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The Beacon, a massive piece of permanent public art that stands as an anchor of Tavistock Development's Lake Nona Town Center.

How a Florida Mixed-Use Community Uses Programming To Boost Office Leasing

Master-planned communities don’t always turn out to be the success that their developers envisioned but at Lake Nona, a 17-square-mile master-designed development in Orlando, Florida, developer Tavistock’s vision appears to have come to fruition. The development encompasses all the requisite ingredients for a 24/7 destination, including neighborhoods with housing options ranging from multifamily units to residential estates to accommodate a spectrum of incomes, primary and secondary schools and a junior college, hospitality offerings, expansive green space, retail packed into commercial clusters, and office space, plenty and plenty of office space. This is the place where Disney, until just a couple of months ago, had planned to build its new $1 billion campus. Carefully designed to be more of a cutting-edge city-within-a-city than a traditional master-planned community, Lake Nona centers on one key concept: innovation. Innovation in health and wellness, innovation in technology, and perhaps most unique, innovation in collaboration.

Lake Nona encompasses approximately 1.3 million square feet of office space, all Class A, with more on the way. As Orlando continues to fight to regain its footing post-pandemic, Lake Nona’s roughly 15-year-old office segment is performing very well. The master-planned community’s total office vacancy rate of just 7.3 percent in the first quarter of 2023 was less than half that of the Class A stock in metropolitan Orlando, which recorded a total vacancy rate of 14.7 percent, according to research from JLL. And while the metro area experienced negative net absorption, Lake Nona posted positive net absorption. 

So, what is Lake Nona’s secret sauce? Lake Nona isn’t the only live-work-play offering in Orlando, but it does provide some comparative advantages such as a coveted location just off the Orlando Beltway and fewer than 10 minutes from Orlando International Airport. And there’s the mixed-density retail and autonomous shuttle program at Lake Nona that are a draw for the more than 12,000 onsite employees, as are the benefits of being located in the United States’ very first Cisco Smart + Connected community. 

But it’s not just the tangible amenities that are keeping the office occupancies in the mid-90-percent range. Tavistock has created an ecosystem that takes office placemaking, the addressing of the needs of tenants through carefully crafted public spaces, to new heights. Going back to Lake Nona’s focus on innovation in collaboration, the master-planned community provides curated business networking in the form of extensive programming. “I think our programming is one of the most important ingredients to enable us to compete in today’s world,” Skipper Peek, senior vice president with Tavistock, told Propmodo.

At Lake Nona, property managers work hard to establish a climate where businesses and their employees can thrive. The mixed-use community offers a bevy of community programming, almost all of which is open to the public, designed to encourage companies to learn from each other. The long list of meeting opportunities for business leaders includes the Annual Lake Nona Impact Forum, which was formed to gather thought leaders in all facets of health innovation from public healthcare to health technology. Gatherings ranging from small clusters to grand-scale meetings focused on topics as basic as telecommuting and as complex as cybersecurity are a hallmark of Lake Nona’s amenities for businesses on-site and from afar.

Through the Lake Nona Regional Chamber, which keeps its offices at Lake Nona Medical City at the GuideWell Innovation CoRE (Collaborative Resources Ecosystem), workers can join such clubs as the Young Professionals Group or Nona Professional Ladies Group and take part in events like the monthly Chamber Connections Speed Networking. KPMG, which maintains its $450 million, 800,000-square-foot national training center at Lake Nona, will hold its annual KPMG Women in Advisory Summit in August this year. Practitioners of maturing innovation districts have conveyed how the growth and development of networks through programming has transformed their real estate into innovation communities, according to a report by the Global Institute on Innovation Districts. “It’s all about programming, choreographing spontaneous opportunities for smart people to interact with each other,” one report participant noted.

Good programming, however, doesn’t typically come for free. While thoughtful programming has proven essential to Lake Nona’s success as an office destination and a mixed-use community, it requires a monetary investment that other similar locations may not have the ability or desire to make. As noted in the Global Institute on Innovation Districts report, those behind mixed-use communities or districts have to strike a delicate balance between maintaining funding for programming without taxing a building’s operating costs or detracting from the programming with fundraising efforts. Tavistock’s take on the investment commitment is that, particularly in a challenging economic climate, the programming element of placemaking becomes even more vital. “At the higher level in corporate America, it’s really been a hard tug-of-war these last several months in the post-pandemic world, and our programming is really critical,” Tavistock’s Peek said. “We’re trying to create a place where people really want to live and work and play. And it’s a place where employers can attract and retain talent and induce them to come into the office.”

There are many facets to placemaking, and programming is an essential part of it. It can serve not only as the glue that brings the tenants and visitors of an office campus or mixed-use development together in a common pursuit but also as a platform for pushing everyone forward in the bid to innovate. Mixed-use campuses like Lake Nona, with millions of square feet of potential development space and the infrastructure for widespread programming, may very well become the norm in suburban markets. Legacy office parks, which typically keep office buildings isolated and offer a bit of retail on an outparcel, are not designed to provide the programming that lures not only office tenants but also community members and off-site businesses. Lake Nona’s successful office leasing numbers in the midst of a struggling office sector prove that engagement on a widespread level is key to maintaining a full tenant roster. The national office sector will ultimately rebound, but real estate downturns are inevitable and developers of office campuses will begin to take note of what’s necessary to weather future storms, and a mixed-use campus with the ability to provide attractive programming may prove to be a necessity.

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