The North Country

By staff January 1, 2004

While others wrangle about the Downtown Master Plan, the folks north of Fruitville Road just do that New Urbanism thing, in the most natural way possible: They are bringing new life to their neighborhood simply by taking it in hand and making it attractive. They are so successful that one wonders how difficult it could be for those who have opposed the plan to get the message. Could it be that bigger egos operate south of Fruitville, keeping everything hung up while they protect their perceived interests? Could it be that the downtown plan really isn't the issue at all?

Just take a look at what's happening all along Central Avenue, not long ago a blighted zone of gutted buildings and overgrown empty lots. As a first step, the city repaved the street some time ago, giving it a traffic-calming configuration and providing retro streetlights. The street has matured well since then, becoming well-defined and sheltering. And, as if by magic, owners and developers have started to spruce things up. Pat Ball, who has probably qualified for sainthood for this and other risky investments he has made in urban renewal, put together a group of cottages on Fifth Way that positively glow in their Caribbean colors and neighborly charm. Other, more modest homes nearby were given a coat of white paint with bright blue trim. The old church building, once a hollow shell, suddenly grew an interior, beautiful windows and a non-liturgical future.

The once notorious nightclub near the north end of the street has sprouted a graceful Spanish facade and become a police substation-cum-community center, adjacent to the wonderful houses of Rosemary Court, mixed-use at its best: residential, galleries, offices. On the other side of the pedestrian-friendly street, Home Resource-cutting-edge interior design-has recycled the old auto repair place as a trendy outlet for the latest or retro-est items for the home, a felicitous conjunction of design and purpose, sheathed in sleek metal siding with red accents.

Nearby, the Sarasota School of the Arts and Sciences has taken over a series of small buildings, opposite the offices of Start-Up Sarasota, the Gulf Coast Business Review, and an architectural studio, around the corner from an alternative publication, the Weekly Planet. This is serious recycling of charming, functional buildings, mixing them with new structures carefully designed to match the existing urban fabric, including studios, offices and restaurants. And it has been done with the kind of jazzy wit too often lacking in a town that can take itself way too seriously.

Even the Rosemary Cemetery, an essential part of Sarasota's history, is now beautifully cared for, a calm green space with welcome resonance, perfectly at home in the small-town atmosphere evoked hereabouts.

Some missteps have occurred, of course. The face-lift of the city's low-income housing project at David Cohen Way, designed to create an economic mix, is unsuccessful architecturally and, it seems, financially. Grafting Florida vernacular frosting on the simple rectangles of the original Sarasota School of Architecture design is peculiar. Whatever the underlying motives at work, and they may have been of the purest, the result seems divisive from both the aesthetic and social points of view. The chance to create a cohesive neighborhood on the site seems threatened at this point by the chain-link fencing cutting off the fancy new digs from the rest of the structures.

At the northern terminus of Central, the Salvation Army has just completed an ambitious new complex. The volumes and mass of these buildings seem well-judged, suitable for their end-of-street location, worthy of further examination. And how nice it is to see the care given to saving the graceful old trees on the site. Nearby, a signboard announces "Action Central," a citizens' initiative to continue the improvement of the zone. Turning the next corner, on Lemon Avenue, the television station on the north side misses an opportunity to anchor the street with a terminus building. Still, we find old warehouses given face-lifts and generally spruced up, heading back toward the "other" downtown.

On Fourth Street, between Lemon and Orange avenues, assorted facades have been applied to one of these enormous warehouse boxes with felicitous results, particularly as these antique shops face the cleverly funky precincts of the late, lamented, Alley Cat Cafe. At the corner, a building reputed to be a Civil War-era railway station trucked in from out of state, imaginatively restored and expanded, seems about to bring another interesting restaurant on board when it debuts as the Sierra Station Café. If it succeeds, it will add handsome colors and a wide brick terrace designed for outdoor dining to the neighborhood, helping to link the Central/Lemon zone to Orange Avenue with what New Urbanism calls the "sleeves" to downtown access. Fruitville Road itself looks less like a barrier these days, partly because the shops that line it have taken on real character. Oddly enough, people seem to shop along the busy corridor despite the surge of traffic and the lack of obvious parking spaces. The trick seems to lie in the interesting mix of destinations, rather than in conventional convenience. This is enlightened "give 'em what they want" at work.

"Downtown," as seen here, is the definition of what makes a city center function, of casual interaction across the full range of age, race, economic status and business activity. NOF (I made it up, hoping something better comes along) is doing downtown and doing it right, without fanfare. Pay attention, you nabobs on the other side of Fruitville! These people are way ahead of you.

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