- August 9, 2019
About 100 years after the land boom that created what most of us know as downtown Sarasota, another boom is underway and this one, like the original, could bring a transformational change to the city’s Main Street commercial district.
This change is driven by three projects in varying stages that will bring major residential multifamily development east of Five Points. These projects will bring thousands of more square feet of retail, hundreds of apartments and condos and at least one new hotel.
Proponents say the three projects will bring much-needed density to the downtown commercial district by drawing hundreds — thousands — of new residents to the area, residents who won’t get off work and leave for other parts of town. The idea, proponents say, is those people will shop, eat, dance, love in a downtown with more life at night and with more options. This new energy will draw others from spots outside downtown, suburbanites and travelers, creating a vibrancy the area now lacks.
Everyone will benefit, the argument goes.
This rising-tides-lifts-all-boats approach is not uncommon. Think downtown St. Petersburg. But, once growth starts, it becomes difficult to control. Again, think St. Petersburg, where there are serious issues with affordability and longtime residents and businesses, and the places they called home, are being pushed out.
Yes, there is a new energy and a new vibrancy in downtown, but is it worth the tradeoff?
That depends on who you ask.
First, a little about what’s planned.
Two of the three projects are just outside of what’s traditionally been seen as the core downtown commercial district, which stretches along Main Street, between Washington Boulevard on the east end and U.S. 41 on the west end, a few blocks past the Five Points roundabout. The third is near the center of the commercial district on Main Street and Goodrich Avenue.
These three developments are by no means all that’s happening in the area, but unlike the major luxury condominium buildings going up west of Five Points, what will be built on the east side of downtown for now seems to be more accessible to the average consumer.
Anyone driving into downtown heading west on Main Street today will see the first of the projects is well on its way.
That one is One Main Plaza which is going into the space that was long the home of Main Plaza, a 259,000-square-foot development and before that a Maas Brothers department store. Land has been cleared and work crews are busy on the foundation, for completion sometime in 2024.
One Main is next to Regal Cinemas’ Hollywood 11 theater and is being developed by Belpointe REIT Inc. of Greenwich, Connecticut. The company, which develops properties in federally designated Opportunity Zones, paid $20 million for 8.6 acres of the roughly 10-acre Main Plaza site in late 2019.
The developer is building two 10-story towers that will include 418 luxury apartments, 55,000 square feet of retail on the ground floor and about 1,200 parking spaces. The plan calls for One Main to have 376 feet of frontage along Main Street, where the sidewalk is to be widened to to 20 feet. Another 630 feet of storefront will face Links Avenue with some additional frontage on Fruitville Road.
One of the big retailers slated for the property is a yet-to-be announced grocery store.
Farther west, at the corner of Main Street and Goodrich Avenue, there’s a proposal working through the city for a 16-story, 180-foot-tall building on 0.43 acres that will include a 4,500-square-foot restaurant, 35 residential units and a 120-room hotel.
The plan got partial sign off from Sarasota’s Development Review Committee in July. But in order to get the final approval, city spokeswoman Jan Thornburg says, the developer “must address comments from a few city departments.”
Among the items, developers will have to clarify or adjust for the city are plans for valet service, the placement of some bike racks, possible adjustments to awnings, the width of the sidewalk on Goodrich and the narrowing of parallel parking spaces along Main Street.
And, before the issuance of the first building permit, developers will have to sign a covenant guaranteeing 50% of the floor will be reserved for nonresidential use for the life of the development. That last rule is to meet code for the downtown core.
The most ambitious project, and the one that could have the biggest impact long-term, is a development called Park District.
Park District is being spearheaded by Atlanta multifamily development firm Brook Farm Group, which has bought nearly nine acres in downtown Sarasota. It plans to build a mixed-use development there. The property, broken up in four parcels and spanning six blocks, sits near the southeast corners of U.S. 301 and Fruitville Road.
According to Harry E. Robbins Associates, the commercial real estate firm that handled the sale, the development — in the early stages and without any official plans, yet — will include a retail component as well was as a market rate and attainable housing.
As you’d expect, Erin DiFazio, the president of the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation, has some strong views on construction and development coming to the downtown shopping district.
But those opinions aren’t simple, nor are they concrete.
DiFazio, also a local Realtor specializing in home preservation, believes in growth and understands that the city needs to evolve.
But she believes this growth needs to be thoughtfully considered and that it enhances the city rather than it being growth for growth’s sake. What DiFazio worries about is large scale development.
DiFazio says big projects, especially luxury developments, are “almost incompatible with a lot of the ways that Sarasota has always defined itself.” She believes the larger projects, like the ones currently in the works, are inherently prohibitive.
She says these residential developments and the large retailers they bring push out artists and small business owners who can no longer afford to live in an area or have to compete against deep-pocketed corporate chains. The result, she says, is that over time what created the sense of place that drew new residents and the businesses to serve them gets lost.
That’s especially true in a place like Sarasota, she says, where “the creative people, the movers and shakers (are) who drive, who create the magic of Sarasota, not the Applebee’s and giant corporations like Whole Foods.”
“I would say, when it comes to taking buildings down, we ask people to be really thoughtful about that,” says DiFazio.
“And then, in the reconstruction phase, or the new development phase, essentially our position would be, let’s do it in a way that engages the community, provides a meaningful structure, affordable structure, so that we have something that can activate life here, rather than kind of suspend it or create this artificial glow of luxury that’s vapid and empty.”
Kevin Robbins, a commercial real estate broker with Harry E. Robbins & Associates who is involved in the One Main and Brooks Farm projects, sees growth as an opportunity that can work hand-in-hand with what’s makes the area what it is.
A lifelong Sarasota resident, Robbins sees these type of projects that bring residential units to the commercial district as being a catalyst to both attract younger people to the city and to retain those who grew up here, a group that’s historically left town.
Given the rise of remote working nationwide and corporate growth in the city, Sarasota is uniquely situated to attract younger professionals from other areas who are looking for a better lifestyle. The downtown commercial district is walkable and has the amenities these people, just like current residents, look for, Robbins believes. The new developments, along with the residents and retailers thy bring, will in fact complement, not detract from, what is already here, he adds.
“It’s a great place to live, beautiful spot,” Robbins says, adding a moment later that he tries to tell people who are anti-growth that what he wants is “smart growth and where does it make sense to really put a heavier dense population? Cities, right? As opposed to urban or suburban areas where you want more space.”
The arguments Robbins and DiFazio put forward are not reserved to Sarasota. Not even close.
Across the country cities constantly grapple with these sort of big picture arguments, innovation versus tradition, new versus old, how much of a sacrifice is too big of a sacrifice.
The right answer, which sometimes can take years, or even decades, to properly answer, is somewhere in the middle.
And that’s where Eileen Hampshire is.
Hampshire is the owner of Art to Walk On on Palm Avenue and chair of Sarasota’s Downtown Improvement District.
She says there’s “a lid for every pot” and developers have a right to make money. But she also says they need to be conscientious, the public needs to be informed and city government has to strike a proper balance.
"If everybody has a good heart,” she says, and the developer wants to succeed and gets buy-in from the community, growth can work. But, she’s not naïve and says if a developer doesn’t care and takes its money and runs, there’s not much can be done.
Like many others in Sarasota, including Robbins and DiFazio, Hampshire doesn't want to see growth push out what makes Sarasota, Sarasota. A large part of that is the arts, such as opera and ballet and the symphony.
"As long as we nurture those, that we don’t let the building stifle the good stuff,” she says. “I mean, logically, more people could mean more money for the arts, more advertising. It’s possible to do something fabulous. But we have to make sure that the roads grow at the same rate, the services, the amenities. That people who’ve been here a long time don’t feel pushed out. And new people coming feel welcomed.”