After longtime push and spate of crimes, streetlights installed in UCF neighborhoo

The short walk from Knight’s Pub to Jamal Clayton’s fraternity house always seemed a lot longer.

He’d get several yards from the Alafaya Trail bar and everything went dark in the neighborhood across the street from the University of Central Florida. Knowing the history of robberies, shootings and at least one attempted rape didn’t make him feel any better as he trekked about a half mile back to FIJI on Mendel Drive.

“It really doesn’t feel safe,” he said. “It’s scary just walking down the street when it’s pitch black outside.”

Now, Clayton, 22, and his brothers feel more secure, thanks to nearly two dozen new street lights. Officials hope the lights will help deter crime in the neighborhood, which stretches from Mendel Drive to Pastau Drive and is filled with families, students and 11 fraternity houses.

The requests for better lighting date back to 1987 but each time the subject was brought up, there were never enough property owners wanting to pay more in exchange for the boost in safety, according to the Orange County Comptroller’s Office.

“The issue is that most of the property owners in this area don’t actually live here. They rent, so they don’t have to deal with the problems,” said UCF Police Deputy Chief Brett Meade.

The costs for 23 new lights will be split between owners on more than 100 lots. They will end up paying about $167 the first year for installation and $47 every year after, the Comptroller’s Office said.

“There’s no question this neighborhood is now a lot safer, because this was a scary place,” Meade said. “Does it make everything perfect? No, but it’s definitely a good step in making things better here.”

He said the darkness provided the perfect environment for robberies and other crimes because suspects could easily get away.

In 2015, when the request for lighting was approved, the violence in the neighborhood made headlines.

Within weeks, two men were shot in a drive-by shooting and gunshots erupted outside the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house on Khayyam Avenue. The gunman yelled “Brim Blood,” an offshoot of the national Bloods gang.

In September of that year, a woman who had left a local bar was walking near the Marquee Apartments near Solon Drive when a man threw her to the ground and tried to sexually batter her, said the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which has jurisdiction in the area.

Meade said getting the lights installed last month was a team effort and took everyone from law enforcement, fraternity and sorority life, student government and Orange County getting together and making it a priority.

Nick Larkins, president of UCF’s Student Government Association, said he’d been working to solve the issue for years.

He first realized it was a problem when he visited his fraternity house, Sigma Pi, and couldn’t find his black car in the darkness.

“Speaking on behalf of my constituency, that was something I wanted to bring up, then also just speaking on behalf of myself,” he said. “My brothers live right here. I feel bad enough for a large male walking through there, even worse would be a female coming through here in the dark, alone.”

Since the lights were put up only a few weeks ago, it’s unclear if it has had any impact on crime trends in the neighborhood — but Meade, who used to work for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and oversee deputies working in the UCF area, said the changes will be tested once the fall semester starts Aug. 21.

“I remember this being a problem in the 90s,” he said. “It’s just so nice to finally see a change, one that really brought together multiple organizations to help better a place and improve safety.”

chayes@orlandosentinel.com, 407-420-5493 or Twitter: @journo_christal