By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2005

While Sarasota educational and government leaders wrestle with the idea of creating a hip University District on the North Trail, private developers are busy snapping up properties along this long-neglected corridor.

Corvus International, a national developer of commercial and residential properties, is building its Florida headquarters on the east side of the North Trail, just south of University Parkway. Formerly a motel and then the New College Campus Bookshop, the property has been empty for years until Corvus acquired it in a land swap with New College of Florida.

Corvus plans to build a two-story, 23,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style office building for its 20-plus Florida employees. Construction is expected to begin in the fourth quarter of 2005. The company is currently located at the Bradenton Financial Center. "We wanted more of a permanent presence here," says Corvus principal Timothy Morris.

Corvus has entered the Southwest Florida market with the high-rise condominium Bel Mare at Riviera Dunes in Palmetto, the luxury condominium Positano on the Gulf on Longboat Key (on the site of the former Holiday Inn) and a condominium project on Fruitville Road at the former site of Hibbs Farm & Garden.

Morris isn't concerned about the North Trail's run-down image. "We're big believers in the Trail," he says. "The North Trail is going to evolve. There's not much you can do going south. The airport is here and it's three miles to downtown. We're good at setting trends. We bought several properties in Palmetto when people thought it was crazy."

A few blocks south, Bird Key resident James Heyward bought the landmark Old Hickory restaurant and Café of the Arts for $3.05 million. He's still formulating ideas for the three acres, but initial plans are for an office/retail project. "We've got enough luxury condos," he says. Heyward already has new tenants for the Old Hickory and also has tentative plans to develop an old English-style pub-"the kind you'd find in Oxford or Cambridge"-after discovering how many college students are in the area. "I want it to be useful and used," he says, adding that the project can only be 35 feet in height because of the special NT zoning along the North Trail. Heyward, who comes from England and has developed commercial projects for 20 years in Great Britain and Portugal, says the North Trail is full of opportunity. "It's a smashing idea," he says of the project.

Just south of the Ringling School of Art and Design campus, developer Joseph Costello Sr. has purchased a little over an acre of vacant land at 1800 North Tamiami Trail for a condominium project. (Costello is also developing a 14-story mixed-use project on Main Street that includes 49 condominiums, 27,838 square feet of retail space on the first two floors and 60,633 square feet of office condos.) His North Trail project will include up to 20 three-story townhouse condominiums. "It's a beautiful location," he says, adding that he plans to preserve all but one of the old oak trees on the property. Construction will begin as soon as the city of Sarasota approves his plans, he says.

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