Leaks and mold are ruining the Disney magic in Celebration, Florida
Mold, leaks, rot are hurting the 1990s utopia; ‘they’re harassing my team’
The Wall Street Journal
By Laura Kusisto
Updated 15 November 2016

Condos in Celebration, Fla. Photo: Laurel Rousseau

CELEBRATION, Fla.—In November, 1996, Walt Disney Co. unveiled the nation’s first Disney-built theme town, an 11-square-mile enclave near the Magic Kingdom designed to be a modern-day suburban Utopia. Homes the color of orange sherbet and buttercream frosting were graced with picket fences and Southern-style porches, intended to create an old-fashioned sense of community.

Celebration, as it was called, was the outgrowth of a fantasy dreamed up by Walt Disney himself.

As it celebrates its 20th anniversary, some of Celebration’s residents aren’t doing much celebrating. Condominium owners say they are battling leaky roofs, balconies that have become separated from the sides of buildings and mold spreading in their walls. Their properties have become so dilapidated, they say, they’re having trouble selling them.

We bought cabins on the Titanic

“We bought cabins on the Titanic,” said Cookie Kelly, 73 years old, who has lived in Celebration since 1998.

In a civil suit filed in April, the condo owners’ association is seeking to force Lexin Capital, which took control of part of Celebration in 2004, to pay for upward of $15 million to $20 million in repairs.

“The town does have wear and tear. I’m not going to dispute that,” said Metin Negrin, president of private-equity firm Lexin Capital, although he estimated repairs would cost closer to $5 million, including $1 million already spent. “If you think I’m enjoying this you’re wrong.”

Disney’s utopian experiment actually began earlier, in 1965, when the company bought 27,000 acres in Florida for about $5 million, a tract twice the size of Manhattan, according to “Celebration: The Story of a Town,” a book on the town’s history by Michael Lassell. Some of that land became Celebration. The company sold the town center to Lexin in January 2004.

Originally, Disney planners had a rosy vision. The town’s logo featured a pigtailed girl riding a bike by a picket fence with her dog running behind her. There were sidewalks and old-timey streetlights and the locals would know their neighbors and walk to the grocery store. The community hosts autumn leaf festivals and nightly fake snowfalls during the Christmas season. Residents decorate their properties with Mickey Mouse memorabilia and street signs point the way to “awesome Sunday brunch” and “casual conversations.”

Shops and restaurants line the downtown district of Celebration, Fla.
Photo: Phelan Ebenhack/Zuma Press

When it designed the community, Disney was determined to remove the unsightly elements of typical American suburban life—even garbage bins. “Get the garbage behind the house,” former Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Michael Eisner said to residents at a talk earlier this month commemorating the town’s 20th anniversary, according to a recording reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Eisner acknowledged some early touches—such as music twinkling from inside bushes—were a bit over the top.

Celebration now has a population of about 10,000 people, spread across 105 condo units and about 4,000 single-family homes. Paul Collins, one of the town’s original homeowners, says the community brings together Republicans such as himself with “bleeding-heart liberals.” Celebration, he added, “is the solution to a lot of problems this country faces.”

On the home front, however, Mr. Collins said he has been having problems with a leak in his brick estate home, which, he said, wasn’t properly constructed especially given Florida’s humid climate.

a serious experiment in New Urbanism

“Truly as a kid I loved Disney, loved everything about it,” said Ms. Kelly, a longtime fan of Disney movies, especially Pinocchio. Ms. Kelly, who did graduate work in architectural history, said she took the subdivision as a serious experiment in New Urbanism—a movement that promotes neighborhoods with housing, shopping and public space in proximity.

At 4’10,” she was also the perfect height to play characters at the nearby theme park—though she isn’t supposed to say which ones.

In the early days, she recalled, Disney threw lavish events in the town center, including bringing in dump trucks full of sand to create a fake beach with buried treasure, and setting up a “little phony farmers market.”

“People would say, ‘Isn’t this cute?’ I would go, ‘No this is not cute! You need to understand ... it is stunning how they organized it.”

Over the years, the community has struggled a bit, she said. The foreclosure crisis that battered Florida also hit Celebration. The general store closed, as did the movie theater, a bakery and a kitchen store.

Today, Mr. Negrin said the retail and office space is 90% leased—mostly with restaurants and clothing stores. The downtown that once eschewed chain stores now boasts a Starbucks.

leaky roofs and mould

Leaking condo roofs are draped with blue tarps, balconies are buttressed with temporary beams, mold is blooming inside apartments and columns holding up some buildings are rotting, residents said.

“They’re harassing my team every day. They’re cursing them,” Mr. Negrin said of the residents. “It’s easy to ask for everything new when you’re not paying for it.” He said the condo association has shirked its responsibility over the years to pay its dues for upkeep of the buildings, demanding he do all of the work.

While Disney hired world-famous architects to design many of the buildings, the company neglected the basic integrity of the structures, Mr. Negrin said. Balconies slope toward some buildings instead of away from them, and some walls are lined with nylon, which traps the water and causes rotting.

it wasn't built properly

“No amount of maintenance could have avoided these kinds of issues because it wasn't built properly. We feel we are victims here too,” he said.

Disney said it owned the buildings in the town center for about eight years and didn’t experience structural problems. The company said it hadn’t had responsibility for maintenance since the sale.

Disney still retains some input into the aesthetics of the town—exterior paint colors, roof tiles, the style of front porches—but little direct control over maintenance. Still, residents said they believe Disney should step in because the neglect is destroying the town’s charming look.

we have condos we can’t sell

“There’s nothing more insulting with the 20th anniversary…than to parade people through, whitewash the front of the buildings, put lipstick on a pig,” said Laurel Rousseau, the condo board president. “Meanwhile we have condos we can’t sell.”

—Arian Campo-Flores contributed to this article.

Osceola County works to improve troubled condo complex
08 November 2016

CELEBRATION, Fla. - Osceola County is taking steps to improve a troubled condo complex.

The county has ordered the owners of Lexin to attend a Code Enforcement and Nuisance abatement board meeting to explain what immediate improvements they’ll be making.

"It was about time. About time the county has gotten involved,” said resident Frank Cooper.

Eyewitness News first began reporting on the problems at the condo complex in Celebration in February.

Cooper told Channel 9’s Cierra Putman in August that he’s living in his condo since 2005 and that over the years he’s noticed his condo was sloping.

"Just walk right out, and you'll feel yourself going down,” Cooper said.

Cooper said the landlord needs to fix the roof and foundation, and that he’s tired of temporary fixes.

Disney built Celebration Town Center, but Lexin bought it in 2004.

Osceola County inspectors reported code violations that include unsafe balconies.

Eyewitness News contacted Lexin about them being asked to attend the board meeting. The Town Center Foundation which controls the property sent Eyewitness News a statement:

"As you may recall, we are already doing many of the repairs in town. 709 Bloom Street is almost finished and we welcome you back to see the progress in another couple of weeks."

Condo owners and businesses have said that Lexin isn’t working fast enough.

The county recommends the board set a date for the company to finish repairs.

The board meeting is scheduled for Nov. 16 at 4 p.m.

Some Celebration residents blame repair company for roof damage
Updated: 23 February 2016

CELEBRATION, Fla. - More than 100 residents in the Celebration community have been living under blue tarps as a result of leaky roofs and mold.
Residents said they have to pay for repairs even though the damage wasn’t their fault.
Ruth Uffelman, 91, has her windows boarded up and lives beneath a tarp as a result of the construction to fix water damage on the roof of the Celebration Town Center Condos.
Owners are responsible for damage to their individual units, but Lexin Capital, which is repairing the damage on the outside of the building, is who residents blame for the mess.

failed in a massive way to perform preventative maintenance
“Lexin, since 2004 when they bought these buildings, has failed in a massive way to perform preventative maintenance. That's what has allowed it to get to this situation,” resident Cookie Kelly said.
Residents said Lexin is trying to force owners to pay an assessment, based on the size of their condo, for the repairs.
Kelly, who lives in a 1,200-square-foot unit, said she’d have to pay $38,000 this year and can’t afford that. 
Residents said their condo association has already paid millions in dues to the company and maintaining the building has always been the company's responsibility.
Uffelman said she plans to fight Lexin in court with all her energy.
Lexin said filming was done during the demolition stage, which occurs before repairs can be made, and doesn’t give an accurate representation of the building's overall condition.
The company also said in its statement:
“(The) new roofs on several of our buildings, and several more currently underway, further underline our commitment to the necessary repairs and improvements needed. The Condo documents signed by each owner upon acquiring their property are pretty clear as to all areas of responsibility, both financially and physically for the buildings. It is unfair for the Town Center Condo Association to now solely point the systematic failure of multiple parties, including their own management, at the Foundation alone.

“We share the responsibility for the repairs of the building with the Town Center Condo Association and we are doing our part to repair building faults, some which date back to the construction phase by the builder that preceded us. In turn, we expect the Town Center Condo Association to uphold their obligation under the Condo Docs and to cover the substantial delinquencies currently owed.”

The company responded in an email to Channel 9 following the initial airing of the package.

"We saw the piece on the WFTV website and on TV and are disturbed at the gross inaccuracies presented by carefully selected members of the Condo Association and residents. I encourage you to ask for a copy of the Condo Association Docs which clearly outlines who is responsible for what and the actual breakdown of financial responsibility. All repairs are a shared cost and are not entirely passed on to owners as eluded to in the story. Additionally, some buildings in town are 100% commercial buildings and have no bearing on the assessments paid by the Condo Association.

"Unit owners are responsible for roughly 66% of repairs and the Foundation the remaining 33%. Also, the representatives speaking failed to address the over $268,000 delinquency they have in existing assessments owed, separate from the proposed special assessment, yet in good faith the Foundation has proceeded with repairs. Furthermore, Special Assessments would be spread over a period of time and not in one large payment as intentionally misstated by the interviewees in the story.

"It is unfortunate that in an attempt to garner support for their cause and to somehow avoid a special assessment that is outlined as a part of their signed documents at closing, and despite not having been charged a special assessment in over ten years, this group wants to manipulate the information being disseminated through a reputable news outlet such as yours, to further their agenda."

Celebration, Florida: The utopian town that America just could not trust
Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan
20 April 2014

It's been exactly two decades since Celebration, Florida, broke ground in 1994, a major anniversary for a community that enjoyed a massive amount of media attention when it emerged. Yet we don't hear much about Disney's foray into real estate lately, apart from the odd fire.

The Town of Celebration isn't really a town, in truth. It's technically a census-designated place, which is to say, an unincorporated community. The "town" of, today, almost 8,000 people, is situated on 11 square miles of carefully engineered Floridian swamp. It is, in the simplest sense, just another suburb.

But thanks to its association with Disney and the Klieg lights of the national media, Celebration is also more than a suburb. It's a paradigm for how contemporary Americans view utopian projects: With a huge amount of suspicion.

A fresh start In a world gone wrong
Ironically, Celebration was designed as an antidote to what Disney World itself had caused in Central Florida—what Andrew Ross, in The Celebration Chronicles, calls a "purgatory of fast growth and fast food." Instead, Celebration would be "yet another fresh start in a world gone wrong."

It borrowed heavily from a burgeoning young movement called New Urbanism, pioneered by a duo of Miami architects the town of Seaside just a few years before. Without getting into specifics, the idea was simple: To combat the endless, creeping, invasive sprawl that had engulfed millions of acres of the U.S., planners would model their developments on the small towns of early America, with compact downtowns, walkable streets, diverse housing stock, and plentiful public spaces.

Downtown Celebration. Image: Rick Webb/CC.

In Celebration, rows of homes organized into "villages" cluster around a compact downtown, filled with civic buildings designed by some of the most famous architects in the world. You could buy an apartment for $100,000 and live in the same neighborhood as a guy who had bought one for $600,000.

You could, in theory, walk to work (though few residents did). It had a great school. You could do all your shopping without driving and send your kids to a park down the street to play. It was, in the words of one ad, "the destination your soul has been waiting for."

From a planning perspective, New Urbanism and Celebration appealed to something pretty simple: Common sense. But it was interpreted by many as deeply artificial—partially thanks to the fact that planned communities smack of socioeconomic segregation.

Celebration didn't help that case: The 2000 census revealed that the community was 88 percent white, compared to the surrounding county's 59 percent white population. "Those efforts [to increase diversity in Celebration] have been a failure," wrote The New York Times in 2001. "Even Disney officials say so."

When architecture Is "creepy"
Everything in Celebration was by design, right down to its salespeople (who are called "cast members," just like their Disney counterparts). Even its signage, designed by Michael Bierut of the New York graphic design powerhouse Pentagram, was carefully calibrated to project a kind of heart-warming familiarity.

"We ended up designing not only street signs and shop signs, but manhole covers, fountains, golf course graphics, park trail markers, the sales center and even that pattern book for the houses," says Bierut in a fantastic account of his work in Celebration in Design Observer almost ten years ago.

But Celebration's attention to detail, in the eyes of many, came off simply as over-engineering. Architects spurned its "style book" of homes—Classical, Victorian, Colonial Revival—while urban advocates criticized its lack of "authenticity." Bierut himself has a fascinating defense of the town, though, and one that rings true more than ten years after he made it:

But authenticity is a slippery thing. I live in a 1909 house that the realtor said was Victorian but I'd more accurately call Craftsman Style. Far from "authentic," to me it looks like it was built by someone who had seen some pictures of Greene and Greene houses and thought one might look good in Westchester County. It's surrounded by equally inauthentic hundred-year-old houses, all of which look swell today because they're so old. New Urbanists often say that nostalgia is the Trojan Horse in which they deliver their radical planning ideas: small lots, mixed use, limited parking. Jacque Robertson once said in Celebration's early days, "This will look great when all these trees grow in." I suspect he's right.

If it had been built just a few decades before, the artificiality might have played differently. In reality, Celebration's synthetic architecture was no different than any of the other millions of McMansions popping up across the country.

In fact, it was better designed than most. But at the tail end of the 20th century, Americans were becoming more and more suspicious of the promises of gated communities and simulacrum architecture—and instead, Celebration was often described as a terrifying vision of the future, a "Stepford-esque" nightmare of white clapboard and green lawns.

The pixie dust wears off
Other issues dogged Celebration as the years wore on, too. It emerged that the builders who had constructed the homes had been under-qualified and over-rushed, and nearly all of the buildings had problems within a few years. Foreclosures wracked the town after 2008, and in 2010, one resident in danger of losing his home committed suicide after a long police standoff. Only a few days earlier, Celebration had its first murder.

Crime is part of any city's life, and you'd think that, in a way, the influx of real-world problems would have quelled the public's perception of Celebration as an artificial world. Instead, crime seemed to intensify it: Pixie Dust Loses Magic as Foreclosures Slam Utopian Disney Town, reported Bloomberg. Murder and suicide in Celebration, the perfect town built by Disney, said the Telegraph. The dark heart of Disney's dream town: Celebration has wife-swapping, suicide, vandals ... and now even a brutal murder, yelped The Daily Mail.

In the years since, Celebration has become a kind of punchline, for architects, planners, and homebuyers alike. It seems as though it rankles us to see the "American Dream" parroted so perfectly by a conglomerate that is seen, more and more, as a merchant of camp and artificiality.

The power of suspicion
Celebration, below its twee veneer and even below its shoddy craftsmanship, is a pretty sustainable idea. It has lessons for us to learn about how to quell the worst of the sprawl eating away at our country. And it is, by most accounts, a pretty good place to live: Public spaces, walkable streets, downscaled housing, and good schools, all within a compact downtown. Even its critics have to admit that it's better than swampy, sprawling hellscape that lies just outside of it, dripping with strip malls and sweaty drive-thrus.

So why don't we think of it as a success? For one thing, the mere whiff of utopia sets our teeth on edge these days. After a century of high-profile failures—from Fordlandia to Helicon Home Colony—most of us can't shake the idea that behind those neocolonial shutters lurks something sinister, whether as simple as tax evasion or as truly nightmarish as a violent cult. In other words, Celebration is not only a victim of its own marketing, but a victim of a public that perceives planned communities as deeply creepy—which is how Celebration is described again and again.

Maybe the problem with Celebration isn't its flaws, but the weariness with which the American public perceives the simple idea of utopia these days. After centuries of struggling to engineer a perfect society, utopia's greatest enemy might turn out to be as simple as a creeping suspicion.

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