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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 26, 2004 18 years ago

Downtowns are Back

All along the Gulf Coast downtown cores are resurging. With St. Petersburg and Sarasota leading the booms, residential development is driving the trend.

Downtowns are Back

All along the Gulf Coast downtown cores are resurging. With St. Petersburg and Sarasota leading the booms, residential development is driving the trend.

By Bob Andelman

Contributing Writerer

A decade ago, the idea that any downtown along Florida's Gulf Coast would become a destination for business, residential and entertainment was a joke. What businesses there were left operated strictly 9 to 5, nobody lived in the cores unless they were homeless and the only entertainment was desperate weekend music and arts festivals conducted for the sole purpose of coercing foot traffic.

Fast forward 10 years, and it's hard finding a downtown that isn't buzzing with rising office and commercial occupancy, hundreds of millions of dollars in new construction and redevelopment, condominium towers, lofts and townhouses as in-fill and everything from spectacular movie houses and museums to Starbucks, sushi bars and nightclubs.

And while every city has taken a different approach, the end result is remarkably similar: rising property values, increased pedestrian traffic and dramatically improved civic pride.

GCBR asked the planning and/or development directors in eight major cities along the Gulf Coast - Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Bradenton, Sarasota, Fort Myers, Cape Coral and Naples - about three kinds of activity:

× The value of downtown construction in the past three years and specific large projects;

× What site plans have been submitted and are awaiting permits;

× What plans have been approved and/or are under construction.

Response varied. With the dramatic increase in downtown construction in recent years, we assumed this information was readily accessible and even being promoted by the cities. Only a few keep this basic data at the ready; others, claiming staffing woes, asked for several weeks to research the data. Even so, the trend is inescapable: Downtowns are back and coming back.

Of course, in places such as Sarasota and St. Petersburg, you don't need bureaucrats and their files to tell you that construction cranes are blooming all over their downtown cores and that developers are filing a blizzard of promising new plans. Tampa has activity, too, but not as much or as big as in some recent years. As for Naples, well, if we hear back from them, we'll let you know.

Henry Fishkind, president of Orlando-based Fishkind & Associates Inc., Florida's foremost economic consulting firm, says the downtown core renaissance is, in fact, a statewide phenomenon. "Activity levels seem to be highest and most sustainable in the large metro areas of the East Coast," he says. "The West Coast is at a different stage of its development, so the levels are lower. The exception is Sarasota. There is interest in Fort Myers, but it is struggling. As for Naples - it's harder to judge what downtown is in Naples."

Clearly, downtown Sarasota and St. Petersburg are the Gulf Coast's two hottest urban markets. Both are enjoying a surge of luxury condominium development. St. Petersburg is ahead of Sarasota with more affordable housing options for young professionals, as well as ahead of Sarasota in retail. Baywalk, the Sembler Cos. project in the heart of St. Petersburg, has led the city's urban renaissance. Adds Fishkind on St. Petersburg: "They're putting up some pretty good product that's been well received." As for Sarasota, he says: "It's bona fide development in an area that's been popular for a long time." Of the Gulf Coast's other cities, Fishkind says:

× Bradenton: "The most promise for the next five to 10 years. The water is real nice. There are a number of places for development and a chance for it to come north from Sarasota."

× Clearwater: "Clearwater has a vision for its beach, but that hasn't sorted out yet. They haven't come out with funding for 'Beach By Design.' "

× Tampa: "The development activity is not of the high-density levels that we see in a number of other places. There tends to be more redevelopment of single-family homes in the Hyde Park area; it's not like the heavier development you see in other places."

Fishkind thinks some of the Gulf Coast cities still must deal with defining their downtown cores, although he thinks these are "marketing issues" more than anything else. "The private sector usually can do a pretty decent job of that," he says. And while the master developer concept failed in St. Petersburg (Bay Plaza), he notes, it succeeded in West Palm Beach (CityPlace).

Here is a city-by-city summary of primary downtown activity along the Gulf Coast:


'We want to be known as Bradenton'

Larry Frey, director of development services for Bradenton, probably thinks Fishkind could move up his expectations for the emergence of the city's downtown. As far as Frey is concerned, the future is now.

The downtown waterfront - often referred to as "The Sandpile" - now has a new name and a new mission: The Promenade. As is the case in Fort Myers and St. Petersburg, waterfront development is seen as the start of something big. Says Frey: "A lot of different designs were looked at. We recommended a grant for construction of Third Avenue, which runs adjacent to the Promenade project and connects the two bridges. That was important.

"I remember visiting Bradenton a few years ago and thinking, 'This isn't very nice. Why would I want to stop here?' But today we're poised to benefit from the city's reinvestment," Frey says. "Rossi Park was completed. Old City Hall was vacant for six years despite one of the best views in the city." Some of the region's most prominent developers - former Senate President John McKay, NDC's Ron Allen and Sarasota lawyer David Band - recently purchased it. In short, Frey notes, "The DDA has done a lot."

Residential development is something Bradenton wants for its core, but it's something it never had before. Says Frey: "I think residential here should be a definite component of our revitalization."

The Village of the Arts is a great point of pride for the downtown. It used to be one of the city's worst code enforcement nightmares. Now the reinvestment there is phenomenal, and the area is lit up at night.

Just as Tampa and St. Petersburg are often uttered in the same breath, Frey knows that many people take Sarasota and Bradenton together as well. That's OK - to a point.

"We don't want to look like Sarasota; we want to be as successful as Sarasota, but we want to retain the quaintness of the Florida area we are," he says. "We like the idea of being between Sarasota and Tampa - the culture of Sarasota and the urbanity of Tampa. Our beaches aren't a secret anymore. Our skyline does need to be developed. But that will happen over the next few years with all the infill.

"We want to be known as Bradenton," Frey adds. "We're on the river, not the coast."


More residential downtown

Sarasota spent many years searching for the right niche that would make its downtown more attractive. The chamber and economic development community always believed in the location and attractiveness of the city but struggled nonetheless.

"You need people," says Mike Taylor, Sarasota's deputy planning and redevelopment director. "The way we did that was to create more residential units in the downtown. Then, when people move in, they want amenities close to them. Much of what you see that's been built is residential. We're now beginning to see, using the Whole Foods Center as an example, retail following the residential. It doesn't always work that way in every redevelopment effort, but that was our thought."

Sarasota used tax increment financing as a funding source to acquire properties that were blighted and/or dilapidated. Another step along the way was a three-year program that provided grants to businesses that followed the city's standards for rehabbing storefronts. A city staff architect redesigned storefronts at low cost. It had a domino effect; when one storeowner saw a neighbor's property dressed up, the pressure was on.

"These small little things slowly gathered momentum, along with streetscape improvements and keeping streets clean, and we cumulatively began creating more interest in downtown," Taylor says.

"We also have the good fortune of a beautiful area on the bayfront," he says. "People like being downtown and close to the beaches. They were tired of driving from outside areas. The residential growth downtown is not just condos but surrounding neighborhoods as well. The doctors and nurses at Sarasota Memorial Hospital moved into nearby neighborhoods and values went up. People are rediscovering single-family, eclectic areas and fixing those properties up - as well as buying bayfront condominiums."

Like St. Petersburg, Taylor says Sarasota is seeing interest from developers in in-fill townhouses. "Five years ago, I'm not sure anyone would have invested in those," he says. Just drive along Fruitville Road just east of Tamiami Trail. The street is soon to be lined with in-fill townhomes.

Another major project the city undertook in the 1980s is what is now called the Renaissance project. It's east of U.S. 41 between Sixth and 10th streets. It was three blocks of semi-blighted area. A developer bought those properties but was unable to proceed, so the city acquired it and sought out a redevelopment project, the first phase of which is Renaissance Tower."

In the midst of so much new construction, Sarasota has lost some history. "John Ringling Towers was one building the city worked hard to save but didn't prove to be successful," Taylor says. "But we have a nice replacement in the Ritz-Carlton. It may not be a replacement architecturally, but it is economically. Sometimes you have to sacrifice an older building with something that is better for the community."

"We're doing a lot of good things," Taylor says. "And there are a lot of happy accidents to help it along, too. When you total all this, it's close to $1 billion popping up out of the ground," Taylor says.


Pedestrian circulation downtown

Cape Coral wants pedestrian circulation in its downtown. To accomplish its goal, it is promoting a zoning district that emphasizes higher density.

"The amount of development has been extensive," says Planning Division Manager Annette Barbaccia.

"It's something that's really happened in the last year or so as a result of planning and new land development regulations," says Chet Hunt, executive director for the Community Redevelopment Agency. "The growth in general of the city is creating demand for goods and services. I've had people leave my office and go right out and buy land."

Most new commercial development is located in and around the CRA. Barbaccia says that zoning focuses not only on encouraging mixed-use buildings but also on compounding buildings with retail and residential.

"We're also focused on streetscape to make downtown come alive," she says.

Cape Coral, like many Gulf Coast downtowns, has unique waterfront features. The city refers to its as an "aquatic necklace" that surrounds the core. Its latest downtown plan calls for making connections in and around its jewel.

"We're not really beach culture; we're boating culture," Hunt says. "But there has been a lack of boating destinations in the past. Now we're making those connections."

Most of the new development is scattered in-fill, "but each development gets closer in adherence to the plans," Hunt says. "There's about a quarter-billion dollars in the hopper proposed and in the design phases right now. It's a mixture of development and redevelopment. It's a designated community redevelopment area. There is some vacant land, but it's already been purchased for development. There are some big ones coming that people are getting excited about, where they're planning to invest $100 million to $150 million in the first phase. The downtown location is a key location. It's on a primary corridor, and it's close to the international airport. It's a commercial area that casts a net for people going through the area."


The Duany Effect

The majority of the downtown improvements in Fort Myers are a result of a plan put into action in November 2001. That's when the city hired architect Andres Duany of Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk.

"Prior to him coming in, we tried in-house to do various things to spur redevelopment and were unsuccessful," says downtown planner Elly Soto McKuen. "We saw what Duany did for downtown Naples, and how he turned Fifth Avenue around. That spurred us."

It was a good decision; simply the act of hiring Duany exposed Fort Myers to a lot of business opportunity it would not otherwise see. "People seem to follow Duany and the things he puts together," McKuen says. "We got a lot of inquiries based on putting his plan into effect."

Duany told Fort Myers that it must recognize that the area between its two bridges - a 10-block square area between the Colusahatchee and Edison - was where it should concentrate.

"That was the biggest point he made," McKuen says. "A large part of that property is owned by the city. So we are in a position of having some of the last public land. He wanted us to realize we are unique because we have that ownership and that it made more sense to lease the land than sell it outright so we could control how it is developed."

The parcels east and west of the bridges were promoted as prime for high-rise residential. Duany said that pedestrian access was important in the design of those condominiums so someone walking along the street could still see the river.

"We're unique because we're so far from the Gulf," McKuen says. "We have a river; other cities have an ocean. There is no other place we pattern ourselves after. We're trying to create our own thing."

Fortunate timing is a bonus: The development community has already built out much of the county's big pieces, and there aren't many places to look for interesting opportunities other than the city core. "We have some really nice waterfront along the river, and people recognized that a lot of the large parcels in the county are gone. So development is sort of imploding in the city," McKuen says. "It's amazing; folks have finally found us. We have had numerous calls and information requests for the plan. They want to read it. They ask us how they can get involved and what's available. Now everybody wants a piece of downtown."


Next up: more mixed uses

The record run on the value of citywide construction projects in St. Petersburg - now in its fifth year - continues unabated, averaging $250 million to $300 million annually.

"Our downtown, I think, is representative of a lot of the changes going on throughout the city," says Ron Barton, director of economic development and property management.

Today there is only one major construction project under way - Parkshore Plaza on the bayfront - but it won't be lonely for long.

"In the balance of 2004 and into '05 you're going to see a lot of projects come out of the ground," Barton promises. "I know of seven or eight projects downtown that are in various stages of pre-development planning. Of course, real estate is real estate; not all of them will happen. But most are in pretty intense due diligence. They're certainly intent on moving forward."

It's hard to believe the following words will all appear in a single sentence about downtown St. Petersburg, but it's true: Residential is the hottest land use right now, whether it's in-fill town homes or the Lofts at McNulty or condominium towers.

But that's not all: There are developers looking at new office and hotel projects as well. Some are combining the two. "We've had a fair amount of hotel chains come through and do research," Barton says. "What you're going to see next is some mixed-use concepts. They will intermix office, residential, retail and hotel pieces in some form or fashion."

Barton says that Baywalk is a great success for St. Petersburg, demonstrating that a retail urban entertainment concept could work there. "It also brought regional patrons back downtown," he says.

The next wave will move redevelopment off the waterfront and west of Fourth Street, according to Barton. "That's an area that's been somewhat stagnant. Relative to land costs on Beach Drive or near water, these are more affordable. I think we're going to see a lot of jockeying west of Fourth Street.

"One of the things driving this is consumers living downtown," he continues. "All those new residents drive demand for services. And we're building a convenient workforce downtown. There's actually quite a lot of workforce moving in; it's going to help us with office demand. We're also seeing a lot of small entrepreneurial business owners buying or renting space."

The old Maas Bros. building - currently housing the Florida International Museum - is about to undergo a two-step transition. St. Petersburg College purchased the adjacent parking garage and buildings north of the museum. It will renovate some space and build new space for 1,000 students and will also provide new, smaller digs for the museum. Once that first step is finished, the city-owned Maas Bros. building will go on sale.

"That will be an exciting time for that block to be available," Barton says. "In two years, blocks like the Tropicana (an empty lot between the Baywalk and South Core parking garages) will be under construction."


A plan with flexibility

In the past, the city of Clearwater never demonstrated its commitment to downtown through capital projects, says its planning director, Cyndie Tarapani. But that, she adds, is changing.

"We spent substantial money on the roundabout at the beach," she says. "We saw the effect of that when private development came. Now we're doing the same downtown. We had an antiquated plan that didn't give us any flexibility," she says.

The other thing affecting Clearwater was the old Memorial Causeway Bridge. In the past, you drove straight through downtown on State Road 60 - a.k.a. Cleveland Street - to reach the bridge. Because it was a state road, Tarapani says, Clearwater couldn't control many aspects of its own downtown. The new bridge changes all that. When the bridge is completed later this year, drivers will no longer go down Cleveland to the bridge; it will terminate downtown. The city is trading its main street with the state and Court and Chestnut will be the new thoroughfares.

"That will be a huge benefit to us," Tarapani says.

Once the new bridge is completed, Clearwater has earmarked $3 million for streetscaping two parks, Station Square and Coachman.

The city council also has issued an RFP for developers interested in developing a modern cineplex downtown. Proposals are due back by June 30. And there's an interesting twist. "We did not assemble land," Tarapani says. "We expect developers to do that themselves and then come to the city with proposals."

Bradenton projects

×Main Street at Bradenton - 12.7 acres, 252 units, 229,000 square feet; estimated value: $16.2 million; developed by Hatfield Development of Atlanta on waterfront.

× The Promenade at Riverwalk - 350 units, 180,000 square feet, three eight-story residential units; estimated value: $150 million. Construction starts in July; 72 units pre-sold.

×Old Manatee Village - 5.7 acres, 26 units, 65,000 square feet; estimated value: $17 million to $18 million. East of downtown, the project consists of two-story (over parking) Key West style buildings overlooking the River. Prices start in the mid-$500,000s.

×Old City Hall - 4 acres, 100 units, 200,000 square feet residential, 200,000 square feet non-residential, pending.

×Manatee Memorial - Estimated value of $37 million; 250 private and semi-private rooms. Construction is slated to begin in the last quarter of the year.

×Riverwalk Professional Center - Across street from Manatee Memorial Hospital professional office campus with six two-story and one four-story office buildings developed by Bernard Croghan of the ComCenter 70.

sarasota projects

× Five Points Property - Main Street & Central Avenue; 50 condos, ground level retail, 2 levels office, 17-stories, 180-foot height. Estimated value: $75 million. Under construction

× Renaissance Phase II - N. Tamiami Trail. Estimated value: $75 million. Under construction

× Whole Foods Center - Lemon Avenue & First Street; 96 dwelling units, 62,000 sf, retail/office/grocery. Estimated value: $40 million. Under construction

× Courthouse Centre - Ringling Boulevard & US 301; mixed-use, 9-story, retail, office, residential. Estimated value: $20 million. Approved project

× RMC Mixed-Use - 10th Street & US 41; 181-dwelling units, grocery, retail, office. Estimated value: $25 million. Approved project

CAPE CORAL projects

× Paesano's Italian Market - 826 Lafayette Street. Estimated value: $1.2 million. Completed

× The Grape Escape - 912 SE 46th Lane. Estimated value: $521,000. Completed April 2004

× Terraces at Rosa Vista - SE corner 47th Terrace and 5th Place. Estimated value: $2.4 million. Completed April 2004

FT. MYERS projects

× Former NationsBank Processing Center - 2401 First Street, 33,000 sf renovation for T-3 Communications. Estimated value: $1.5 million. Completed

× Former Earnhardt Building - First Street, 28,000 sf interior/exterior rehabilitation. Estimated value: $3 million. Completed

× County/City Building - 1825 Hendry Street, 45,000 sf new construction. Estimated value: $5 million. Completed

× Harborside Event Center - interior/exterior renovations. Estimated value: $1.5 million. Completed

× Beau Rivage - East First Street, 124 condominium units. Estimated value: $45 million

× The Vue - 1300 Carson Street and 2006 West First Street; includes 180 residential units, 3000 sf retail, 5 stories office; developed by Throgmartin Riverfront Corporation.

× High Pointe Plaza - West First Street; 5 towers; 271 residential units, and a two- and three-story liner building. Design phase


× Parkshore Plaza - 300 Beach Drive NE; 120-unit multifamily dwelling; 32,000 sf office/retail/dining. Estimated value: N/A. Under construction

× Judicial Building - 150 Fifth Street N; remodel existing and add 12,500 sf. Estimated value: N/A. Under construction

× Museum of History - 335 2nd Ave. NE; 17,900 sf addition. Estimated value: N/A. Under construction

× USGS Phase III - 600 4th Street S; 36,000 sf office addition. Estimated value: N/A. Staff review


× Station Square - X28 Cleveland Street; mixed use, including 146 dwelling units. Estimated value: N/A. Approved Oct. 2003

× Downtown Lofts - X00 N Martin Luther King Jr Ave.; 46 attached dwellings. Estimated value: N/A. Approved July 2003

× Ewing Place Townhouses - XX15 Ewing Ave.; 10 attached dwelling units. Estimated value: N/A. Pending

× Public Library - 100 N Osceola Ave. Estimated value: $14.5 million. Near completion

× Garden Avenue Garage - 28 N Garden Ave. Estimated value: $200,000.

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