-246-2555 or downtownorlando.com