The Rosemary District was poised to be a hotbed of development in Sarasota. Then, the recession hit.
That widespread belief, disheartening as it may have been a few years ago, eventually became a source of optimism. With economic conditions growing more favorable, many believed it was just a matter of time before the Rosemary District became what it was always destined to be.
Eleven months after a Sarasota City Commission meeting at which residents and city officials shared their hope about the future of the district, development in the area hasn’t taken off as quickly as many hoped it might. Some new businesses have opened, but others have left, and land throughout the district remains unoccupied.
City Manager Tom Barwin says he is as positive as ever regarding the future of the area, but the timing of development is largely out of the city’s hands.
“What we have to remember in dealing with government and its systems is it’s not like you can control it like the remote control on the TV,” Barwin said. “Some things take a little while to achieve.”
Still, certain places of interest have been pointed to as signs development could pick up soon. Several people in the area are more than optimistic — they believe growth is inevitable.
Room to experiment
The Blue Rooster, a restaurant and live-music venue located at 1525 Fourth St., is perhaps the most significant addition over the past year. Co-owner Devin Rutkowski is bullish on the district’s future, saying it offers strengths the Main Street area can’t.
“This area really has the most potential for downtown in terms of being a real lively mixed-use entertainment/living area,” Rutkowski said. “A place where folks can live, work and play.”
Rutkowski is excited about the district’s status as a blank slate. He imagines, for example, the possibility of a brewery district growing north of Fruitville. The only problem, he said, is that the city code doesn’t allow for breweries in the area.
Rutkowski would like to see the city relax zoning regulations in the Rosemary District and embrace experimentation.
“This is where it gets so difficult with the city, because if it’s not in their little black book, you can’t do it,” Rutkowski said. “Or you can do it, but you gotta spend a lot of money to roll the dice.”
Darwin Santa Maria, owner of Darwin’s on Fourth, is opening a brewery in Bradenton due to those zoning regulations. The restaurant is staying, though, and Santa Maria was thrilled to see the Blue Rooster move next door. With that stretch of Fourth Street beginning to thrive, he called on the city to help mitigate any negative perceptions people have of the neighborhood so momentum keeps building.
Santa Maria wants the city to help change the minds of people who remain averse to traveling north of Fruitville.
“They feel like it’s not safe — like they’re going somewhere else,” Santa Maria said. “The city can draw some attention to the potential of the uniqueness of the businesses that they have in this area.”
Connecting the dots
Santa Maria is also excited about The Ice House, an art gallery run by Alfstad& Productions at 1314 10th St. Owner Sam Alfstad said the district was a natural home for the gallery, set to open Nov. 14.
“The new and developing areas are the kinds of places that always fostered the new arts,” Alfstad said.
Lolita Tartine, a French café and bakery next to Alfstad’s office at 1419 Fifth St., opened last month. Owners of the Main Street restaurant C’est La Vie operate the café. In an April interview, co-owner Christophe Coutelle said the area was “going to bloom.”
The city recently received one proposal for a public/private development at 1440 Boulevard of the Arts, a long-vacant city-owned property where Barwin wants to see a “catalyst” project. City staff is still reviewing the proposal from Mindy Kauffman. Kauffman, who owns property adjacent to the city land, said her plans call for a mixed-use project with apartments, office and retail space.
Although new developments are sprouting up, they’re often located at different points of the district. Barwin said there’s still unoccupied space in between the areas where progress has been made. Filling much of that space remains a challenge.
“There are several moving pieces, but they all seem to be picking up momentum,” Barwin said.
The movement hasn’t been all positive. In April, Derek’s Culinary Casual relocated to Bradenton after operating in the Rosemary District for seven years; owner Derek Barnes specifically cited a lack of development in the district as a main factor.
One Rosemary District development that has been pointed to as a triumph is Citrus Square, the retail and residential complex at Orange Avenue and Fourth Street. Although the project, completed in 2010, was opened in the immediate wake of the recession, developer Mark Pierce said there weren’t any reservations about operating in an under-populated area.
The key to drawing people north of Fruitville, Pierce said, was simply giving them a reason to come. He said Citrus Square developers focused on bringing in a mix of tenants to create steady traffic in both the morning and evening hours. Combined with the building’s architecture, Pierce said, it became a natural draw.
“I think that the fact that we started off doing the highest quality we could made a difference,” Pierce said.
Like others in the area, Pierce believes the empty buildings nearby will soon find occupants. If nothing else, he said, the lack of space and cost of property near Main Street would force development outward.
“I think it’s a natural direction for the city to have some growth,” Pierce said. “It just seems like there’s almost no choice about the fact that would happen.”
Contact David Conway at firstname.lastname@example.org
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