When the city of Bradenton finalized its master plan in February, the city took one giant step toward its future. But the plan to revitalize downtown is not without challenge or controversy. In downtown Bradenton, as in all of Southwest Florida, the real estate downturn poses a major obstacle for some developments, a minor delay for others. And as in many of the area’s growing communities, debate rages over such hot-button topics as housing density and affordability, traffic, historic preservation and environmental sensitivity.
Before the real estate bubble burst, buyers were clamoring for condos. At the Promenade at Riverwalk, the $180-million condominium complex that was a major catalyst for downtown renewal, Phase One sold out quickly in early 2006. Now, sales of Phases Two and Three have slowed. And while plans were approved last year for Ruben-Holland’s Downtown City Central—a mix of retail, office space and luxury condos on the old City Hall site at Manatee Avenue and 15th Street West— construction was delayed when the developer filed an extension with the city to await a more profitable real estate climate.
Still, if you drive through downtown today, you will see busy construction sites such as the nearly completed Manatee County Judicial Center at Sixth Avenue West and 10th Street West, and the $42-million renovation of Manatee Memorial Hospital, which is also nearly complete. And while residential sales at the Promenade at Riverwalk have slowed, commercial development continues. Riverwalk Professional Park brought 51,000 square feet of office space to the riverfront in December 2006, with 35,000 square feet of office condos sold out by May. An additional 17,000 square feet of office space was starting to fill up last spring, with small business owners signing flexible leases at the Professional Park’s ComCenter.
“Just about everyone believes Bradenton is experiencing a rebirth with all the development that’s going on all over downtown,” says Bernie Croghan, president of ComCenters and a long-time Manatee County developer. “Every one of our office condo purchasers, mostly physicians, attorneys and accountants, came to downtown Bradenton from elsewhere in the county. These professionals are anticipating residents coming to the condos on Third Street, along the river and on the north side of the river.”
With that anticipated influx also comes a demand for entertainment, dining and the arts. The new Manatee Players Performing Arts Center is under construction at Third Avenue West and Seventh Street West, and will soon replace the troupe’s 50-year-old Riverfront Theater. ArtCenter Manatee on Ninth Street West was recently renovated, and is becoming a destination for visitors after business hours and on weekends.
“In the past two years, we’ve painted the boring old white building bright green and blue, changed our name from Art League of Manatee County, renovated our Welcome Center and Artists’ Market, and grown from 450 to 1,000 members,” says Diane Shelley, executive director of ArtCenter Manatee.
Last fall, ArtCenter Manatee was the only Florida stop on the American Watercolor Society’s Traveling Exhibition. In the show’s one-and-a-half-month local run, it attracted more than 4,000 visitors to downtown Bradenton. According to Shelley, “We saw a rush of traffic just before lunchtime and again just after. People were planning their trip downtown around lunch, so all the area restaurants benefited as well. Arts mean business.”
At the former “Pink Palace” at 10th Street West, Kendar Homes is undertaking a $30 million restoration of the historic, 1920s-era Riverpark Hotel.
“The market for downtown Bradenton is on an upswing,” insists Kendar Corporation president Darrell Reha. “We purposely designed the 40 [condominium] units with the proper marketing matrix for one-, two- and three-bedroom units and first-floor retail to bring the pedestrian traffic to the downtown corridor, with a restaurant, a coffee house, beauty salons and other national franchises.”
Other historic buildings are facing demolition, too. In one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the issues of historic preservation, environmental sensitivity and housing density contributed to the controversy over Riviera Southshore, a $400-million mix of four seven- to nine-story waterfront condo towers, townhouses, lofts and 45,000 square feet of retail space on 28 acres between Manatee Avenue East, Ninth Street and the Manatee River. Originally denied by the City Council in September 2006, plans for Riviera Southshore were approved in May after developer Frank Maggio agreed to reduce the height of the towers and arranged for a public-private land swap that resolved housing density issues.
“Riviera Southshore promotes mixed-use development with retail, workforce housing, townhomes, single family and condos,” says Tim Polk, director of planning and community development for the city of Bradenton. “This will be a precedent-setting development that deals with the challenges of density, variation of housing and a lot of things we’re talking about in the master plan. All of that is really promising.”
Some long-time residents are not quite as enthusiastic, citing the environmental and aesthetic impact of condo towers rising along the riverbanks and the destruction of historic homes.
“I think the Riviera Southshore process showed us that our vision for downtown and surrounding neighborhoods needs to be more clearly articulated in the city’s codes and compliance plans,” says Mike Kennedy, executive director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority. “In creating Downtown by Design (the master plan for downtown Bradenton), the city and its citizens have worked together to clearly spell out the type of development that we want to see. The clearly stated vision of Downtown by Design is attractive to the development community because it brings a reasonable amount of predictability to the entitlement process of granting permits and plan approvals.”
To expect the city’s citizens, council members, community leaders and developers to completely agree on the vision for Bradenton’s future is unrealistic, but with the final master plan in place, the city now has a roadmap for how to preserve its history and character while moving forward to meet its future potential.
Bradenton Charts Its Course
The Bradenton City Council approved Downtown by Design, the master plan for downtown Bradenton, in February 2007. The Downtown Development Authority worked with the city’s business leaders, developers, various community boards, elected officials and downtown residents to create a vision for the city’s future.
Following are the master plan’s seven primary principles:
1. Recognize the subdistricts in the CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency) and support their needs.
2. Reconnect value to the riverfront and maintain continued public access.
3. Leverage economic drivers to enhance shared community assets.
4. Meet the desire for an urban waterfront lifestyle and the downtown experience.
5. Beautify subdistricts and balance the needs of the pedestrian.
6. Balance transportation needs with the community vision.
7. Create a regulatory and economic implementation plan.