Pedaling down Ben Franklin Drive.

Image: Jenny Acheson

 

St. Armands is almost 100 years old, and in that time has lived many lives. It started out as the jewel in the crown of the 1920s real estate boom, then spent 25 years as a derelict home for sand crabs and seagulls, only to transform itself into the area’s most stylish shopping center back in the 1950s. The glitz wore a bit thin by the 1980s, and there were those who called it a tourist trap. Now it’s finally met its destiny as exactly what John Ringling intended—a glamorous place to live a resort lifestyle, conjured up with a showman’s spirit.

One of St. Armands' stately homes

Image: Jenny Acheson

It’s also a great walkable neighborhood. True, it’s on a smallish island, so it’s walkable almost by definition. But Ringling’s plan works remarkably well. You arrive via a grand boulevard to a giant circle garnished with the circus king’s own statuary. Radiating outward is a series of curving streets that showcase a collection of increasingly expensive homes, culminating with Jeff Vinik’s $13.2 million modernist mansion on North Washington Drive.

Mrs. Vinik has been quoted as saying that she loves strolling over to the Circle for some shopping, and she’s not alone. St. Armands residents include some of the most prominent people in town, and they are fiercely loyal to the charms of their neighborhood. Actress Carolyn Michel has lived there over 30 years, 15 of them with her husband, Howard Millman, in a 1960s house with a martini-glass shaped pool.

On St. Armands, you can walk to restaurants, admire the statuary and ogle the mansions.

Image: Jenny Acheson

Michel reports that yes, she does a lot of walking, usually accompanied by her credit card. Two blocks from her house are 130 shops and restaurants. The restaurants are among the best in town, and the shops specialize in high-end casual clothing, art, home accessories and jewelry.

“It’s the perfect place to have house guests,” Michel reports. “They can set off for the beach on their own, even lunch by themselves at a café on the circle.” Nearby North Lido Beach is one of the best beaches in Sarasota and offers a beautiful walk through the woods. The kayaking is great, and a favorite treat for nieces and nephews is an afternoon spent taste-testing the ice cream at the various stands around the circle.

One of the island's famous statues keeps watch.

Image: Jenny Acheson

Everyday shopping and errands are a little harder to accomplish. There is no real grocery store; Michel drives up to the Publix on Longboat Key. Things like dry cleaning must be dealt with, though residents are thankful for the fire department substation.

St. Armands has a more difficult problem than dry cleaning, though, and it’s caused by walkability’s old nemesis, the automobile. During the season all the traffic that heads up to Longboat must flow through the neighborhood, and the results can be frustrating. Old-timers have learned to live with it and adjust their schedules to avoid peak times. A trip downtown for dinner can easily take an extra half hour, and on a weekend in March or April you might as well stay home by the pool. Still, as Michel says, “That’s the price of living in a walkable paradise.”

Worth Walking To

North Lido Park

Hike the unpaved trail for wildlife viewing, birding and solitude.

Circus Ring of Fame

Right on the circle, honors famous circus performers.

Ben & Jerry’s

Peace, love and ice cream, of course. 372A St. Armands Circle.

Real Estate Sampler

High: 160 Whittier Drive

5 bedrooms, 5.5 baths, 4,751 square feet. Ultra-modern beachfront home, elevator, infinity pool. 
$6.9 million.

Low: 722 S. Boulevard of Presidents, #203

 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, 624 square feet. Older condo unit, updated bath and kitchen, one block to beach.  $249,000.

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