A few of Sarasota’s up-and-coming restaurants, along with furniture shops and photography studios, dot the Rosemary District. And a new café is expected to enliven one of the area’s central intersections.
Yet close by empty storefronts and abandoned, vacant land — the most in any downtown district — vividly stand out.
The juxtaposition reflects the mixed identity that exists for a neighborhood that was once poised for revitalization before the recession, and could once again be poised for change. At the center of possible changes in Rosemary District are two linchpin proposals gaining traction at City Hall.
One of those proposals would add on-street parking to meet anticipated future demand of new businesses and residences.
The other proposal involves a “catalyst project” for a key parcel of city-owned land at 1440 Blvd. of the Arts.
City Manager Tom Barwin and city staffers are moving ahead with a process to find out what kind of developments could fit on the city-owned parcel in the middle of the Rosemary district.
“As we begin to come out of the recession, there might be some serious interest in redeveloping our city parcel,” Barwin said.
At least one developer has already shown interest in working with the city to build on the property.
At the City Commission’s Oct. 15 meeting, commissioners voted to seek a public-private partnership on the land located near the intersection of Boulevard of the Arts and Central Avenue. 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.
The city now wants to hear what local residents and business owners would want to see built there. The next step is a public meeting the city will hold sometime in late November or early December, Barwin said.
“I think it is a very good indication,” said John Hermansen, about the city’s effort to get a project going on Boulevard of the Arts. In December, Hermansen, along with business partners, purchased and renovated a building on 5th Street where Hermansen’s company, Ampersand Construction, is located.
The city will set up a competitive process over the next few months after the public meeting in Rosemary, so that interested developers will be able to pitch their project to city officials.
One developer has already met with Barwin to say they are interested in submitting a proposal.
Mindy Parker, who owns property directly to the east of the city-owned land, met with Barwin after the Oct. 15 City Commission meeting.
Parker runs Sarasota Commercial Management Inc. and is the daughter of longtime local developer Dr. Mark Kauffman.
Chris Gallagher, a senior designer with Jonathan Parks Architect who represents Parker, said Parker is interested in developing a mixed-use project that would include a residential aspect.
“She owns three parcels next to the property,” Gallagher said. “It is a key corner.”
Hermansen said he has heard a lot of ideas for what would work best on the land, and he thinks some kind of mixed-use would fit best.
He envisions something with retail on the first floor, and space above for studios and some residential units to create a live-work setting, as one viable option.
Hermansen and his business partners purchased a building on 5th Street in December. He is “bullish” on the neighborhood even though the recession has hit the area with business closings and stalled developments.
“This is one of those fringe area of downtown that has been hit a little, but it is coming back,” Hermansen said.
His prediction is that expected rising rent prices on Main Street and the immediate surrounding commercial area could drive more business into Rosemary, which he notes is within golf-ball distance of Main Street.
A mixed-use project on the city-owned land over the next few years would “kickstart a lot of development,” Hermansen said.
A re-branding is under way among those who have invested in Rosemary. If the area is going to get a new start, it’s needs to grow into a new identity, they say.
For about a year, advocates have been calling the area NOF, for North of Fruitville.
The name is meant to show that change is coming to the area, and to motivate developers, business owners, and eventually residents and tourists, to cross Fruitville Road.
“A lot of people, and some commercial realtors, will say, ‘You don’t want to go north of Fruitville,’” Hermansen said. “There is a bit of a stigma.”
Downtown advocate Diana Hamilton said that the first developers and business owners to head north will choose to be oblivious to the risks of moving to the district on the edge of downtown — and have their sights on the huge potential that awaits.
Homebuilder Devin Rutkowski said a “big brainstorming session” for the Boulevard of the Arts property is welcomed because the most important step is finding out what the community wants.
“Finding a developer will be the easy part,” said Rutkowski, who owns property in nearby Gillespie Park and plans to open a restaurant in Rosemary this winter. “Coming up with creative ideas will be the challenging part.”
Rutkowski said just one example of a creative idea for the property would be something tied in to the colleges north of the district. Possibilities could include some residential units available for graduate students and art galleries for art students.
“It is a unique opportunity,” Rutkowski said. “We need to think big, think outside the box.”
Adjacent to the city-owned land, Troy Plota, works out of a 2,400 square-foot studio, but he is out-growing the space. He does film production work for Belk’s department store and Cole’s. Like others who have invested in the area, Plota sees potential in Rosemary because it is so close to downtown.
“It has huge potential,” Plota said. “That’s why I moved in six months ago.”
Plota said he plans to talk to city officials about setting up film-production space on the city’s parcel, perhaps on a temporary basis until the developer of a more permanent project is chosen.