Englewood Emerges

By Hannah Wallace June 30, 2006

Englewood developer Ron Johnson wants to create a mixed-use center with an Old Florida, Key West feel with his Northern Anchor project in the S.R. 776 corridor. When developed, the ambitious project may transform sleepy Englewood to a bustling retail and residential district. It would also be the first project to use a new "planned economic development" zoning designation created by the Sarasota County Commission in 2004 to encourage mixed-use developments.

The 38-acre Northern Anchor, totaling 250,000 square feet of commercial and retail space, is winding its way through the zoning process and will feature a neo-traditional "downtown" with above-the-store living in mid-rise towers and a main street leading to a St. Armands-like piazza. An assisted living complex and a mix of townhouses and single-family homes ring the retail area and piazza, which will host farmers' markets and other community activities, Johnson says.

"We're going to create a residential feel with urban mixed use as you get closer to the center," says Johnson, who has been buying up parcels of land in the area for about 12 years and developing property in Englewood for 25 years.

The site, about a mile north of boutique-lined Dearborn Street, is part of the Englewood Community Redevelopment Area, established by Sarasota County in 1999 to revitalize the area with tax incremental financing funds.

The CRA also is trying to create an artist's overlay district on Dearborn Street, with mixed results. A recent market study revealed that the Dearborn Street area doesn't have enough rooftops, retail and "draw" to make the area viable. Currently, only 50,000 square feet of retail exist on Dearborn, including incongruent businesses such as a car repair shop, funeral home and many vacant properties. The consultant, Robert Gray of Strategic Planning Group in Jacksonville Beach, recommended the creation of activity centers around Lemon Bay, at the mouth of Dearborn Street, hopefully bringing in an additional 100,000 square feet of restaurant and retail to make it a waterfront destination.

When Johnson first floated the Northern Anchor idea two years ago, Dearborn Street merchants voiced concerns in a planning workshop that the development would pull shoppers from Dearborn as it struggles to become viable. Johnson says his project, which he calls a "lifestyle center" because it will include housing for young families to seniors, will complement the CRA's efforts by bringing rooftops and national retailers, such as a movie theater and a sporting goods store. Now, many residents travel to nearby Venice or Port Charlotte to see movies and shop, Johnson says.

"We're going to fit in nicely," providing everyday goods and services not offered on Dearborn Street, says Johnson. "We'll generate traffic to the area and support them with special events by providing overflow parking, a trolley to transport people back and forth and kiosks promoting Dearborn Street.

And that's not the only project. The CRA has been trying to capitalize on Englewood's waterfront location and has been buying up residential property next to Lemon Bay at the foot of Dearborn Street. Sarasota County recently announced it was acquiring a $1.3 million parcel, the final piece needed to give the public access to the bay. The county is planning a boat dock and ferry for the site, says Chris Davis, CRA coordinator. "We're working with three developers who are interested in getting projects going on Dearborn," says Davis.

Johnson also owns a six-acre commercial parcel on the east side of S.R. 776 that he plans to develop separately from Northern Anchor, a project that will be unveiled at community workshops later this month. He hopes to break ground in late 2008.

County planners say they're looking forward to working on the first project under the new PED zoning designation. "It was created to encourage redevelopment and try and get developers to use smart growth strategies," says Carolyn Keber, a county senior planner. "One of the main reasons we like PED is that it's based on mixed use and interconnectivity, helping to make it a pedestrian-friendly development."

Johnson has presented his initial Northern Anchor plans to county staff and is planning a community workshop before he proceeds to ask for the property to be rezoned.

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