Two Cheers for San Marco

By staff October 1, 2007

Perhaps it was inevitable that the new Plaza San Marco at Lakewood Ranch would fail to live up to its name. Even if the word "piazza" is not used, there is no way most of us wouldn’t call up memories of the glories of Piazza San Marco, the great outdoor living room at the center of Venice, when we see the new commercial center that’s springing to life on the curving boulevard connecting the commercial center along University Parkway with the Main Street shopping and entertainment zone. (Once you get through that baffling traffic circle thing, that is.)

To say that this iteration of the original San Marco concept does not measure up to that ideal is certainly not a condemnation; rather, it is acknowledgment that it’s risky to choose a name that invites comparison with an unrivaled icon of architecture and urban civility.

So let’s look at the many good aspects of this project, starting with the surprising elegance of its pseudo-Venetian architecture, a series of galleries and arcades surrounding a circular area dominated by a bell tower gently reminiscent of the campanile adjoining the San Marco Basilica in Venice. The rich terracotta and ocher colors of the buildings, relieved by lighter stone, off-white trim and graceful wrought-iron railings, glow amid the lush greenery bordering the boulevard. Attractive paving in the palette of earth tones links the pedestrian areas under the arcades and at the crossing points, although the sidewalks are surprisingly narrow. A mix of vaguely Romanesque arches in the galleries, set off by rectangular and square window openings, creates a pleasant visual rhythm.

The complex faces both inward and outward, providing more spacious storefronts on the outer perimeter for larger shops and banks, while the inner curves shelter a mix of more intimate coffee and antique shops, clothing stores and restaurants. Although   it’s still unclear how the upper levels will be used, it seems likely that they will include a mix of retail and business offices. The upper arcades are particularly graceful, removed from the slow-moving traffic below and benefiting from fine views over the lakes and woodlands that link the vast areas of the Lakewood Ranch community.

Great care has been given to the scale of the complex, minimizing its mass by using attractive changes in elevations and facades. This is not your standard shopping center or outdoor mall. Insofar as possible in an entirely new center, Plaza San Marco succeeds in giving the impression that it has grown on its site over a period of years, that it is, in effect, a town center without a town. This may be cheating a bit, but still the place is welcoming, clearly the result of intelligent supervision by the developers and their architects.

For example, it’s gratifying to note that rules have been put into place establishing a unified code for signage. The result is pleasing, with a rather funky type style and oval signs hanging in the archways and posted over the entrances of the shops. Even familiar trademark labels have been tamed. Colors, too, are consistent throughout the layout, providing a homogeneity that is not overbearing, while allowing ample opportunity for the businesses to display their products and services through large windows. Note, however, that these are not the ubiquitous sheets of glass, but traditional eight-pane openings, giving a bit of welcome mystery to the interiors within.

"Don’t give it all away at first glance" seems to be the guiding principle here. The interiors glimpsed from the arcades are enticing, rewarding those who enter with their spacious layouts, high ceilings and floods of natural light. Materials and finishes throughout are of high quality.

The barrel-tiled roof lines vary pleasantly, and (a wise choice) wide openings at the compass points keep the plaza’s circular shape from seeming to close all contact with the community outside other than the entrance drive. At the south end of the area, a bank building in the same style but painted in a lighter palette of color is a nice touch, while the larger shape of the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre building rises on the north perimeter.

But—and this is a big but—San Marco also calls up an unwelcome version of Gertrude Stein’s famous dictum: "There is no there there." The missing "there" in this case is the essential place of assembly, the outdoor living room that has been the key to civic life virtually forever. A piazza, or a plaza, to most of us implies a space where folks can sit around tables outside, drinking, eating, talking, arguing, reading, schmoozing, dozing, doing nothing. Living is what we’re talking about here, and living takes living room. Alas, the circular central space of San Marco, the graceful paved area around the clock tower, is, essentially, a traffic circle, a roundabout, not the outdoor living room we associate with the name, nothing like its superb Italian model.

It seems highly unlikely that anyone would ever dine, stroll or lounge in this space so long as it is the center of vehicular circulation. This disadvantage, especially since the sidewalks are too narrow to accommodate outdoor dining comfortably, is a serious flaw. Thus, only two cheers go to San Marco despite other attractive aspects of this ambitious project—unless the plaza becomes the pedestrian space its names implies.

This column was named "Best Editorial/Opinion" in 2007 by the Florida Magazine Association and also won an award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

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