Developers are finally prepared to invest in the languishing area east of U.S. 301. Once builders actually break ground, will a neighborhood identity fall into place?
Barron Schimberg is an architect by trade, but he was confident about investing in the property at 2101 Main St. based on process of elimination alone.
The 12,750-square-foot site is located east of U.S. 301, placing it in the heart of one of the few downtown-adjacent areas still struggling to redevelop post-recession.
Schimberg figured that couldn’t last long.
“We saw it as the last area in downtown Sarasota that has real potential,” he said.
He saw the construction activity in areas like Burns Court and the Rosemary District as a sign that demand existed for more walk-to-downtown developments. His firm, the Schimberg Group, purchased the land in December.
By May, the company announced it had secured a ground-floor tenant for its planned two-story commercial building: Sofrito Mama’s, an acclaimed Puerto Rican restaurant currently located near Tuttle Avenue and Fruitville Road. Underscoring his belief in the area, Schimberg plans to move his firm’s office into the second floor.
He saw his plans as a potential catalyst. Located at East Avenue and Main Street, the property is almost in the direct center of the land east of U.S. 301 that carries a “downtown core” zoning designation from the city. He has had some preliminary conversations with nearby property owners, and he hopes to help create an identity for the area as other projects pop up.
“The goal is to see a vision come through. Whether it happens or not is to be seen.” — Barron Schimberg
At this point, though, no projects have actually broken ground. As a result, it’s hard to pin down exactly what the area will look like in five years — or whether the revitalization that seems imminent and inevitable to Schimberg will even come to fruition.
“The goal, I would say, is to see a vision come through,” Schimberg said. “Whether it happens or not is to be seen.”
It seems unlikely that redevelopment will miss the area completely. Other builders have taken a similar interest in the area. In March 2015, Largo developer Icon Residential submitted initial plans for a 37-unit luxury townhome project at Main Street and School Avenue. Entrepreneur Harvey Vengroff is seeking city approval for a 393-unit affordable apartment complex near Fruitville Road and Audubon Place.
Last month, the city received proposals for two more projects east of downtown. JBCC Development, a firm led by developer Jim Bridges and commercial real estate broker Clint Conway, plans to build a Wawa gas station at Fruitville and Lime Avenue. Most recently, Oaktree Development filed plans for a 7,500-square-foot retail complex at Fruitville and East Avenue, comprised of five individual 1,500-square-foot commercial spaces.
Five potential projects separated by about half a mile is a major injection of activity. Still, taken together, what bigger picture does it paint? Workforce housing and high-end four-bedroom townhomes, a buzzy restaurant and a gas station — this, alone, doesn’t create the vision Schimberg has in mind.
Consider the Rosemary District: Efforts to revitalize and rebrand the neighborhood were largely unsuccessful until the city approved the Rosemary Residential Overlay District in 2014, allowing for higher-density residential projects. Within two years, more than 1,000 residential units were under construction in the area, almost instantly becoming one of the defining characteristics of the neighborhood.
The area east of downtown remains in that initial phase. People agree that the area should be developing. There’s just no way of knowing what the end result will be, even as initial investors prepare to begin construction.
Given a more barren canvas, those investors have less guidance. Michael Infanti, who manages Oaktree Development, said activity in other neighborhoods helped him decide what type of project to pursue.
“Initially, I had sort of evaluated the site for a residential project — maybe townhomes or multifamily,” Infanti said. “But then, looking at the inventories slated to go online in the next couple of years — particularly in Rosemary — I decided to go the retail route.”
At an Aug. 3 Development Review Committee meeting, city Senior Planner Courtney Mendez said she had already begun to receive feedback expressing concerns about how the proposed Wawa would mesh with the fabric of downtown. The city’s zoning standards for downtown are intended to help create a cohesive product even if developers are building in silos, and Infanti said city staff helped provide input on the type of project that would be well-suited for the area.
Neighboring property owners are well aware of the potential influx of activity, and both Schimberg and Infanti said those property owners are as eager for redevelopment as the new builders.
Schimberg already has a general idea of what he thinks the area should grow into. He sees the tree-lined streets, particularly on East Avenue, as a building block for a walkable, mixed-use district. He likens it to areas in San Francisco — nothing extravagant, necessarily, but a distinct neighborhood that features commercial offerings in addition to residential properties.
“It’s a pedestrian-friendly, multiuse, urban type of situation,” Schimberg said. “That is what it calls for, without a doubt.”
“Eventually, the market will tell us what needs to be built, and someone will build it.” — Michael Infanti
What does the area still need to fulfill its potential? The developers believe it’s too early to focus on specifics like that, but Infanti is confident that answers will present themselves when the time is right — and that investors will be eager to fill the voids.
“Eventually, the market will tell us what needs to be built, and someone will build it,” Infanti said.
In the Rosemary District, developers have begun working together to create a distinct identity for the neighborhood. The group also hopes to address community needs, such as parking and a lack of park space. That process is taking place more than a decade after the city began focusing on the Rosemary District as a target for redevelopment.
On East Avenue, the hope is that revitalization won’t take that long. The necessary conversations have already begun among property owners, but until shovels hit the ground, it’s hard to know whether the spate of new projects will spark the creation of a cohesive neighborhood.
“We’re obviously interested in doing it,” Schimberg said. “Whether we all get on board and do it is to be seen.”