The Mall at University Town Center currently consists of mounds of dirt, beams of steel and tons of concrete that are poured at the interchange of University Parkway and Interstate 75.
But St. Armands Circle and downtown Sarasota officials worry that it’s already a threat to their retail destinations miles away.
Even though Benderson Development and Taubman Centers don’t expect to complete the 888,000-square-foot, high-end Mall at University Town Center until October, officials say time is of the essence to preserve their established shopping destinations near the Gulf.
That’s because St. Armands Circle Business Improvement District Chairman Marty Rappaport and Ernie Ritz, chairman of Sarasota’s Downtown Improvement District, say that leasing agents for the mall are actively pursuing their tenants and trying to get them to pack up and head east.
“Benderson (leasing agents) has already gone around to St. Armands Circle merchants, and they are trying to get them to fill up the stores in their new mall,” Rappaport said at Tuesday’s BID board of directors meeting at Sarasota City Hall.
Rappaport said some Circle stores have already committed to the new mall, although he doesn’t know if merchants will open second locations or leave the Circle for good. Rappaport declined to disclose the stores that are leaving or considering leaving for the new mall.
“I know of one tenant who has three years on his lease and Benderson has offered to buy his lease out if he makes the move,” Rappaport said. “You can’t compete with that.”
Ritz has also informed DID board members of his concern about the mall, informing DID board members more than a year ago that Benderson leasing agents “are already actively recruiting some of our downtown tenants and asking them what it would take to move them out of downtown.”
Both Rappaport and Ritz have urged their districts and city officials to realize it’s time to combat the problem now with plans for new parking structures.
Rappaport wants a parking garage on the Circle and Ritz thinks the State Street parking garage is needed to plan for future shoppers and to keep Main Street a viable shopping destination.
“They only thing they will have that we don’t is parking,” Ritz said.
But Rappaport and Ritz are worried about more than parking.
They believe it’s crucial to address options for managing the tenant mix in both locations to reduce the number of eating establishments in the future.
In October, both BID and DID agreed during a joint meeting they should take action and hire a consultant to evaluate whether there really are too many restaurants downtown.
Downtown Economic Development Coordinator Norman Gollub has become partially responsible for overseeing this issue, and he expects to hire a consultant soon to complete a study regarding the future of the retail mix in both locations.
That study could be completed for the Sarasota City Commission to review this summer. Rappaport said the study can’t be completed soon enough.
“Parking is not the magic bullet,” Rappaport said. “If you fix the parking issue, but these districts continue to morph from tourism districts to restaurant and entertainment districts, I predict you will still see the Circle and downtown’s shopping districts go so fast downward it will make your head spin. I’ve seen it happen on the east coast of Florida, and it will happen here unless we take measures to correct the problem.”
Circle Solicitation issue is not violating codes
St. Armands Circle Business Improvement District (BID) board of directors learned from city staff Tuesday that a woman who has been soliciting donations for Haitian children and their families since October around St. Armands Circle isn’t doing anything illegal.
In January, BID board members expressed concern with the woman, who sets up card tables and a cooler in various locations around the Circle. Circle merchants take issue with the solicitation because they pay $1,500 a month or more to lease Circle space and receive if a fine if they make a homemade sign or solicit business directly outside their shops.
The woman doesn’t have a permit and the Sarasota Police Department and Director of Neighborhood and Development Services Tim Litchet confirmed she doesn’t need one.
“She is not violating any city code or obstructing the walkway,” Litchet said.
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