Making a College Town

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2005

By all accounts, Sarasota has the right makings for a college town. Four top-quality colleges and universities within a two-mile radius provide a diverse student population, a rich intellectual pool of faculty and staff, and ample cultural resources, from theaters to art galleries to world-class museums.

Yet prostitution, derelict buildings, illicit drug trade and routine home break-ins aren't what come to mind when one thinks of a college town. North Tamiami Trail, from 10th Street northward past the county line-the very stretch of road those same four schools front-has been plagued by these urban blights for decades.

But with unprecedented solidarity, University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, Ringling School of Art and Design, New College of Florida and the Florida State University/Ringling Center for the Cultural Arts are joining forces with city and county leaders to build a viable "University District" on the now-depressed North Trail. They envision an area buzzing with coffeehouses, cafes, nightclubs and bookstores, with affordable housing options for students and faculty, a region that would attract both students and non-students alike, offer more reasons for graduates to stay in Sarasota, and more incentive for young professionals to move here.

"We have a critical mass of around 5,000 students along the North Trail corridor," says Larry Thompson, president of Ringling School of Art and Design. "But people really don't think of Sarasota as a higher education community." Yet Sarasota is home to one of the nation's top liberal arts colleges that is also the state's honors college (New College), a top-ranked art school, a cultural facility where future thespians train, and in USF, a thriving commuter campus offering 37 different degree programs. "Our goal," says Thompson, "is to create an image, attract the businesses, and do the branding so that when people drive north or south on the Trail, or they come in from University Parkway, they know they're in the University District."

The idea of revitalizing the area and building greater cohesion between the four institutions has been around for a while, though it's only in the last year or so that the four university leaders-Thompson, Laurey Stryker, vice president and campus CEO of USF, Gordon Michalson Jr., president of New College and John Wetenhall, executive director of FSU/Ringling-sat down and really started to envision the possibilities. A fall 2004 meeting with members of the Young Professionals Group (YPG), the Sarasota interest group comprised of 21- to 40-year-old professionals, helped generate buzz in the community. YPG met with college and civic leaders to discuss just what it would take to make the North Trail feel like a young, hip neighborhood.

"What we're asking ourselves is, how do we create a there there?" explains architect Frank Folsom Smith, who's been involved with efforts to revitalize the North Trail for years. "We're looking for something that identifies the neighborhood as a place, and looking for ways to inspire the private sector to build the things that are now absent that would serve the neighborhood. The consensus is that it's time to make something of this district."

But traditionally, college towns are a symbiotic outgrowth of colleges and universities. One hardly imagines city planners in Berkeley, Amherst or Chapel Hill wrestling with how to lure coffeehouses and bookstores to within blocks of their colleges. So why hasn't a university district come naturally to Sarasota?

"The irony," explains David Voss, director of public relation for USF Sarasota-Manatee, "is that we already have all the resources and amenities required for a university town. What we lack is the belief and the designation."

A history of haphazard growth along U.S. 41 hasn't helped define the region. "For many years," says Jake Hartvigsen, director of public affairs at New College, "growth on the North Trail took its own shape and form without anyone thinking about the end result." The push to redevelop the North Trail, he says, is the same evolution that's taking place throughout the county. "There's a recognition now that growth should go side by side with vision. The University District is a natural product of that idea."

Geography has been a stumbling block to a congruent district on the North Trail as well, says Folsom Smith. "The area is not like Harvard Yard or Harvard Square," he says. "We've got an aggregate university with enormous diversity that is just too linear and spread out." But by creating a pedestrian-oriented, bike-oriented community, Folsom Smith believes some of those barriers can be traversed-literally and figuratively. "There's already one bridge over 41," he says, referring to the overpass at New College at USF, "but perhaps we need more. Walkability and bikeability are critical, as is regular, attractive transportation between the schools, and on to downtown, Lido and Manatee." Nice, interesting, walkable pathways, and multi-modal transportation systems will get people out of their cars and into the community, says Folsom Smith.

Ideas for the district are still in discussion phase, but with the cooperation and willpower of university, city and county officials, the reality of a University District may be within reach. All four schools, along with the city of Sarasota and Sarasota and Manatee counties, have offered $20,000 each to fund a proposal from urban planners. A request for proposals (RFP) is in the works, with Ringling School acting as the project's fiscal agent.

Hartvigsen points out that the moniker "University District," is a working title, and the end product will be the result not just of cooperation between the four institutions, but the community as well. "By whatever name we go by, we seek to create a process that is all inclusive," he says. "It can't just be colleges that are involved, because the surrounding neighborhoods are affected too." And while historically, relations between hard-partying college students and their residential neighbors haven't always been rosy, the neighborhoods off the North Trail are being welcomed at the planning table.

Dick Clapp, president of the Indian Beach-Sapphire Shores neighborhood association, along with members of the Bayou Oaks and Central Cocoanut Avenue associations, want to be involved in these meetings. "The concept is more than just a university district," says Clapp. We want to tie in the cultural and historical aspects of the area." This broad-based approach, says Clapp, will help revitalize what he calls "under-utilized" property, with its inherent problems, on the North Trail. "All of the surrounding neighborhoods are affected by drug traffic, prostitution, home break-ins," says Clapp. "We want to see the area revitalized, but we understand that to get developers interested, they've got to be able to make some money."

And that's where the University District walks a fine line down U.S. 41. As land on the Trail gets snatched up for upscale condominiums like the Broadway Promenade and San Marco south of the Ringling School, leaders speculate whether rising property values will render their plans moot. If and when the district takes off, will it be such a desirable area that coffeehouse and bookstore owners won't be able to afford the rent?

"No sooner do we set our sights on redeveloping an area than those speculative interests start playing there," says Sarasota Mayor Richard Martin, himself a New College graduate. "Investors move in, tie up the property and double the prices." Martin says he's aware that some of that speculative hoarding is happening on the North Trail. "But as we define future land uses and zoning, the commission will really look at density increases and bonuses to allow greater density and creation of housing with price points for younger professionals, professors and students."

New College's Hartvigsen says the time to act is now. "We all have students and faculty who want to live close to the colleges, and if we don't act fast, we'll find that some of these ideas are impossible." But, he says, the parties involved are dedicated to making businesses and landowners a part of the bigger vision. "If we go out there and work with these groups, they'll see we have an opportunity to build a niche neighborhood, a destination neighborhood, one that does benefit businesses in the long run."

College and community leaders are counting on their visionary and collaborative spirit to carry the project to fruition. "One of the good things about the partnership is that we really don't compete with one another; we all have very separate and distinct missions and niches," says Thompson. "But we can work very closely together in terms of whole higher education sense for the community."

Thompson is among the chorus of university and community voices that refer to a momentum to realize the university district that, according to them, has been missing from past initiatives. Previous efforts to redevelop the North Trail were "not even remotely in the same realm," says Folsom Smith, who was a leader of the Gateway 2000 effort more than a decade ago, which helped revitalize the lower North Trail but did little for the areas near the colleges and universities. "This time," he says, "the institutions are taking a leadership role, but no one is trying to dictate anything. People are involved from counties, the city of Sarasota, and the neighborhoods. In previous cases, it was always a matter of just a few people trying to lead the efforts."

Still, no one is under the impression that the transformation of the North Trail from downtrodden urban thoroughfare to vibrant college town is going to be a quick one. "We're not going to wake up one day and have a university district," says Voss. "It will evolve gradually. But," he adds with the sense of optimism that seems pervasive among the group, "the momentum has never been better."

"They say timing is everything," says Martin, "and right now, everything seems to be ripening in a similar way. There's a recognition that if we all get together in partnership, we can realize something great for the entire community."

What's next for the University District?

Once all seven parties have made good on their pledges of $20,000 each, for a total of $140,000, the coalition will hire a consultant to draw up a conceptual plan and take the project through the public process. Work will begin in May and completed by December 31, 2005. David Voss, the director of university relations for USF Sarasota-Manatee, is the project administrator.

Folsom Smith likens the next stages of the process as "a call to arms to citizens and private sector businesses in support for this institutional planning process. People need to be informed, comfortable, weigh in and participate in the process." The message, he says, is, "Get involved and stay tuned, because something great can happen here."

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