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East County Thursday, Apr. 21, 2022 2 months ago

Fruitville Commons a beautiful regional project but not really a walkable community

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The layout of Fruitville Commons might be a bit strange, but it's stocked with regional draws.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

The best-laid plans can sometimes be rather screwy.

I was walking through Fruitville Commons with Keith Gelder, whose titles include president of Stock Luxury Apartment Living and vice president of land, and shaking my head a bit as I looked left and saw Cooper's Hawk restaurant and right to see a 105,000-square-foot storage facility. It appeared they were using a common parking lot. An odd combination at best.

Those who live in the Lakewood Ranch area and are not familiar with Fruitville Commons are likely to know it soon enough. Stock Development closed on the 42-acre property in 2018 and originally intended to use the site only for its luxury apartments. If you drive Lakewood Ranch Boulevard just short of its intersection with Fruitville Road, you will see Fruitville Commons to the right.

Indeed, it's Sarasota County, but in some ways more Lakewood Ranch than Sarasota, even though it's billed as a "gateway to Sarasota." It could just as easily be billed as the "southern gateway to Lakewood Ranch," even if Rex Jensen never drove a Lakewood Ranch flag into the dirt there. The property was not part of the SMR empire, but it pushes up against it.

Jay Heater: Side of Ranch

The property previously was owned by the family of David Walters in a trust and once was the potential site of a Bass Pro Shops that never materialized.

Gelder, who was a driving force behind the purchase, had an eye on Lakewood Ranch's growth in Waterside along with Sarasota County's willingness to develop east of Interstate 75. The extensions of Lorraine Road and Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to Fruitville Road sweetened the pot. The apartment project morphed into a mixed-use project. But Stock Development had to follow the rules.

Fruitville Commons is within the Fruitville Initiative, which has some specific rules for builders that were formulated in 2010 and approved in 2014 for about 420 acres adjacent to I-75 and along Fruitville Road. The project aimed at realizing a mixed-use, interconnected community.

That community was expected to be free of big box stores and "highway franchise" restaurants. It was supposed to include a grid of streets promoting small town walkability and ease of access.

Fruitville Commons combines a development of upscale luxury apartments, boutique hotels, office park and retail shops. Citria, the 300-plus luxury apartment enclave by Stock Luxury Apartment Living, is the anchor, although two hotels (with a total of 240 hotel rooms) to the south side of the parcel are on the way, including TownePlace Suites by Marriott.

Cooper's Hawk is open now and thriving while Big Top Brewery is on the way as is Paddy Wagon Irish Pub. There are various workout businesses and spas that follow a healthy-living theme.

So back to that point about Fruitville Commons' layout being a bit odd. I am sure those living in the immediate vicinity wanted to protect the area from becoming a host for Walmart, and Bass Pro Shops, and Target, and Home Depot. I get it.

But these New Urbanism and walkability concepts have me stumped.

Citria is a fine-looking apartment complex and one that is easy access to, well, everything. You can get on I-75 in an instant, you can take Fruitville Road into Sarasota or you can fly down Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to the north.

Walkability?

Keith Gelder, president of Stock Luxury Apartment Living and vice president of land, said Fruitville Commons will have several healthy living businesses.

If you are going for a stroll, it's pretty around the apartment complex and peaceful. But I don't know how much walking the apartment residents will do to Cooper's Hawk or Paddy Wagon or Big Top Brewery or Irma's Tacos. Even with all the development, it just isn't a downtown area. If you don't own a car, you will need to take a cab for access to the things you want.

This all comes back to scratch-your-head planning. If the general public gets involved with programs such as the Fruitville Initiative, it could tie the developer's hands when it comes to the buildout. Of course, if the public doesn't get involved, you might have a Bass Pro Shops — not that such a project wouldn't appeal to many of us.

In my eyes, it appears the development in that area will resemble a bunch of strip malls that are ultra-attractive to those who live within a 20-minute drive, and not so much those who live in the apartments (in terms of walkability). Those offerings are great to me as someone who can reach it in 20 minutes. Do I love the thought of shooting down Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to eat at Coopers Hawk or getting a drink at the Paddy Wagon? You betcha.

Is it a walkable community? I would argue no. Is the Green in Lakewood Ranch a walkable community? I would argue no. Is Waterside Place a walkable community? Somewhat.

Is that what the planners of the Fruitville Initiative had in mind, a project that served the region? Maybe not. Even if I think it is pretty cool.

If they had known what was coming, would it have been better to put limits on the type of development allowed and let the builders do their thing? Probably so.

Those familiar with Gelder and Stock Development know it's a quality outfit. Stock Signature Homes dominates the sales in the Lake Club and thus has developed a great relationship with SMR. In my eyes, it would be best to turn these guys loose and let them do their thing — once the governing agency has decided what it wants — in general terms such as mixed use — on the site. Perhaps a better way would be presenting a list of things you don't want on the site.

At Fruitville Commons, Gelder walked in the parking lot behind some of the new shops. It was hard to tell if he was in the front or the back of the businesses.

"We basically had to build two fronts of the buildings," he said in reference to the Fruitville Initiative. "It made functionality difficult. In this parking lot, we are pairing high intensity and low intensity parking users. These mixed use projects can be tricky. When you put a preschool together with restaurants ... what goes where? To meet the requirements and be functional was a challenge."

It's obvious both Manatee County and Sarasota County will continue to allow development farther to the east. It's going to happen. If you don't want that expansion, vote for county commissioners who won't stand for it.

But if you believe development benefits the county and the residents, then try not to handcuff the experts — I'm talking developers — and let them do their thing. 

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