As buildings in Siesta Key Village gradually undergo renovations and redevelopment, how will the improvements reshape the district?
Siesta Key Village property owners Jay Lancer and Jim Syprett are taking on a delicate balancing act in the commercial district, working to make substantive improvements without radically altering the character of the area.
They’ve embraced the challenge. The building at 5242 Ocean Blvd., which houses Gidget’s Coastal Provisions, is a testament to that. Lancer and Syprett spent four years navigating county regulations to build the two-story structure before winning approval. The project produced the first new commercial building in the Village in more than 20 years.
“Why did we do that? Because what was there was garbage,” Lancer said.
This sums up Lancer’s perspective on how to improve Siesta Key Village. His fondness for the area doesn’t blind him to its flaws — if anything, they’re more pronounced to him.
He’s determined to lead the way to eliminate those flaws where he can. He might not be able to solve the Village’s chronic parking woes, but he and Syprett can purchase and refurbish properties they think are aging poorly. The duo did just that last year, overhauling the former 7-Eleven on Ocean Boulevard and leasing the property to Sandal Factory.
“I believe that the restaurant that was where Gidget’s was and the 7-Eleven building were the two shoddiest, least improved buildings in the Village,” Lancer said. “They’re gone. I consider that to be a great improvement.”
This is where the balancing act comes in. Lancer said he doesn’t want to lose the spirit of the Village in the process of upgrading these properties. He thinks it’s possible to achieve both goals, but he acknowledges it’s a fine line.
“We specifically built the Gidget’s building to have a Key West-style feeling,” Lancer said. “We want to be unique.”
During the past 10 years, prominent property owners have been adding to their collection of Village parcels. Lancer and Syprett’s portfolio includes several other Ocean Boulevard properties, including Daiquiri Deck. Owners such as Chris Brown, John Davidson, Jeff Berlin and Benderson Development each own at least 30,000 square feet in the district.
This concentration of property, a relatively recent phenomenon, helps foster a healthy sense of competition, Lancer said.
“The other property owners have to keep up,” he said. “If they want to get the top per-square-foot rentals, they can’t be the ugly duckling.”
Mix it up
Berlin, who owns the Siesta Center on Ocean Boulevard, has strived to make noncosmetic improvements to his property, too. The strip of storefronts is toward the northern end of the Village, and he found his retail tenants were struggling to draw foot traffic.
When he bought the property in 2015, most of his tenants were service businesses such as real estate offices. Since then, when a tenant has departed, he’s focused on replacing them with another retail business in an attempt to stimulate activity around his property. So far, it’s working.
Tenant mix is another issue facing Siesta Key Village property owners. Although bars and restaurants have helped forge the identity of the district, Berlin and other Village stakeholders have encouraged the development of more retail offerings.
“I think if there’s any more restaurants and bars, it’s going to suffer from the same problems as Main Street (Sarasota) has, in that they’re going to kill each other,” Berlin said. “There’s a limit to the market, especially on Siesta.”
This, too, must be balanced against the desire to maintain the current character of the Village. Berlin just wants a good balance — he doesn’t want to shutter non-retail businesses.
The question of fit is crucial. When Lancer and Syprett were searching for someone to fill the 7-Eleven property, they considered more than 20 candidates. They didn’t want to pick a business that competed with existing tenants in the area — not just theirs, but other property owners’, as well.
“I know when they’re looking for tenants, they’re looking for establishments that will complement what’s going on in the Village,” said architect Mark Smith, who worked with Lancer and Syprett to redesign the Sandal Factory building.
Even if the property owners in the Village weren’t as passionate about maintaining the character of the area, there is another controlling factor that has prevented significant change.
County regulations mandate that businesses have one parking space for every 250 square feet. The Siesta Key Overlay District, established in 2001, includes even more stringent regulations for bars and restaurants, which must have one parking space for every 50 square feet of dining area.
Space is limited in the Village. If a property owner doesn’t propose a new use, older buildings don’t have to comply with the newer regulations. The path of least resistance is often to just maintain things as-is.
“Parking is king on Siesta Key,” Smith said.
Not everybody thinks this is a good thing. Todd Mathes, Benderson’s director of development, said the company was interested in retooling the Hanna Plaza shopping center property at 5221 Ocean Blvd. Mathes said Benderson wanted to replace the strip with something more in keeping with the character of the key, but the parking regulations prevented it from building a new structure.
“It’s unfortunate, because I think having buildings be streetfront and activating that feeling in the Village is what everybody wants,” Mathes said. “Unless those parking rules change, I think the Village is kind of stuck with what it’s got.”
Although leading Siesta Key property owners are eager to engage in some form of improvements, none of them anticipate significant changes to the Village in the years to come. They may see areas where upgrades are necessary, but they don’t want to mess with the formula that made the Village an attractive investment in the first place.
“That’s what people are coming for,” Berlin said. “They want the reggae-style music; they want the piña coladas on the deck. They want to have fun.”