Sarasota's North Trail has long been seen as a blighted corridor with rundown motels, drug activity and prostitution. But with its medians full of trees and flowers and the absence of unsightly strip centers, North Tamiami Trail also has enormous potential as the major entrance to downtown Sarasota. Lining the highway are institutions that have put Sarasota on the map. New College of Florida, the John and Mable Ringling Museum, the Asolo Repertory Theatre, the Ringling College of Art and Design and Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall all call U.S. 41 in north Sarasota home.
Now, that vision is starting to come into focus. This year, along with a public investment in infrastructure, developers and business owners are taking a fresh look at neglected properties.
Before the end of the year, the Florida Department of Transportation will embark on two multimillion-dollar roundabouts, one on 10th Street and one on 14th, to improve traffic flows.
Entrepreneurs have surfaced. In January, Jessica Simmons and Kim Cressell opened The Reserve, a coffee shop and bookstore at 1322 N. Tamiami Trail, that has become a popular gathering place for college students and residents of surrounding neighborhoods.
Next door, just north of The Reserve, is the proposed Whitaker Lofts, the first project being developed by architects Michael Halflants and John Pichette of Halflants + Pichette Studio for Modern Architecture. The pair is looking for an investor, but site improvements have already started on the vacant lot along North Tamiami Trail between 14th and 15th streets. “We purchased the property with the intention to develop it with 21 condos over retail,” says Halflants. The pair likes the location. It’s close to the Rosemary District and faces Whitaker Gateway Park, Halfant says. Traffic flow should improve after the roundabouts are finished. And, in the future, Halfants hopes, an old rail line, not too far away, will become an extension of the Legacy Trail, an 11-mile paved trail for biking and walking. There’s also a plan to connect Whitaker Gateway Park to Centennial Park, the Van Wezel and the rest of the city-owned waterfront.
On the west side of the Trail, at 1889 N. Tamiami Trail, is The Strand, a development proposed by Sarasota developer Jebco Ventures, which is building the Embassy Suites on the North Trail at Fruitville Road. The Strand will be a 152-unit condominium of two buildings and will include 47 private boat slips, a pool, a fitness center, a dog park, a boardwalk and a paddleboard launch. Designed by Hoyt Architects in a coastal contemporary style, the project was set to start marketing in November and is expected to break ground first quarter 2018 and be finished 15 months later. Prices for the units start in the low $300,000s. “The North Trail is so convenient,” says Jebco CEO Jim Bridges. “It’s close to the airport and the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 project [a 42-acre city-owned bayfront property]. It’s going to be a tremendous opportunity for developers and people looking for new homes.”
Benderson Development has also taken an interest in this section of North Trail. Benderson is under contract to purchase the site where the rundown Monterey Village at 2413 N. Tamiami Trail used to stand. The developer has submitted a site plan application to the city of Sarasota to lease the property to Starbucks, says Ryan Chapdelain, the city’s manager of Neighborhoods, Redevelopment and Special Projects.
Ringling College of Art and Design, which has purchased several commercial buildings and a large vacant corner lot along the Trail, has been a key player in transforming the area. Now the college has big plans for the southeast corner of U.S. 41 and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. More than a decade ago, the college purchased a Shell gas station, a well-known haven for illegal drug activity, and made it into a sculpture garden. But Ringling College president Larry Thompson says a major “signature” building is being planned for this lot and will house computer animation, game art and motion design. “It will be the defining entrance of the Ringling College of Art and Design,” Thompson says.