- April 3, 2017
When Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell bikes past the Ringling Shopping Center, she sees a missed opportunity.
The retail complex, built in 1954, lies vacant today save for the DG Ace hardware store. A Publix, which anchored the plaza, moved out in 2010. Property owner Louis Doyle reached an agreement to replace the grocery store with a Walmart, but the City Commission rejected the plans in 2013.
Since then, the most significant activity undertaken regarding the property has been a series of lawsuits contesting the city’s decision.
Atwell wants to change the momentum surrounding the Ringling Shopping Center. At the last two City Commission meetings, she’s called on the city to do what it can to kickstart development in an area she feels sorely needs it.
“I feel that it’s been an eyesore for much too long in this community,” Atwell said. “Sarasota’s better than that.”
At those commission meetings, Atwell asked city staff to investigate how the property could be rezoned to allow for mixed-use redevelopment. She asked about the possibility of setting up a workshop to get input from residents in the area, too — some of whom opposed the Walmart project, leading to its eventual rejection.
Although Atwell voted in favor of the Walmart plans in 2013, she knows that it is no longer a viable option. Still, she’s hopeful the right circumstances will bring Doyle back to the table — and will get the right project in place at the shopping center.
“We can get an urban village,” Atwell said. “We can get residential, a grocery store, maybe a drug store.”
Around the same time Atwell made her initial remarks at City Hall, a Facebook page surfaced, titled “Revitalize Ringling Shopping Center.”
The page gives no indication of who’s behind the effort — the only information provided says the page is intended to show support to “replace the eyesore with business and jobs!” Nevertheless, in just two weeks, it’s gathered 345 likes from people ostensibly in agreement with the message.
It turns out, the person behind the Facebook page is the man who owns the shopping center — indirectly, at least. Doyle has hired Sarasota-based public relations firm Three Six Oh PR to organize those who support the redevelopment of the shopping center.
“I think what happened last time is there was a very vocal minority of people that were speaking out against plans for the property,” Three Six Oh President Candice McEleya said. “We want to give a platform to the majority. Most of the people want something to move forward there.”
“This could change the whole dynamic of that neighborhood, of Payne Park, of the city and county. It all ties in.”
— Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell
Both Atwell and McEleya said they were unaware of each other’s efforts but were excited to hear that support existed elsewhere for revitalizing the shopping center. They also believe people nearby would welcome a project to replace the largely vacant strip.
“We’re hearing from a lot of business owners that are right in that area across the street on Ringling,” McEleya said. “They want something that’s going to bring more people to the area.”
Still, the path to redevelopment isn’t clear yet. There’s an ongoing lawsuit challenging the city’s site plan denial, the second such lawsuit Doyle has filed. He’s also notified the city he intends to make a claim under the Bert J. Harris Private Property Rights Protection Act, a state law that allows property owners to file claims when governmental bodies “inordinately burden, restrict, or limit private property rights.”
At the June 15 City Commission meeting, City Attorney Robert Fournier plans to discuss the ongoing litigation, the Harris Act claim and the city’s options for settling the dispute with Doyle. He’s optimistic that a workable solution can be reached, potentially including comprehensive plan and zoning changes to allow for a wider variety of projects at the site.
He believes Doyle is under a false impression that residents will oppose any development he proposes for the property.
“I don’t think the neighbors are necessarily opposed to everything,” Fournier said. “I think they want it to be in accordance with the downtown code and New Urbanist principles.”
For Atwell, who believes residents are eager to see something, the redevelopment of the Ringling Shopping Center would be a catalyst for growth in an area just east of downtown. All the city needs to do is begin taking steps in the right direction.
“This could change the whole dynamic of that neighborhood, of Payne Park, of the city and county,” Atwell said. “It all ties in.”