Sarasota's Southgate area is getting a facelift with several large office buildings under renovation and tentative plans by Westfield America Trust to add retail space at its upscale Westfield Shoppingtown Southgate on U.S. 41 between Siesta Drive and Bee Ridge Road.

"Southgate is hot because downtown is hot," says Jane Robinson, Sarasota's director of planning and redevelopment. "That area has about 40,000 trips a day and a lot of visibility."

(The Southgate area runs approximately north and south from Hyde Park to Bee Ridge, and east and west from Tuttle Avenue to U.S. 41.)

A Westfield spokesperson wouldn't discuss the company's strategies, but Robinson says the company recently showed the planning department initial plans. "It looks more like a typical town center and very pedestrian friendly," Robinson says.

Consolidation in the banking industry alone has opened up nearly 70,000 square feet of commercial space in Southgate. At the former Huntington Bank building at 3550 S. Tamiami Trail, on the west side of 41 across from the mall, leasing agent Barry Seidel says there's been a complete rehab of the building, including an attractive glass façade.

"It's all new space from top to bottom," Seidel says.

Half of the 15,000-square-foot building will be occupied by Fidelity Investments and the other half is available. Rents in the area are going for about $22 to $24 a square foot.

"The area is heating up," Seidel says. "There was a time when you couldn't put people here."

Seidel points to the spring opening of upscale Fleming's Prime Steak House-part of the Outback chain-in the former Nations Bank building on the northeast corner of Siesta Drive and U.S. 41 as a sign of the area's growing popularity. "Flemings wouldn't come unless there were thousands of cars a day passing by," Seidel says. To make space for the 7,700 square-foot restaurant, Seidel says builders had to break through to the second floor to give it an open feel.

Developed by Rodney Dessberg, who has bought and sold 12 properties in Southgate since 1995, the building will also house the Social Security Administration. About 10,000 square feet of space is still available. This building is also leasing between $20 to $24 per square foot.

"What you have is several buildings becoming available at the same time," says Dessberg, who once owned the Huntington property. "There's limited commercial space in Sarasota and there's nowhere else for people to go."

Dessberg also purchased the former Southside Baptist Church building-the distinctive Sarasota School of Architecture building at 3201 S. Tamiami Trail just north of Siesta Drive that was also home to S & H Greenstamps-for more than $1 million last year. The building is under renovation and will be occupied shortly by a medical imaging center.

"The building has width as opposed to depth and has unique overhangs," Dessberg says "We restored it as close as it was originally."

Dessberg says the Southgate area has "the right traffic-slow traffic" and that's why he's targeted it.

"Everyone wants to be on 41," Dessberg says. "You're dealing with the [main] corridor."

Dessberg says many of his properties are zoned office and professional building-or OPB-limiting development.

"The church building is a classic example," Dessberg says. "If it were commercially zoned, it wouldn't be an imaging center."

Other changes to the Southgate area include a Border's Bookstore at 3800 S. Tamiami, in the long-vacated Phar-Mor building. The company has filed a building permit with the city but has not yet begun renovating.

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