Photographer Barbara Banks can see a city-owned parcel of vacant land from the window of her photography studio on Fifth Street.
Last week, an unlocked gate swung in the wind, and tall grass grew along a fence surrounding the parcel.
Banks would like to see something built on the vacant lot to bring more foot traffic and promote small businesses in the Rosemary District, a small commercial area six blocks north of Main Street that was quickly becoming a hot spot for restaurants, art studios and boutiques — until the recession hit.
Although Banks would like to see “anything that will bring people into the neighborhood,” there are limits to what she envisions.
“Not a Walmart or a gas station,” said the photographer.
Monday, Oct. 15, commissioners voted to seek a public-private partnership on that land located at 1440 Blvd. of the Arts. Such a development agreement would allow city officials to have more say about what is built on the property than if the city sold the land into private hands. Commissioners will hear from city staff within 30 days about possible ways to enable the developer-city partnership.
City Manager Tom Barwin said he sees the property as a “catalyst opportunity” for the area.
Barwin toured the Rosemary District Monday, before the City Commission meeting, and said he envisions a mixed-use development proposal for the Boulevard of the Arts property.
The property was recently appraised at a value of $565,000.
The Rosemary Community Garden was located on the property, between Central and Lemon avenues, until the garden was moved in 2007 to make way for an affordable-housing project. That project was halted by the recession, and the property has sat vacant for several years.
The rectangular property is just slightly under three-quarters of an acre.
Homebuilder Devin Rutkowski, who owns property in nearby Gillespie Park, said he was glad to see that commissioners will hold onto the land and work with developers to build a project that meets the needs of the community.
The property is “the spark that can create some tremendous redevelopment up there,” Rutkowski told commissioners.
Rutkowski said he would like to see a community discussion to determine exactly what kind of public-private partnership could be done on that land. After the commission meeting, Rutkowski said he thinks residential units should be a key component of any project at that location.
Rutkowski sees potential for growth in the area — and the land at 1440 Blvd. of the Arts is a key piece of the puzzle for the entire area that advocates are now calling NOF, North of Fruitville.
“The opportunity is staring us in the face,” Rutkowski told commissioners.
Mayor Suzanne Atwell said she agrees with the city manager that the Boulevard of the Arts parcel could be a catalyst project for the area.
“This neck of the woods is ripe for a catalyst,” said Atwell. “It is time.”
Making a comeback
When the Sarasota Olive Oil Company closed at the corner of Fifth Street and Central Avenue in 2010 to move to Anna Maria Island — and The Venue Coffee Shop, which replaced the Olive Oil Company, closed the same year — it had an immediate impact on the number of people walking around the Rosemary District area, community members say. In addition, at least two other restaurants have closed, and a handful of other small businesses have shut down or moved farther south to downtown.
“We’d like to see the neighborhood come back,” Banks said. “It was a thriving neighborhood (a few years ago).”
Although Banks said she would like to see a project that fits in with the artistic fabric of the area, the most important factor is that it is “economically viable.”
Alain Huin, a furniture designer and property owner in Rosemary, said he thinks some residential units, potentially with art galleries on the first floor, would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood. The additional residential units would help businesses along the district’s small commercial corridor.
Rosemary could be poised for a turnaround, with the possibility of the project on the city-owned parcel on Boulevard of the Arts and indications that new businesses are considering the district.
One such new business is a café that will fill the vacant space previously occupied by the Sarasota Olive Oil Company. The owners of C’est la Vie on Main Street will be opening a café in January at the Rosemary location.
“I always liked that area,” said Christophe Coutelle, who owns C’est la Vie with his wife, Gerladine. “That (area) is starting to develop, and we want to bring some life inside.”
The café will be called Lolita Tartine.
Coutelle plans to offer fresh bread, sandwiches and prepared gourmet meals. He wants Lolita Tartine to be a place where working professionals and artists from the area can go to grab a quick breakfast or lunch or gather for longer. Events such as pastry classes will also be offered.
The combination of the new café and a possible project at Boulevard of the Arts could mean a brighter future for the district.
“It would be nice if it’s a live-work neighborhood,” Banks said.