Central Time

By staff November 1, 2008

Central Avenue, the oddly named street that runs north from Five Points Park through diverse neighborhoods up to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, has finally begun to gain some centrality. The name, unusual in our town for not honoring a fruit, a flower or a Ringling, is now apt for what amounts to a significant transect—a New Urbanism term—linking the historic Rosemary District with central downtown Sarasota.

During the past couple of years, Central has started to come to life, welcoming restaurants, art galleries, some unusual shops and social service agencies. A new sense of energy enables the visitor to see past the remaining empty storefronts, unattractive business buildings and vacant lots toward a future totality.

What matters now is the way in which the streetscape is consistent in scale and placement as it progresses from Fruitville Road northward

Although some of the new buildings are higher than their older cousins, there are no blatant breaches of vertical alignment. Most structures meet the sidewalk at the property line, providing the pedestrian a pleasing sense of scale and containment, particularly as much of the street is graced with arcades and lined with what will grow to be a tree canopy if allowed to mature.

Central Avenue begins at Five Points, where it’s flanked at first by the massive Five Points Plaza tower, an edifice that is reasonably attractive at street level. In the next block, the west side is defined by the rather sterile arches of the library, facing the dark arcade that is the street frontage of the 100 Central Building. Fortunately, some genuine urbanity on view at the corner with Starbucks and Pino’s restaurant and the street trees provide a welcome definition of the public space.

A few distinctly ordinary relics of the past line the street as it approaches and crosses Fruitville, but soon you see a group of attractive home-decorating shops under the awning of a 1930s era building now painted a glowing terra cotta. At the intersection with Fifth Street things begin to hum, with a strange aqua/blue/turquoise-ish new building that seems to be devouring a nice Florida cottage behind it.

Still, the scale of the new building is appropriate, even if the color scheme is not. On the west side of Fifth, a low structure of uncertain age now houses some trendy architects, while a restored church is partially occupied by another. Across the street, on the east end of Fifth, a snazzy red frame has been attached to a geometric pair of white buildings, one of which now houses the art gallery of Allyn Gallup, known for his uncompromising support of modern art and architecture.

Back on Central, the Sarasota Olive Oil Company and Derek’s Casual Cuisine have staked out a new frontier in providing unusual food and a convivial atmosphere to those who venture north of Fruitville. The recycled buildings of the Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences add a raffish air to the street, leading toward the reborn garage that is Home Resource, selling cutting-edge furniture and furnishings in a thoroughly industrial setting. As you proceed north, the imposing new headquarters of Planned Parenthood, designed by ADP, is nearing completion. Its colliding shapes and colors, some geometric, some sensuously curved, are refreshing and modern without any hint of threat, appropriate to its future clientele.

An attractive police department substation and resource center, near the historic Rosemary Cemetery, and the charming wood frame buildings around the gardens of Rosemary Court are a welcome glimpse of the past. If you glance down the side streets, you’ll see charming Florida cottages, some of them beautifully restored, saying “neighborhood” loud and clear. At the corner of 10th Street, the Salvation Army’s striking social services complex effectively terminates the urban portion of the street.

Central Avenue hasn’t quite made it yet, but it’s on its way to assuming an interesting identity: a somewhat gritty street, full of real life and character, not just a pretty postcard for the New Urbanism. Realizing that vision is important, not only for Central itself, but also for the entire RosemaryDistrict. Unfortunately cut off from the traditional downtown by Fruitville Road, Central Avenue can assume its natural role in a mixed-use downtown core area only by becoming a true transect, a street that pulls the public from the chic precincts of Five Points to Rosemary's eclectic mix of businesses and residents, home to some of the most varied demographics of our city.

With any luck, Central will soon justify its name.

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