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Skyward development trend won't stop Manatee's eastern sprawl

Waterfront at Main Street has six and seven story buildings.
Waterfront at Main Street has six and seven story buildings.
Photo by Lesley Dwyer
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With Manatee County’s Comprehensive Plan under review, its staff is starting to look up for solutions to a growing population, and not just east.

“One of the things that the 1989 Comprehensive Plan restricted was how much density we were allowed to have as a community,” Impact Fee Administrator Rachel Layton said. “Height was not encouraged. Even getting something over two stories was very difficult for a very long time in Manatee County.” 

Kimley-Horn is the engineering firm the county hired to rewrite the Comprehensive Plan. Project manager Kelley Klepper provided an update to commissioners on May 21 during a special work session. The new plan is expected to be drafted by August and adopted in October. 

Much of the revisions are language related, such as changing a word like “encourage” to a more directive word like “shall” and removing duplicative language that already exists in other codes. 

Population planning

Encouraging height would be a policy change that could work similarly to Livable Manatee, a county program that incentivizes builders to include affordable housing units within their projects. 

The City of Bradenton has been successful in encouraging higher densities through height using incentives. Since Manatee County’s population is predicted to exceed 500,000 by 2035, commissioners are considering offering developers similar incentives to build higher in the county. 

Kimley-Horn's Kelley Klepper shows this chart of population trends to commissioners on May 21 when discussing updates to the Comprehensive Plan.
Courtesy image

Commissioners liked the idea of higher buildings along corridors like State Road 64 where rapid development is taking place. However, they agreed that building up is not going to halt the county’s current trajectory east. 

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to stop urban sprawl,” Commissioner Ray Turner said. “We’re known for that. Lakewood Ranch is well advertised as the top-selling planned community, and as we move out, that’s what people are going to want.”

Commissioner George Kruse agreed homes would continue to sprawl east because of demand, but said incentives could shift some of the demand westward.

“You’ll start seeing less supply of houses out east because more developers are going to start steering more toward where our incentives are, which is going to make those houses more expensive and encourage more people to want to be more toward the urban center,” Kruse said.

As the county has grown over the past 75 years, its center has shifted. Klepper said it would’ve been downtown Bradenton in the 1950s.

“With the development and success of places like Lakewood Ranch, and then some of the communities along the I-75 corridor, that geographic center has consistently shifted further to the east,” Klepper said. “Right now, it’s about I-75, in between State Road 64 and State Road 70.”

Based on population and housing projections, the center is predicted to continue to shift to the east side of I-75.

Urban light

At 12 stories high, Layton said the Nine20 Manatee apartment building going up in downtown Bradenton is the tallest building to be allowed in the city or the county in a long time. 

T5 (urban center) and T6 (urban core) zoning downtown allows for up to 20 stories. Layton doesn’t anticipate those kinds of heights anywhere but downtown. 

“The evaluation for increased building heights would be to identify whether buildings over three stories are appropriate, and if so, what height maximum should be proposed,” Layton said. “Factors that would be taken into consideration include existing development patterns and compatibility.”

As of now, the Waterfront at Main Street condominium complex that overlooks Lake Uihlein is the tallest development in East county with six and seven story buildings. 

You can’t just put a blanket canvas on the height,” Senior Vice President for Lakewood Ranch Laura Cole said. “It’s generally market driven. It’s regulatorily enabled. And thirdly, construction costs are a huge factor.”

For master planned communities like Lakewood Ranch, entitlements regulate the height restrictions and square footage for each particular parcel. The market drives how those parcels are built out.

“Townhomes are now a more accepted product type in this market, but eight years ago, I can tell you it was not an accepted product type,” Cole said. “Forcing a product type that has a lot of density or height to it, from a residential standpoint, probably nobody would risk capital to develop something like that.” 

Cole said condominiums and townhomes are located in Lakewood Ranch where they make sense and the higher density plays out naturally. She describes town centers like Main Street and Waterside Place as “urban light.” People like the walkability of the areas, so they’re willing to trade off having a yard, but they don’t want to live in a 12-story building.

Tara resident Ralph Pusheck was opposed to a plan for a three-story apartment building on the corner of Tara Boulevard and State Road 70. 

“Three stories matters because you have the bank and Goodwill, which are one-story, and then single family residences and the golf course,” he said. “This is going to be a box development. It’s out of place there.” 

Turner was one of three commissioners to vote that project down. He said people don’t want change, but higher densities will at least help temper urban sprawl. 

“We’re going to have to do it,” he said. 

But for developers, building up costs more. Incentives will have to entice them.

Cole said costs rise significantly when building above four stories because heavier materials, such as steel, are required. 

Lakewood Ranch considered a condo complex similar to Waterfront at Main Street for the town center at Waterside Place, but the homes would’ve been priced at almost $1 million to support the construction costs.

“We would have liked to have a condo project right in the town center,” Cole said. “But the costs were too high, and the builders were reluctant to build.” 

Not only are single-family homes the most inexpensive product to build, people want to buy them. 

“Ideally, it makes more sense to not continue to sprawl out east,” Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge said. “But there’s a reality to it, and that’s that the majority of the people that are moving down here are boomers, who are accustomed to the suburbs and accustomed to a yard.”



Lesley Dwyer

Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.

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