This month: Shock and awe over our New Downtown.

By staff February 1, 2005

Doesn't it feel like downtown has been closed for a year? Always those barricaded streets-it just wasn't worth making the effort. Well, the barricades are starting to come down now; and it's almost time for the reveal, as they say on Extreme Makeover, which is exactly what our town has been going through. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel now, and I must say it's an enormous shock.

I didn't realize how dense the new downtown will be. That building overlooking Five Points is big, so big that locals are still staring at it with fear and awe. Have you seen how close it is to the building across First Street? We now have concrete canyons. Even Tampa doesn't have concrete canyons. How did this happen?

And it's just beginning. Off the top of my head I can think of 15 new high-rises under construction or about to begin. And that's not counting the Metropolitan. What happened there, by the way? Remember that fight Richard Zipes got in with Michael Saunders? And she was right, as usual. That woman is so smart. I'm trying to get her to write an "Ask Michael Saunders" advice column here at the magazine; I'd love to get her advice on not just real estate but relationships, annoying relatives, and when it's time to get counseling for your gambling debts.

And that new skyline! It takes a little getting used to, and I'm starting to see a certain pattern develop. So please, enough with breast-shaped cupolas. Are we sure we want to become known as that kind of town?

At least the new downtown lifestyle we've been promised is starting to bloom. The defining moment was the opening of Whole Foods. It was more than a supermarket opening-it was a political event. Controversy raged: Was it too elitist for that part of town? Was it getting too good a deal on certain concessions because the city commissioners were greedy for decent take-out?

I ran over the first chance I got and took a little tour. My first reaction was, gee, Morton's must really be p.o.'ed. All that hard work, all those years of building up the business, and then this has to come along. Luckily, by the end of my tour I concluded that Whole Foods really isn't like Morton's at all. Whole Foods is a little too self- consciously wholesome, while Morton's is a little too self-consciously a guilty pleasure. They represent the eternal Sarasota tug of war. Ecology or development? Sarasota School or Spanish Med? Whole Foods or Morton's?

The first thing I noticed was that people almost run toward the store, being drawn as if by magnetism. They jump out of their cars or approach from the adjacent buildings at a brisk pace totally focused on the task at hand, sort of like kids going to the mall to see Santa. Inside, the produce section greets them. It certainly is colorful-but not cheap; regulars are already calling it Whole Pocketbook.

Then you arrive at Seafood, where they have shrimp so big they look like a litter of kittens. Straight ahead are various food products, including a whole wall of vinegar. No Fruit Loops in the cereal, and not a Coca-Cola in the entire store. The far end has take-out. Here I give Morton's the edge; Whole Foods is a little bland for my taste, and there were an awful lot of beans in everything.

The most interesting part of the store involves the four or five aisles of homeopathic remedies and health supplements. There seemed to be something for everything, and I must say it was a thrill to suddenly encounter such a wide array of brand-new over-the-counter drugs to try out. Many of them have testers, and I tried as many as I could. There was some baby cream that I didn't want any baby of mine smelling like, and a migraine remedy that involved rubbing oil of peppermint on your temples. DON'T GET NEAR EYES, it said everywhere; so, naturally, I got it as close to my eyes as possible. Well, it turns out that if you get oil of peppermint too close to your eyes, the fumes-I can think of no other word-are so strong that they induce tears, rather like mace. So I walked through the rest of the store discreetly crying.

That's when I saw the Florence Putterman. Not Florence herself, but one of her paintings, as Whole Foods has commissioned area artists to create works for the store. Naturally I stopped to admire it; and as I stood there taking it all in, tears flowing down my cheeks, three different people I know stopped to say hello. I'm sure word is now out that I was spotted in Whole Foods, crying over their new Florence Putterman-well, we've got to get used to that sort of thing in the New Downtown that is suddenly springing to life.

A Whole Foods Report Card. What to Buy, What to Avoid.

Linda McCartney Frozen Vegetarian dinners. Just awful. Paul must have been a saint to put up with this kind of cooking. Tasteless, chewy; even the colors are ugly. I sampled the Butternut Squash Ravioli; it was so bad I still have the Spicy Peanut Pasta with Vegetarian Chicken in my freezer, where it will remain for a very long time. The new downtown has a dark side, and these dinners are part of it. Grade: F

Nuts: Whole Foods has the best selection in town, including the elusive tamari almond. The praline pecans didn't make it to the end of the photo shoot. Grade: A-

Tea Tree Toothpaste: I love it! At last, a natural product I can really get behind. And such a surprise, as I thought tea trees were for your feet. Now I find out you can put them in your mouth, too. Grade: A

Calming: (Homeopathic tranquilizer): Didn't do much for me, so I tried it on three of the editors here at work. Susan reported no effect whatsoever. Ilene began to hear strange noises coming from her computer. And Kay became quite lethargic and sat at her desk all afternoon without moving. Grade: Need more testing.

Lobster Bisque: Excellent. A little chowdery in texture but the flavor is great. A real find, though they could keep it a little warmer, hint, hint. Grade: B+

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