The East Rises

By staff October 1, 2006

While most of us have spent our time worrying about the development of downtown Sarasota, an attractive new city has been growing out east.

Lakewood Ranch, an enormous project spreading on either side of the Sarasota-Manatee county line, is not your typical “development.” Rather, the executives at Schroeder-Manatee, who are supervising the multifaceted growth of the community, have chosen to create an interconnected series of urban and rural residential and commercial centers.

Touring Lakewood Ranch is not easy. It spreads along curving roads that can be disorienting. During several visits, I entered at the University Parkway gateway and was surprised to find myself emerging on S.R. 70. At first, I found this disturbing, but then I began to realize that this lack of the customary grid system of streets helps to create a sense of privacy and natural growth seldom found in less ambitious planned communities.

In effect, Lakewood Ranch residents inhabit pods of intense development surrounded by nature preserves, landscaped areas and the inevitable golf courses. This is an admirable balance, but one that must be carefully calibrated, since enormous amounts of water, fertilizers and pavement are needed to keep the complex functioning.

With few exceptions, Lakewood Ranch’s residential areas are widely scattered, far enough from each other to require automobile transport to visit a friend and do the shopping. At this point, walkers and bicyclists are few, and no mass transport system is planned. Also of concern: Most of the residential enclaves are gated. This specious “security” measure defies logic, since any resourceful thief could find another way to a targeted house, as has been proved repeatedly elsewhere in this area. More important, the unfriendly gates that line the handsome parkways snaking around the area, despite decorative touches and cute names, do not foster an overall sense of community.

Given the location and vast size of Lakewood Ranch, it’s safe to assume that the residential aspects would not succeed without nearby shopping, dining and other services. Fortunately, the commercial areas are being developed with, at a minimum, sensitivity and, at best, creativity. Several areas provide basic business services, and each has its own character. The most obvious and conventional example is the market area immediately north of University Parkway, with the usual chain stores, a Publix supermarket, franchise restaurants, banks, specialty shops and the essential dry cleaners and hairdressers.

Nothing is particularly distinguished about this conglomeration of stores, but nothing is objectionable, either. Here, as everywhere in Lakewood Ranch, serious attention has been given to the way everything looks, from landscaping to signage.

One of the interesting aspects of the community is that it has been divided into sectors: commercial, medical, financial, corporate and residential. While this may prove to be artificially restrictive, it seems to work for now. Particularly impressive are the large medical center and the grouping of large corporate structures on the shores of Lake Osprey, on the south side of University. The complex is clearly designed to provide business services and higher education.

In addition to a gas station, a bank, real estate services and office space, there’s Keiser College, which occupies a substantial building here and seems poised for expansion. Marketing, public relations and business advisory firms also occupy large offices in what amounts to an intellectual industrial park. A Holiday Inn dominates the point at which the curving boulevards lead south toward still undeveloped land. As part of this Lake Osprey configuration, some very large businesses, including the FCCI insurance firm and several contracting companies, occupy imposing new buildings in a style that could be called Institutional Caribbean. (The exception is an extravagant Med-Rev headquarters for John Cannon Homes.)

Lake Osprey Village, a charming conglomeration of small shops and restaurants, provides a perky take on the typical strip-mall layout and takes pains to look upscale and creative. Nearby, at press time, a big restaurant had posted signs advertising its imminent opening—the third such attempt at this site. While the restaurant would provide a welcome addition to the community’s modest food offerings, perhaps the market in this generally nonresidential part of town isn’t developed enough yet for an operation of this size.

The north side of University, however, presents quite a different series of commercial opportunities. The most promising, albeit very long in gestation, is the new Main Street area, an evocation of the traditional downtown of yesteryear. Normally, nostalgia is not a reliable guide for good architecture, and this area is primarily an exercise in creating a stage-set for commerce.

Yes, it is fake, as it must be to exist at all where nothing like it ever did before. This is land that was part of a vast ranch for many years, after all. There’s no valid precedent here, so the architects are free to imagine a Main Street with no constraints, other than the Lakewood Ranch building codes (which must be very clever indeed, judging by the overall excellence so far).

Nonetheless, the curving blocks of gracious, vaguely Victorian buildings are attractive and inviting. A Morton’s Market, Café Mediterraneo, Fred’s and many other small restaurants line the walkable streets and are mixed with clothing boutiques, bookstores and specialty shops. The liner buildings, which include residential space above the stores, are periodically punctured with covered access to parking and the residential condominium blocks rising nearby.

Comfortable benches line the sidewalks, and an elegant clock graces a handsome fountain. Streetlights are well placed, in a Victorian London style. At the end of the street, where it meets the drive along the shores of a lake, the Sarasota Film Society’s recently opened cinema complex, with six screens and a cafe, should bring visitors to this area, visitors who will patronize nearby businesses before and after the show.

Close at hand, but with no clear connection to Main Street, a large commercial development, San Marco Plaza, is rising, promising a European shopping and dining experience along curved and arcaded streets around a clock tower in the central square. Although it’s more obviously faux-Mediterranean than the Main Street area, the main appeal is its human scale, imaginative layout, shops and restaurants.

With the growing interest in the precepts of New Urbanism, which aims at providing buildings and neighborhoods designed for interaction between people, developments like Lakewood Ranch are increasingly taking note of the power of nostalgia. Not just the usual Disney experience, but the nostalgia that can lead us to study the reasons for our emotional connection to towns and neighborhoods that offer both shelter and civic interaction. Lakewood Ranch seems bent on finding a formula that satisfies both our modern needs and our longing for the charm of the imagined past.

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