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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 16, 2004 15 years ago

Lemon Avenue Revival

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A group of business owners, including Monika Tomlinson, are betting on a bright future for Lemon Avenue and Fourth Street, north of Fruitville.

Lemon Avenue Revival

A group of business owners, including Monika Tomlinson, are betting on a bright future for Lemon Avenue and Fourth Street, north of Fruitville.

By Sean Roth

Real Estate Editor

Monika and Al Tomlinson are connected to Sarasota's historic railroad system and Lemon Avenue. From a two-block neighborhood near the intersection of Lemon and Fourth Street, the couple is creating a food service and antique center north of the hustle and bustle of Main Street.

"We are trying to create a Lemon Avenue District," Al Tomlinson says. "It's in a fusion style. We know its possible to bring people here. Just look at the growth pattern. It's going to be a true artsy district with kind of a Soho look."

His wife, who actually owns the businesses and properties, agrees.

"When we first came to the area six years ago it was not a nice neighborhood," Monika Tomlinson says. "Little by little, we (business-owners with the help of the city and police) helped clean up the neighborhood."

As further evidence of the area's possibilities, the Tomlinsons point to Sierra Station restaurant, at 400 N. Lemon. "At any time of the day, we have Lexuses, Jaguars and Mercedes in the parking lot," Tomlinson says. The 2,000-square-foot coffee shop and restaurant in a reassembled railroad depot station opened in January. The Tomlinsons debuted Sierra Station without any marketing or advertising, and so far restaurant revenues have exceeded projections, they say.

In the '70s, Al Tomlinson ran a high-end residential construction company in Woodstock, N.Y. He has split his time between New York and Sarasota since 1973 when he started buying antiques in the area. He moved to Sarasota full time in 1980. In 1993, Tomlinson met Monika Tran, an assistant manager of a retail store. They married in 2001.

The Tomlinsons started laying the groundwork for their own little commercial quarter back in 1996.

"One of the catalysts when we moved here," says Al Tomlinson, "was that in this pseudo-derelict neighborhood, the Alley Cat parking lot was full every night with high-end cars."

Earlier this year, Sarasota-based Clarke Advertising & Public Relations Inc. purchased the Alley Cat and three other contiguous buildings.

In 1996, Monika Tomlinson took out a lease on a 600-square-foot space from Sarasota attorney/real estate mogul David Band and N.J. Olivieri in a 20,000-square-foot former industrial building at 1525 Fourth St. One of the main features of the lease contract was a purchase option. "We always knew we wanted to own out there. It was just a matter of when," Al Tomlinson says. "We knew it was a winner. Sarasota is locked in a growth pattern. It can only grow in one direction."

Not only was the building location perfect for future development growth north of Fruitville, but the history of the building was attractive to the couple as well. According to Al Tomlinson, the Florida Citrus Co., owned by a friend of the Ringlings, built the first building on the site in 1926. In the '50s, the property was acquired by Perfection Bottled Water Co. and a 2,500-square-foot addition was added to the building.

With 600 square feet, the Tomlinsons developed Las Antiguas, an upscale antique shop. Around 1998, the Tomlinsons started a complete renovation of the exterior of the 20,000-square-foot building.

Around 1999, Monika Tomlinson started talking with the Henry Macler about purchasing the 18,000-square-foot parking lot to the north of their retail building.

"It was about this time when a fellow from down the street came by," Al Tomlinson says. "He thought we did a great job up fixing up that building, and he asked if we wanted to buy his building on Kumquat (Court)." The 4,000-square-foot building, located at 525 Kumquat Court, had been used as an auto-body shop and was located on a 12,500-square-foot parcel. On May 31, 2000, Monika Tomlinson purchased the building for $150,000.

"We subdivided the space in the auto shop for a staffing company, an artist and a freelance photographer," says Al Tomlinson. "We are putting a 3,800-square-foot building next to it out there. That is currently in the drawing stages."

In October of that year, Monika Tomlinson, using the corporate name of Villa De Santa Monika LLC, purchased the old railroad baggage-handling building at 423 Lemon Ave. N., across from the empty parking lot. The 3,500-square-foot building was converted into an antique mall for Picasso's Moon and Sanders' Antiques.

In March, Tomlinson exercised her purchase option on the 20,000-square-foot Perfection Bottled Water building. She purchased the property from 4th Street Associates Ltd., a partnership of Olivieri of Horizon Mortgage Corp. and Band, for $525,000. Shortly thereafter an 800-square-foot space in the building was rented by the Renaissance of Sarasota sales team.

It took longer than expected, but by December of 2002, Monika Tomlinson purchased the 18,000-square-foot parking lot for $300,000.

Around the middle of last year, the Tomlinsons discovered what has become the center point of their district.

The 1852 railroad station was owned by a retired doctor who had brought it down from Indiana in 1981 for a private railroad museum in Englewood, Al Tomlinson says. The doctor later sold the land to Sarasota County. But the station had value so he placed it for sale.

Tomlinson noticed the doctor's ad in the classifieds and quickly drove down to Englewood to see it. With help from his friend, architect W. Thorning Little, Tomlinson determined that the station could be used with few significant architectural changes. The couple disassembled the structure, which took about a month, and shipped it north on flatbed trailer to the vacant parking lot next to Las Antiguas.

After about four months, the Tomlinsons had approval from the city to reassemble the structure, with a few minor renovations, on the parking lot. "The city was very helpful," Al Tomlinson says. "They had us reinforce some things mainly to bring it up to hurricane standards."

The coffee/shop restaurant Sierra Station opened earlier this year. The couple might develop other Sierra Station restaurants in more traditional restaurant locations such as freestanding buildings or strip centers.

"Even though you can't replicate a 1852 railroad station," Tomlinson says. "We have created several templates that replicate the look and feel - and the facade of the station." He says no decision had yet been made about the next location.

The Lemon Avenue area has much going its way.

One of the biggest changes in the area occurred in the middle of last year when the Salvation Army closed a homeless shelter on Fourth Street between Lemon and Central avenues in favor of a new larger homeless shelter on 10th Street.

"The changes we have seen in the area are tremendous," says Monika Tomlinson. "We don't have as much foot traffic (from the homeless) on Fourth or Lemon as we used to. We still have Resurrection House (a homeless assistance center on 507 Kumquat Court), but they are working with us. The improvement in the neighborhood has been amazing."

"Days after the Salvation Army closed it was like we were in the country," Al Tomlinson says. "There was never any crime here - as far as the way most people see crime in bigger cities - it was more of a nuisance. There were just some people who would scare some of the customers away because they looked unsavory. It will take awhile to wear off the stigma, but we have already seen a big difference."

Parking is more readily available north of Fruitville Road than in the more central downtown area. Tomlinson estimates that the Sierra Station property has about 40 parking spaces. There is also additional parking on the street. "Anybody who Monika rents to here has breathing room," Al Tomlinson says. "They can walk out to their car and they don't have to fight to find a parking space."

Rents in the north Fruitville neighborhood are low compared to the more established Main Street and Pineapple Avenue. While the average on Pineapple now runs about $20 a square foot triple net, rents on the north Lemon or Fourth Street properties run from $12 to $15.

In the immediate future, most of the couple's energy is focused on filling the large retail building on Fourth Street. The Tomlinsons have signed a lease with Jeff Rubin of Venice to create Vincella, a 7,000-square-foot upscale wine center in the building. The space is being renovated by Southern Cross Construction and is slated to open in early summer.

At the same time, the couple is developing a large restaurant and bar for the remaining 6,000-square-feet. The restaurant will be modeled and named after the Buddha Bar. The style of food of the dinner-only restaurant is being developed and the Tomlinson's are still awaiting approval from the Board of Health.

"We want to attract hip, young, fun people," says Monika Tomlinson. "It's not going to be a meat market. We want to attract educated interesting open-minded people like ourselves. People who enjoy art or fine antiques."

The new restaurant is slated to open in the beginning of 2005.

"At this point we just want to take our time and make sure we do it right." Al Tomlinson says. "What we are hoping to create here is a little microcosm of Hyde Park. More the way Hyde Park used to be. It has kind of gone more commercial recently, to give this area a little identity all its own. Sarasota has changed in the last five to 10 years. There are more hip young groups looking for a place. That is the market we need to make this work."

The owners also have plans to build a 1,500-square-foot building along the northern border of the Sierra Station property. It probably will serve as a gift shop or some other small store. Construction of the building should start later this year with completion coming towards the end of the year.

"At that point we can't afford anything else around here," Al Tomlinson says. "We've now been priced out of our own market."

More Growth

The Tomlinsons are clearly not alone in their interest in the Fourth/Lemon area. John Cox, CEO of the Sarasota-based general contractor Halfacre Construction Co., and E. Russell and Christine James have agreements in place to purchase the Farm & Garden Supply Store, the former Salvation Army homeless shelter and Blue Line Inc. store.

Their development plan calls for the property, which runs along Fruitville Road, Lemon Central and Fourth Street, to be replaced with a 100-room hotel, 78,000 square feet of office space, 24,000 square feet of retail space and a 419-space parking garage.

"We are trying to get approval under the existing zoning," Cox says, explaining that the recent Andres Duany comments regarding the city's 2050 plan have him somewhat concerned.

Zoning Change?

One situation that does have landowners east of Central Avenue to Lemon Avenue worried is a provision in the city's comprehensive plan, which would convert the area to downtown neighborhood zoning.

Mike Taylor, deputy director of planning and redevelopment for the city, says that if the commission agrees to follow the comp plan in rezoning the property, the future zoning would become significantly more residential.

Critics argue that the area has grown into a primarily commercial neighborhood. The majority of the commercial land is currently commercial intensive (CI), which is a permissive commercial zoning. Property owners worry that a rezone would make the existing commercial business non-conforming.

"Everyone here is pretty much in a wait-and-see mode," says Victor Calderon, a local property owner since the mid-'80s. "We are fighting to maintain the momentum in the area and so far, thankfully, we are winning. But the next couple rungs of the ladder are going to be long and hard given the policy the planning department has interpreted and applied in this area, specifically to make it residential."

Sarasota Mayor Lou Ann Palmer told GCBR, after an April 12 commission meeting, that it is possible the commission will move away from rezoning areas of the Rosemary district to downtown neighborhood. She says the commission is looking into the possibility of using the future zoning of downtown edge, which would allow more commercial and mixed uses. Palmer says the commission directed staff to study the area and to look into the concerns of property owners.

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