Slowly, but subtly, Pine Avenue was changing.
It was 2004 or 2005, when Ed Chiles looked at the tiny, half-mile street of six blocks that comprised the bulk of the city of Anna Maria’s business district; it still looked like the street that he remembered from childhood.
The Sears catalogue cottage, a mail-order home built in 1935, still stood.
The Anna Maria City Hall was still there. As long as Chiles could remember, it had stood on Pine Avenue.
The Anna Maria City Jail still stood. Although it, too, had moved over the years, it was a reminder of the days before Chiles’ time. It was established in 1927 by Anna Maria Mayor Mitch Davis to hold drunks and rabble-rousers for a night.
But six years ago, a key sign of Pine Avenue’s changing character was this: The longstanding Pine Avenue Marina and Deli had closed, and its land was sold as residential land. In its place, three identical three-story homes were constructed.
Chiles, who owns the Sandbar Restaurant on nearby Spring Avenue, along with BeachHouse Restaurant on Bradenton Beach and Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant & Pub on Longboat Key, wasn’t interested in expanding the 1% of the city’s land that made up its commercial zone or the 2% that consisted of the residential-office-retail zone, which includes Pine Avenue. But he worried about what would happen if that tiny strip of land became residential. Just a dozen or so Pine Avenue businesses remained, approximately half of which were offices.
“If that street goes residential as it could,” he thought, “we’ve lost an important part of the character.”
He feared that losing the island’s business district would make Anna Maria more like a neighborhood than a community.
Ten miles to the south of Pine Avenue, Longboat Key is also changing.
In 2011, empty storefronts blanket two of the island’s shopping centers. In the last five years, Avenue of the Flowers has lost Philip’s Menswear, Susan Stribling’s New Traditions and Mattison’s Steakhouse at the Plaza from the Town Plaza II that sits directly behind it. The Market, Whitney Beach Deli and Wines, Tiny’s of Longboat Key and multiple restaurants have left Whitney Beach Plaza. Town officials agreed that revitalization of shopping centers was a priority as they revised the town’s Vision Plan in the past months.
The question now is: how?
“Revitalization, according to the Vision Plan is desired, but within a historical balance between residential, tourism and commercial uses,” said town special counsel attorney Nancy Stroud at the Feb. 15 Planning and Zoning Board regular meeting.
Today, Pine Avenue is still changing. Three-and-a-half years have passed since Chiles and developer Mike Coleman proposed the Pine Avenue Restoration project, a plan that will bring a total of 11 mixed-use Old Florida-style buildings to Pine Avenue. Today, six of the structures are complete. The bottom stories are home to Pine Avenue’s small but growing community of boutique businesses that includes six retailers, two offices, a salon, an art studio and a concierge business service; the top are three-bedroom, two-bathroom condominiums for sale for approximately $850,000 each that are currently used as vacation rentals.
And customers are getting the message that Pine Avenue is open for business. Even on a foggy February morning, the wooden chairs on the open porches fill up with shoppers, many en route to the beach, who arrive by foot, bicycle, trolley and car.
“That’s what Longboat needs,” Chiles said. “It needs more oxygen in the blood.”
Chiles said that there might not be an opportunity to follow Pine Avenue’s model exactly; it was a blank canvass on which to draw. But for Longboat Key, he sees what he describes as “pockets of opportunity”: Avenue of the Flowers; Whitney Beach Plaza; and The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort.
Although he believes that Longboat Key presents unique challenges, including 30-day rental restrictions, he has also seen reasons for optimism, such as the 2008 approval of a referendum allowing the development of 250 tourism units.
Chiles cautions that a similar project is costly and has to be a long-term investment. Already, he estimates that the Pine Avenue project has cost more than $8 million, and will cost another $3 million. But he believes it to be a worthy investment.
“I don’t think you can be a city or a community if you don’t have a small-business district,” he said. “If you don’t have that, they’re neighborhoods or they’re subdivisions. But they’re not communities.”
About the same time Chiles began worrying that Anna Maria’s business district could go residential, Mike and Jane Coleman looked at a black-and-white photo and thought about what Pine Avenue could have been. They had recently finished building their home on Pine Avenue and visited the Anna Maria Island Historical Society. There, they looked at a photo that showed men donning suits and hats, and women wearing long dresses and carrying parasols. The photo probably dated back to 1911, the year the Mistletoe began ferrying passengers between the mainland and Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key.
The ship docked on the bayside of what is now the city of Anna Maria, and passengers paraded down the island’s Pine Avenue en route to the Gulf of Mexico.
Getting a glimpse of the area’s past, the Colemans contemplated what Anna Maria’s main street could have looked like — a bustling center.
“I remember thinking it never got finished,” Coleman said. “We said, ‘That’s what Pine Avenue is supposed to be.’”
Chiles and Coleman met through Sandy Mattick, a Pine Avenue resident who owned the Pine Avenue General Store. They weren’t the only Anna Maria residents concerned about the loss of city businesses.
The city began a discussion of its Comprehensive Plan in 2003, with some commissioners expressing concern that businesses would completely leave the district and it would become residential. The closure of the marina that occurred in 2005 highlighted the trend.
Together, they conceived of the Pine Avenue Restoration plan, and in the summer of 2007, they acquired the right to purchase 15 lots. They decided to build two stories instead of the allowed three and used native landscaping and green materials to create an Old Florida feel.
But the development process hasn’t been smooth. Opponents of the plan said that it did not comply with density restrictions or parking restrictions. A battle to require Chiles and Coleman to install driveways and parking lots resulted in multiple lawsuits and the recall of Anna Maria Commissioner Harry Stoltzfus.
Others have said that the development is out of character for Anna Maria.
“I think we could have had that proclaimed a historical street so that nobody could change it,” said Carolyne Norwood, who founded the Anna Maria Island Historical Society.
She said she was disappointed by the fact that the historic Sears cottage was moved to a different location, while other cottages were demolished.
“We were trying to make it a historic little street,” she said. “These are modern buildings.”
Project construction began in late 2008, and by March 2010, Pine Avenue had its first new tenant, Anna Maria Olive Oil Outpost, owned by Longboat Key resident Kelly Kary, who moved her business from downtown Sarasota.
Kary said that she became sold on the Pine Avenue project after visiting the street on various days of the week and seeing that traffic was there. People were walking, biking, heading to the beach — but they didn’t have a place to go. Now, Kary said that traffic has a place to go.
“Traffic is still the same but traffic has a reason to stop,” she said.
According to leasing broker Tom Aposporos, finding the right tenant to pioneer the new Pine Avenue was key. The development didn’t need a nationally known chain to attract tenants; it needed someone unique, someone who would create a culture by offering something different. Soon, Kary’s husband, Bill, opened the Anna Maria Island Business Outpost. Boutique businesses soon followed.
“All of that commercial space that everybody said would never be filled is filled in these times, which I find to be rather remarkable,” Aposporos said.
Three years ago, Anna Maria resident Mike Pescitelli didn’t have a reason to make the two-and-a-half-mile walk from his house to Pine Avenue.
“It was just a straight road with a parallel walking area,” he said. “It wasn’t appealing at all.”
Today, Pescitelli tries to go every morning. He orders a cup of hot tea at the Olive Oil Outpost, settles into one of the wooden chairs on the porch and reads one of the newspapers that Kary leaves out for customers.
Pescitelli was introduced to the new developments at a Christmas party that merchants had on their porches two months ago. There, he ran into fellow islanders, many of whom he hadn’t seen in a while.
Now, on the third Friday of every month, merchants hold “Porch Parties” that draw more than 100 people.
“Some of the men have been saying that they hadn’t been in a shop in 20 years,” said Susanne Arbanas, owner of Anna Maria Island Concierge Services.
Bella by the Sea Home Boutique owner Jo-Ann Lefner said that merchants have formed an association and work together. They discuss which items retailers are ordering to ensure that each business has something different to offer.
“By not ordering the same items, each of the stores has its own personality,” she said.
The Pine Avenue vision hasn’t yet come to full fruition. Construction on the seventh, eighth and possibly the ninth structures will begin soon. The remaining two or three buildings will be finished in 2012.
“This is a model for any small town,” Coleman said. “This is the Florida I grew up in.”
Summer 2007 — Ed Chiles and Mike Coleman told the Anna Maria City Commission that they had contracted to buy 15 lots on Pine Avenue and presented their plans.
May 2008 — The project received its first site-plan approval.
Late 2008 — Construction of the current project began.
March 2010 — The project’s first tenant, Anna Maria Olive Oil Outpost, opened.
December 2010 — The Pine Avenue Restoration project received the “Platinum Status” Award from the Florida Green Building Coalition.
2012 — Chiles and Coleman hope to complete the project.
Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected]