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North Trail remains on the the edge of revitalization

While advocates of revitalizing the northern gateway to Sarasota are bullish on a new residential project, they remain wary of tricky zoning issues.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. July 9, 2015
Sarasota architect Brent Parker, who designed the Ringling Bridge, is planning a 33-unit affordable housing project on North Tamiami Trail.
Sarasota architect Brent Parker, who designed the Ringling Bridge, is planning a 33-unit affordable housing project on North Tamiami Trail.
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When architect Brent Parker looks at the North Trail, he sees a missed opportunity.

The stretch of blighted highway remains ever on the brink of revitalization, but can never seem to get a spark.  

But Parker is helping create what could be a catalyst project for the area: a $3 million apartment complex at the intersection of 24th Street and North Tamiami Trail. 

The 33-unit, three-story structure would take the place of the Monterey Village Motel, part of which was built in 1940. Developer Elia Rofail bought the property for $1 million in November, and brought in Parker and local engineer Matt Morris to redevelop the nearly vacant property.

“I think it’s a nice fit for workforce and student housing,” Parker said.

Although he’s hopeful about the potential of this particular project, Parker said the thing that could be the biggest incentive to revitalize the area — its zoning — has become a hurdle to redevelopment. 

‘Like reading Chinese’

In 2013, the Sarasota City Commission approved the North Trail Overlay District, which was the culmination of more than four years of work between North Trail advocates, neighborhood activists and city staff.

The special zoning district allows builders to eclipse the current three-story height restriction with an additional story and reduces parking requirements, but includes more stringent setback requirements and design standards. The overlay is optional, but must be complied with in totality if used.

“There’s already demand for the apartments. If we start redeveloping with a higher-density housing solution that people can afford to live in, there will be demand for the stores, and the whole thing starts to work.” — Brent Parker, Parker Walker Group

Parker chose not to use the North Trail Overlay District, despite the fact that it would have halved the parking requirement for the apartment complex he designed.

“The official version online is like reading Chinese,” Parker said during a recent Development Review Committee meeting at which the apartment project was reviewed.

Bharat Patel, who owns the Quality Inn & Suites Hotel, said the overlay is too restrictive. 

“There’s not enough in it to encourage redevelopment, and it should have an administrative review,” Patel said.

Commissioners in 2013 scrapped the portion of the proposed overlay district that allowed city staff to approve certain development adjustments and gave final say to the city’s planning board.

“So far we’ve only had one project take advantage of it, and that was limited to its parking,” said Gretchen Schneider, the city’s general manager of planning and development. 

That project was entrepreneur Harvey Vengroff’s roughly $600,000 Oakridge Apartments, which he converted from a motel to affordable housing without having to tweak the amount of parking spaces.

Another problem, said Parker, is because the overlay primarily includes land fronting U.S. 41, it makes it difficult for developers to combine it with parcels behind the Trail for quality redevelopment. 

The area’s geography doesn’t help, either. Sarasota Bay hugs the Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores neighborhood west of the trail, while the huge swath of land occupied by Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport squeezes neighborhoods on the northeast.

The resulting lack of residential projects then makes it unattractive for large retailers to move into the district.

“So as you get up the North Trail the space for rooftops gets narrower and narrower, and when the retailers are building they’re counting rooftops,” Parker said. “So that has hurt the North Trail as a viability for the commercial development — because they don’t survive.”

Parker said he has looked at the area around North Water Tower Park as a major candidate for denser zoning to create more rooftops.

But increasing residential density there would require a comprehensive plan amendment and rezoning, a risk that may scare off potential developers.

“(The city) should increase the density to make it more viable,” Parker said. “I think it would really create a tremendous opportunity to redevelop that area and put in some quality housing.”

Schneider said the city’s Urban Design Studio will analyze the current zoning regulations as it moves forward in its task of creating a new form-based code for the entire city.

Parker said the city needs to make the overlay more flexible and extend it deeper along the North Trail to allow developers and the market to decide where the lines should be drawn between retail and residential.

“There’s already demand for the apartments,” Parker said. “If we start redeveloping with a higher-density housing solution that people can afford to live in, there will be demand for the stores, and the whole thing starts to work.”

‘A welcome change’

Despite apparent physical and land-use roadblocks, investment is beginning to trickle onto the North Trail.

Marietta Lee is spending $1.5 million to add a cafe and gift shop to her Marietta Museum of Art & Whimsey, which sits at the southern end of the blighted section of the highway. 

And Rofail’s so-called North Trail Apartments will bring roughly $4 million to the region from the estimated acquisition and construction costs. 

The preliminary plans for the project feature nine one-bedroom and 22 two-bedroom apartments set right against the North Trail, with more than 60 parking spaces and a bike rack in the rear of the building. Rofail was not able to be reached for comment.

“I think it would be a welcome change,” said city Chief Planner Ryan Chapdelain during last week’s Development Review Committee meeting. “But I think it be worthwhile to meet with (the neighbors).”

David Morriss, president of the adjacent Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores Neighborhood Association and vice chairman of the North Trail Redevelopment Partnership, said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the plan because he was recently appointed to the city’s planning board. But, he noted that any new permanent residential housing on the North Trail would likely be a positive development.

“I don’t think any one project is going to be transformative of the trail,” Morriss said. “But any time you do a stable community it puts more legs on the ground — and that can’t be bad.”

Those legs on the ground come with valuable eyes on the street to help monitor criminal activity, said Sarasota Police Capt. Jim Rieser.

“That’s a population of people who have something to gain — or lose — and a real interest in maintaining their community,” Rieser said.

Jay Patel, owner of the Regency Inn & Suites and member of the North Trail Redevelopment Partnership since 2007, spent nearly $500,000 renovating his property over the last year, hoping to encourage other motel owners to do the same under a plan to highlight their’s and the North Trail’s history.

“There are no risk-takers for residential development on the trail,” Patel said. “I thank this developer for taking the risk.”


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