No workin'

Central Cocoanut Residents Are Fighting to Keep a Car Wash Out of Their Backyards

Tommy's Express Car Wash is proposing a new location in the historic Central Cocoanut neighborhood, just north of downtown Sarasota. But residents are pushing back.

By Kim Doleatto January 6, 2023

Protesters gathered at the proposed site of a new Tommy's Express Car Wash on the corner of 17th Street and N. Tamiami Trail.

Protesters gathered at the proposed site of a new Tommy's Express Car Wash on the corner of 17th Street and N. Tamiami Trail.

Image: Kim Doleatto

Tommy’s Express Car Wash may be headed to a large parcel at 1716 N. Tamiami Trail, just north of downtown, and residents of the Central Cocoanut neighborhood are not happy.

If you’re not familiar with Tommy's franchise, its buildings are characterized by flashy, primary colors and, in some cases, neon lights. One speaker at an April community workshop about the proposal likened them to a “pinball machine.”

a rendering of a Tommy's Car Wash

A rendering of Tommy's Express Car Wash.

Purchased in 2019 for $1.1 million, the lot on the corner of 17th Street and North Tamiami Trail is just less than an acre and, according to long-time resident and former City of Sarasota mayor Willie Shaw, who lives across the street, has remained vacant for roughly 12 years. The lot, which fronts onto North Tamiami Trail and flanks residential homes on all other sides, is zoned for community commercial use.

Residents of the historic neighborhood are lucky to have enjoyed such a wide open space throughout a fast and furious building boom in the area. But they don’t want to keep it vacant. They just feel a car wash “isn’t conducive to the neighborhood,” says Shaw, whose grandchildren often play in the street when they visit.

Sticking points raised at the community workshop, and by roughly 50 protesters who gathered at the site on Dec. 18, cited noise from multiple vacuums, car emissions, traffic congestion and an aesthetic that reviled the neighborhood's character. Of all the concerns, however, traffic took precedence. If the plan goes forward, the only ingress and egress to the car wash will be located on 17th Street, amid homes on every side. (Due to minimum required distances between driveways, the Florida Department of Transportation bars ingress and egress from busy North Tamiami Trail.)

Drawing of the proposed Tommy's Express Car Wash for the corner of 17th Street and N. Tamiami Trail.

At the workshop, Tommy’s Express Car Wash representative Nick McMullen said that, based on Tommy's other location on South Tamiami Trail, it should see at least 300 to 350 cars a day in order to be profitable.

Stephanie Peters, who lives on 17th Street across from the site’s proposed ingress and egress, says, “Every car has to be on our road twice, so it’s more like 700 cars.”

Katherine Kelly, who also lives in the neighborhood, notes that drivers can only turn right on North Tamiami Trail. To take a left, they’d have to travel through nearby 10th, 14th or 18th streets.

As for noise, at the workshop, an engineer from Bowman Consulting representing Tommy’s Express Car Wash highlighted the fact that, at the Fruitville site, there's a 6-foot masonry wall and 55.3 decibel reading for residents on the other side of it. "To put that into perspective," he said, "60 decibels is conversation." He added that the client didn't have to add a wall and that mufflers could be added to the vacuums to reduce that noise.

Based on its other two Sarasota locations, the car wash would operate from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

“There have been no approvals yet, and this is the second stage in a site plan process. We are still in the conceptual phase, trying to hash out all of the comments and community ideas," McMullen said.

But residents are worried.

A Unique Neighborhood at Risk

A purple house in the Central Cocoanut Neighborhood.

One of the homes characteristic of the Central Cocoanut Neighborhood.

The Central Cocoanut neighborhood runs alongside Central Avenue, from Fruitville Road up to Ringling College, and has many older homes from the 1920s to the '50s, with a sprinkle of new builds throughout. Sarasota was racially segregated until the 1970s, and Central Cocoanut is a historically Black neighborhood and a nationally designated historic site. A stroll there reveals plenty of dog walkers passing a colorful mix of Mediterranean revival homes and Old Florida wood-frame cottages where creativity blooms.

“The diversity of the population, both economically and culturally, on top of the diverse architecture creates an interesting and active, tight-knit community that doesn’t exist in the more homogenous neighborhoods that Sarasota is seeing,” says Erin DiFazio, a restoration designer and realtor specializing in historic homes. She’s also the former president of the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation.

As for how a car wash might affect home values, she says that appraisers would place them at the low end. "The one thing you can't change about a home is its location, and this adds a tremendous amount of traffic and noise," she says.

"It's going to dramatically affect the [home values] right next to it by at least 20 percent, maybe more," she says. "Then [values] would radiate out in a curve fashion, depending on how far you are from the car wash. The neighborhood's diversity makes it more vulnerable to this type of insensitive development."

The Vision for the North Trail Overlay District

The parcel at 1716 N. Tamiami Trail is within the boundaries of the North Trail Overlay District (NTOD), which is finally seeing a renaissance.

The North Trail Overlay District

The North Trail Overlay District

Often referred to as the “gateway to the city,” as it runs from University Parkway and the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport south through downtown Sarasota, new residents and local businesses have been popping up in the once-empty lots there, along with new roundabouts and other street beautification initiatives. 

The overlay district goals include transforming the corridor into a thriving, walkable district known for its historical, cultural, educational and civic assets.”

In 2009, community stakeholders formed the North Trail Redevelopment Partnership (NTRP) and assembled neighborhood leaders and city planning staff to focus on public safety, traffic improvements and redevelopment, culminating in the Sarasota City Commission adopting the overlay district in 2013. 

One of those stakeholders, Jay Patel, who has chaired the NRTP for the past 14 years, was at the April workshop. He highlighted why Tommy’s wasn’t a fit, saying, "This one development could take the North Trail in a different direction, away from the NTOD's goals and vision."

Residential developments coming to the North Trail Overlay District have brought almost 450 new units to the area, including The Strand and, most recently, Whitaker Lofts, a 19-unit mixed-use project. The influx of residents has attracted and maintained new, small businesses like Wicked Cantina, a restaurant located on the west side of the North Trail, and The Reserve, a café and bookstore that straddles the Central Cocoanut neighborhood just south of the proposed car wash site. 

Residents understand the lot is zoned commercially and building there is inevitable, but would rather see a florist, residential units, a café or restaurant, or retail shops. "A more light-use commercial project would be ideal," DiFazio says. "Since it's a walkable neighborhood that wants to maintain that. No one has ever walked to the car wash."

A city spokesperson said that once the required materials are received from Tommy's Car Wash and the application is deemed complete, it will be scheduled for a Development Review Committee (DRC) meeting.  Since it has not gone to the DRC yet, it’s too early to know when the application may go to the Planning Board for a public hearing. That timing will also depend on how many resubmissions are needed and the amount of time the applicant takes to make any needed corrections.

Until then, "the noise we're making and the attention we're getting from other residents of the community is of great importance," Shaw says. "We're going to keep fighting this."

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