Saving the Sandpile

By Hannah Wallace February 29, 2004

Out of the muck and mire of the Manatee River a piece of land was born nearly 40 years ago, the baby of a Bradenton City Council that voted to finance filling and building seawalls along the riverfront between the Green Bridge and DeSoto Bridge. The vote was taken on October 13, 1965, which happened to be a Wednesday. And in the ensuing years the council's Wednesday's child was, indeed, full of woe. Proposals came and went while the land sat vacant until it eventually acquired an unflattering label-the Sandpile.

For decades the city couldn't seem to get anything on the tract but the sand it had dredged from the Manatee River to create it. It conjured the image of a massive waterfront cat box. "That's to a large degree what it was," says Bemis Smith, a Bradenton City Councilman. "It was a litter box for humanity and cats for a long time. It was like a bad child. It needed to grow up and mature into something that was refined."

Yet at first, the future of the 55-acre parcel seemed bright. The day after the vote was taken the front page of The Bradenton Herald was devoted to news of a waterfront park that would be constructed on the dredged land by a group of local businessmen, a tourist attraction called "Florida Showcase." There would be water rides, a rocket launch, and the longest horizontal sky ride in the nation, 100 feet in the air. But the plan was eventually abandoned. More ideas were pitched and discarded, including a proposal in 1972 by astronaut John Glenn, who wanted to lease the property along with two other businessmen and build a hotel.

In the early 1980s, things finally started to shift on the Sandpile. First Rossi Waterfront Park opened there in 1981. A Holiday Inn opened four years later. Then a cardiology center went up on the southern portion of the property, and The Bradenton Herald moved nearby. But the prime location on the dredged property-the riverfront portion-remained vacant in the midst of these other changes.

Now, a new wave of development promises to transform the long-neglected riverfront. City officials are so convinced that their baby has blossomed that they no longer refer to the land as the Sandpile. In fact, Smith says, the council recently adopted a "city edict" forbidding any further use of the name. "We didn't pass an ordinance," he says, "but we joked about it."

These days, city officials are calling the land the Promenade at Riverwalk. In November, they celebrated its new identity at a coming-out party, where plans were unveiled for a Mediterranean Revival-style, upscale residential and commercial district that will be built adjacent to Rossi Park.

The timing of the Promenade fits in with the recent revival of downtown areas all through Southwest Florida. From Tampa to Naples, growing numbers of upscale buyers are choosing to live in downtown condos and townhouses. In Sarasota alone, more than 25 projects have been recently approved or on the drawing board, which may bring 3,300 new condominium units into the downtown core. And as more people want to live downtown, property values rise. In Sarasota, the taxable value of downtown property soared from $3.8 million to $5.6 million from 2000 to 2003, a 48 percent increase. While it's too early to say how property values will be affected by the development of the Sandpile, realtors are optimistic. "I think it's going to have an enormous impact, says Sandy Kilpatrick of Michael Saunders & Company.

The Promenade, at 500 Third Ave. W., will include 350 residences in three eight-story buildings. The first building, River Dance, will consist of 115 units with floor plans ranging from 1,277 to 2,111 square feet and prices from $286,000 to $508,000. Prospective buyers can choose from four models that all feature stainless steel appliances and granite or Corian countertops in the kitchen and master bath. Amenities include tennis courts, a heated pool and spa, fitness center, business center, social room with catering kitchen, and private, gated resident parking.

Boaters will be just a short distance from the Twin Dolphin Marina. And residents will find themselves in walking distance of medical facilities, shopping, dining and a variety of cultural amenities including the Manatee Players Riverfront Theater, the Art League and South Florida Museum.

Bradenton Riverfront Partners has held the lease on the final 26 acres of the city's dredged land for several years. Eleven of those acres were developed into the apartment and condo complex of Main Street at Bradenton last year by Robert Hatfield, an Atlanta businessman who redeveloped Clearwater's old Sunshine Mall into a similar complex four years ago. Hatfield is also the developer of the Promenade at Riverwalk. Parker Associates, of Oklahoma, is the architect. Michael Saunders & Company is in charge of sales.

The project has already generated considerable interest. Within a week or so of the announcement of the plans, buyers had put down $10,000 deposits on more than 50 units at River Dance, says Edward Vogler II, managing member of Bradenton Riverfront Partners. "Most of them are local," Vogler says, although it is expected the units will draw buyers from Sarasota and St. Petersburg as well. Vogler says the buyers are primarily empty-nesters, move-up retirees and young professionals. "It's not really geared toward families," he says. Construction was scheduled to start in February, and Vogler says the first phase will be completed in a year.

As for the commercial plans, the Promenade will have six freestanding, two-story buildings of about 35,000 to 45,000 square feet each, with retail shops and restaurants on the ground floor and professional office space upstairs, says Bill Theroux, executive director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority. They will be built as they are leased.

Theroux says three national restaurant chains have expressed interest in the site, but he couldn't name them until the developers receive final confirmation. He says plans also call for other smaller, locally owned restaurants.

"They're trying to create a synergy that will be attractive to different income levels," Theroux says. While the average Manatee County resident might not be able to afford a home at the Promenade at Riverwalk, they'll still have reason to visit the area to shop and dine. "It's going to be beautifully done and pedestrian-friendly."

City officials are looking forward to the tax revenue that will come from the project. Carl Callahan, city treasurer, says the amount will depend on how much is ultimately invested in the Promenade. If the investment is $200 million, the city will collect about $1 million in ad valorem taxes annually from the new residents, Callahan says. The city also will benefit from retail sales tax dollars from the commercial side of the venture. Bradenton Riverfront Partners will also continue to make the annual lease payment of $240,000 to the city, he says.

Along with increased revenues, officials hope the Promenade will breathe new life into downtown Bradenton. "This is a pivotal decision for the city," says mayor Wayne Poston. "It really makes a difference."

Jerry West, who was Bradenton's planning and development director for 25 years, says downtown Bradenton was once the hub of Manatee County's business and retail world. Residents bought their clothes and shopped for shoes downtown. They came downtown to get a meal and see a movie. But all that changed with the advent of DeSoto Square and other shopping malls in the 1970s.

To draw back those shoppers, downtown property owners in the past few years have been refurbishing once dated facades with attractive details like awnings and wrought iron trim. This is especially true along Old Main Street, which is the site of occasional city-sponsored "Get Down Downtown" celebrations, when residents gather to eat, hear live music and sample the wares at craft booths. Crime in the area is down, too, by more than 50 percent since 1989. Bradenton police major Jeffrey Lewis worked the downtown area as a night-shift patrolman in 1985. "It's changed 100 percent" from those days," he says. "Our main focus in the '80s was to keep the homeless out of the vacant buildings." Now, he says, families stroll the riverfront in the evening. "It's only going to get better with the new development," he predicts.

The 2000 census revealed that approximately 1,000 people live in the downtown area bordered on the east and west by U.S. 301 (First Street) and 15th Street West, and on the north and south by Barcarrota Boulevard and Ninth Avenue West. That number is expected to double in the next four years with the introduction of both Main Street at Bradenton and the Promenade at River Walk. "I see this as the tipping point back in favor" of a thriving downtown, says councilman Smith.

"The biggest challenge is to get that risk-taker to do the first project," Theroux says. "When a respected developer signs on to something, others follow. All of a sudden the land that's contiguous to the Promenade is very attractive." Other plans are in the works as well. Theroux expects to see boat-docking facilities along the downtown riverfront in the near future, allowing people to visit the Promenade by boat and eat at a restaurant or shop at one of the stores. He says he also sees a trolley in the city's future, making a continuous loop downtown through Old Main Street to the county administration building and courthouse, and on to the Promenade at Riverwalk. He says something else he hopes to see in the future is a water taxi that will cross back and forth from Palmetto's waterfront to Bradenton. "Five years," Theroux predicts. "It's going to happen."

It might be hard for anyone who has lived in the area for any length of time to imagine buildings on a site where nothing has existed but sand and sparse grass for nearly 40 years. Why is this plan coming to fruition when others failed? "Timing is everything," Theroux says. "A very growth-oriented, pro-business administration came on board" when Poston took office as mayor four years ago.

West says some of the failures occurred because the market wasn't right for the product. "Right now, the market and the product are right."

Vogler says the building of the new road that runs through the project-Third Avenue West-had a lot to do with the success of the plan. Third Avenue West is the first new road in the city in 30 years.

It took more than a quarter of a century to find the proper match that would transform the city's Sandpile into a Promenade. City officials are banking on the new development to bring life back to downtown. "It's going to be fun," Theroux says. "It's going to be a skyline identity for us." 

Shifting Sands

Through the years, developers have had big dreams for the City of Bradenton-owned property known as the Sandpile, all of them unrealized.

In May 1971, plans were unveiled for the DeSoto Complex, a grandiose $40-million project that would encompass a convention and exhibition hall, theater and auditorium, galleries and other cultural facilities such as museums and an aquarium. The plan sunk.

In January 1979, the city advertised for potential developers of the Sandpile in the Wall Street Journal's real estate section. They had 13 inquiries, but no solid bites, an unnamed ???did not want to be named?city official said. Then, in April 1979, a group of investors expressed an interest in creating a water theme park and hotel-office-shopping complex. Nothing developed.

In 1982, a Melbourne-based company proposed a Holiday Inn at the site, but financial difficulties got in its way. (The Holiday Inn did eventually get built three years later, but by a different company, Ocean Properties.)

Also in the 1980s, a plan was pitched to build time-share condominiums but fell through when the time-share market went into decline.

In 2000, Regal Cinemas announced it would build an 18-screen movie theater on the site then soon filed for bankruptcy. The cinema project had been delayed at first while Bradenton Riverfront Partners tried to convince Tropicana to open new corporate headquarters at the Sandpile. Tropicana eventually decided to keep its headquarters in east Bradenton.

After all these suitors failed to materialize?, city officials are pleased to have finally found a match for the land. The unveiling of the Promenade at Riverwalk last fall prompted an editorial in The Bradenton Herald that said: "If it takes off, there's no telling how far redevelopment could go. Look at Sarasota and St. Petersburg. Both were dead downtowns 10 years ago. Today they're exciting, vibrant places with thriving business activities and soaring property values. It can happen in Bradenton too." 

The Sandpile Players

Two longtime Bradenton businessmen and an Atlanta-based developer are the principal players who are breathing new life into the old Sandpile:

Robert Hatfield, 60, president and operating manager of Promenade at Riverwalk, LLC, started the Robert Hatfield Company in Atlanta in 1973. His company has developed over 30 projects with 3,500 residential units and two million square feet of commercial space in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama. Hatfield, who grew up in Clearwater, has a business degree from Florida State University.

Jan E. Smith, 63, partner of Promenade at Riverwalk, LLC, is president of Jan Smith and Company, a commercial real estate and business investment firm he founded in 1978. Smith is past chairman of the Manatee Community College board of trustees and Manatee Chamber of Commerce, and current chairman of the University of South Florida Sarasota/Manatee campus board. A nearly 40-year resident of Bradenton, he has a degree in political science from the University of Florida.

Edward Vogler II, 45, founder and managing member of Bradenton Riverfront Partners, LLC, is an attorney who formed his company in 1999 for the purpose of developing the Sandpile. He holds a degree in urban government from the University of South Florida, and a law degree from Stetson College of Law.

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