Why Everybody's Talking About The New Downtown

By Robert Plunket & Staff Photography by Rebecca Baxter, Kathryn Brass, Brian David Braun, J.B. McCourtney, Matt McCourtney, Pat Nebel, Gene Pollux and William S. Speer July 1, 2011

Sometimes you can plan and study and recommend, then study a little more, trying to get everything exactly right. And then, while you’re busy putting the pieces together and trying to make everybody happy, something else happens. Your problem solves itself. Things come together in their highly imperfect and serendipitous way, and somehow, the result just works.

That’s what is happening with downtown Sarasota. For years we’ve been trying to figure out how to fix it, how to get it to reach its full potential. There’s been a Duany Plan, a Vision 2050, an Overlay District, a Downtown Master Plan, and numerous others. We’re still dithering.

But this year is different. There’s a question on everybody’s lips: “Have you been downtown lately?”

Downtown has finally come into its own.

I realized this one Saturday this winter. In Burns Court, right next to our office, hundreds of people had come to the Chalk Festival, where artists draw big, colorful illustrations on the pavement of Pineapple Avenue. A long line waited to buy tickets outside nearby Burns Court Cinema. A few blocks away on Main Street, the annual gay pride event had drawn all sorts of participants and spectators, and as the vendors broke down the Saturday Farmer’s Market at Main and Lemon, people of every age were flooding nearby shops and restaurants. There was barely enough space on the sidewalks to fit us all.

And this was early afternoon—hours from when downtown really sparks into weekend life, as the arts crowd streams into the theaters, restaurants overflow with patrons, and 20-somethings begin planning which downtown bars they’ll hit in the hours ahead.

I realized again that downtown was on a roll a month or so ago, when we gathered some of the town’s top real estate agents to pick Sarasota’s top neighborhood for our Best of 2011 issue. We thought they’d squabble for hours, but within minutes, our judges had unanimously chosen the winner: downtown.

Why is it suddenly downtown Sarasota’s moment?

Some reasons are obvious. The restaurant explosion, the fancy new apartment buildings, the expanded retail. But other, smaller reasons are just as significant. Take those lights on the trees in Five Points Park. Who would have thought that hanging up colored lights would make such a big difference? Those lights with their ever-changing hues and patterns have become an instant landmark, something to show to visitors, and, most important, another reason to love downtown.

And who would have thought that Main Street would be so perfect for sidewalk cafes? The sidewalks are narrow, there’s traffic going by, people parking cars—but once they got up and running, the cafes work like a charm. There are 20 or so of them now, from Epicure, with its fashionable crowd enjoying espresso and Italian classics, to the folks vying for sidewalk seats at C’est La Vie, where the French croissants and waitstaff are equally authentic. Every café is a little different, and together they offer the best people-watching in town.

Even the new traffic roundabout at Five Points that caused such controversy is a success. Not only does it function perfectly, just like they said it would, but its tiny scale and pretty plantings make it an architectural delight. (Now if they’ll only add that wonderful World War I statue of a fighting doughboy that originally stood there. It’s been relegated down to the park on Gulfstream.)

Experts tell us people like cities for the food, the attractions, the ease of transportation, the architecture. But they love cities for more intangible reasons—small emotional moments and the beauty of an unexpected vignette. Downtown Sarasota has more than its share. And on a balmy evening, with a breeze from the Gulf and live music somewhere in the distance, cool-looking people passing by and the promise of a new bar to check out, there’s a lot to love.

Downtown Sarasota has very definite boundaries, and they are delineated by a perimeter of busy, five- and six-lane streets that can be harder to cross than the Amazon River. It seems simple enough—you just press a button on the corner and the light eventually changes. What happens in reality is you can never figure out when you’re supposed to cross, and the traffic can’t, either. Unless you’re quick on your feet, you have a tendency to give up and stay where you are.

And where are you, exactly?

The western boundary of downtown is Sarasota Bay. Golden Gate Point and the area surrounding the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, are definitely considered downtown, though it’s a bit of a walk from Main Street, particularly in the heat of the day. To the north, Fruitville Road used to be considered the boundary, but all the activity in the Rosemary District and Citrus Square makes 10th Street a more credible contender. To the east is U.S. 301 (Washington Boulevard), though there’s a little bump-out to accommodate all the activity around the courthouse. And to the south, there’s Mound Street, where the city’s oldest—and still most desirable—suburbs begin.

Inside that barely mile-square area are a surprising number of neighborhoods, from the stretch of elegant high-rises lining the bay to the charming old homes of Laurel Park to the edgy lofts of the Rosemary District.

Downtown has three distinct personalities. The first is its workaday world. Yes, downtown definitely works for a living—it’s the county seat, a financial and business center, a shopping destination. In addition to the more prosaic occupations, it’s the work place of yacht captains, opera singers, a Congressman, professional harpists, embalmers, personal trainers, high-tech entrepreneurs, panhandlers, hot dog vendors, jail guards, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter.

But if the occupations differ wildly, downtown remains the ideal place to work. The dress code is relaxed; the bankers and brokers wear suits and ties, but for everybody else it’s a sort of casual chic look. You don’t wear shorts to the office, but many of your clients do. Even better, you’re in the middle of everything. And that’s wonderful when it comes to the two things that matter most to office workers: lunch and shopping.

Downtown is the city’s premier luncheon spot, and everybody who works there has his or her favorites—places within walking distance that offer quick service and menu items priced under $10. Mine at the moment include Café Americano (Italian, but I order the turkey burger with sautéed spinach), Main Bar (it’s been there forever, perfect for when you crave a pastrami sandwich) and the brand-new Nancy’s Bar-B-Q. Just six months ago, Nancy Krohngold was selling her pulled pork and edamame succotash from makeshift tables in parking lots. Now, backed by the restaurant-owning Caragiulo brothers (who in addition to their longtime spot on Palm Avenue opened the popular Owen’s Fish Camp downtown a year or so ago), her place on Pineapple is a smash hit, and another piece of downtown folklore has been born.

And as for shopping, I can’t believe that I’m the only downtown office worker who occasionally says, “I’ve got a meeting with a client,” and then runs off to the Woman’s Exchange, or the Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art gallery, or Home Resource. The temptation is just too strong, the mix of retail too great. There are some chains, and top ones at that—Brooks Brothers, Eileen Fisher, Sur La Table—but the heart and soul are one-of-a-kind stores like Stitch, with its hip clothing, and Media on Main, with its Apple products and café, or Parker’s Books, with its rare volumes and Dickensian atmosphere.

And after 5 p.m., on the way home from work, just think of the possibilities. An hour at the Y, take-out from Whole Foods Market, an early movie at Burns Court or Hollywood 20. Or even better, happy hour. My favorite is the bar at Hyde Park Steakhouse.

When the sun goes down, they used to roll up the sidewalks. Now they put out patio furniture and sell you drinks and dinner. Or take your tickets for a show.

Sarasota Opera, the Golden Apple, Florida Studio Theatre, the Van Wezel, the Players Theatre—they’re

all downtown and must provide at least half of the town’s cultural entertainment. But so are some of the city’s best restaurants, and most of its nightspots. Downtown at night is rarely one place or one thing to do. You tend to make an evening of it. A good place to start is Mattison’s City Grille at Main and Lemon. It’s an awning-covered outdoor restaurant with good food and live music—kind of loud but always quite decent. It clearly establishes that there’s a party going on.

And on a good night that’s what downtown at night has become. A sophisticated party where you start one place—maybe a play at FST, which is a downtown scene all its own, with three stages going at once and a little outdoor bar, or maybe a poetry reading at the new Bookstore One. Then you might head to a late dinner at Selva Grill, where young entrepreneurs and well-off retirees order Peruvian-style fare, or just grab a burger at Patrick’s (in its new Main Street location, just a short stroll from its old one). Then it’s time for a little bar-hopping, topped off with a frozen yogurt at Whiteberry. Wherever you go, you’ll see all sorts of interesting-looking strangers (aren’t those kids in front of the Blue Owl too young to drink?) as well as constantly bump into people you know. You get introduced to your friends’ friends, maybe joining them, maybe not. Among the singles of all ages, the flirting is intense.

Downtown still has its problems. The homeless who congregate around the library continue to be an issue, with the city recently removing the benches in Five Points Park in an effort to discourage them from hanging out. Parking never seems sufficient—to really enjoy downtown you need several different parking strategies, depending on the time of day. A new parking garage and the first-time experiment with parking meters may solve the problem (or make it worse). And the recent murder of two British tourists after a night of drinking in a Main Street bar reminds us that exciting nightlife has a cost. Things can turn ugly in ways we never imagined.

But downtown Sarasota has been riding a crest. Maybe it’s time to look at some of those plans and studies that we’ve been inundated with over the years. They might have some good ideas to make things even better.

The best improvement would be to finally implement the long-discussed plan to re-route U.S. 41 around the northeast edge of the city. That would join the bayfront, the marina and Bayfront Park with the rest of the town. There is something about that constant stream of traffic going by at 40 miles an hour that creates a fatal divide between downtown and the tropical feeling of the sailboats and palm trees. That’s where we should be strolling after dinner. Now it just feels too far away, too much trouble.

“I was really hit by how separated Sarasota is from its waterfront,” says Mark McDonald, president of Georgia Historic Trust. McDonald, who visited Sarasota last fall to speak at SemCon 2010, says that’s a major problem, since the water is Sarasota’s defining characteristic. At the least, he suggests, we could calm traffic or install wide grass medians, to make it more inviting to cross. And he wouldn’t close the door on rerouting the entire road, even though insiders say that’s not likely to happen. “Urban planning is about patience,” he says.

And remember the plan to build a 17-story hotel on Main Street? Like most Sarasotans, I was appalled when I first heard about it, and the project was dropped. Now I’ve changed my mind. It’s just what we need. True, we’ve got the Ritz-Carlton and the Hyatt, but they’re not in the thick of things. Think how great it would be to have a place right in the middle of downtown, with bars, restaurants, ballrooms, a cabana club—maybe even a revolving restaurant on top. Already downtown is poised to become a serious rival of the beach as the place to stay for vacationers—a hotel like that would really make that happen.

Back in the old days, downtown Sarasota was a sleepy place, where many businesses closed their doors and hung up “gone fishing” signs one afternoon a week. But downtown came to life on weekends. The tomato and celery farmers would drive in with their families for their weekly shopping trip, a movie at the A.B. Edwards Theater (now the Opera House) and some ice cream cones for the kids. It was the highlight of everyone’s week, a chance to exchange news and catch up with friends. Downtown became the town square for a day.

And now, after waxing and waning for 60 years, it’s got that feeling once more. It seems that every weekend there’s a festival of some sort—sometimes three or more on the same weekend. It might be an art festival, or Burns Court Cinema’s Cine-World Film Festival, which airs the best new art films from all over the world. Or maybe the Boat Show in Bayfront Park or the hip new Vinyl Festival, with dozens of DJs spinning to a late-night crowd.

And then there’s the Farmer’s Market. Held every Saturday morning at the intersection of Main and Lemon, it started small 31 years ago, but now it’s in full bloom, covering five whole downtown blocks, and it’s probably the most beloved civic institution in town. You can shop for produce, flowers, bread, crafts, jewelry, honey, listen to some live music, sample pastries, and—most important—bump into friends.

Look around and you’ll see families with kids and dogs in tow, retired couples from Longboat Key, artisanal young men with beards who make cheese and furniture, Mennonites from Pinecraft, affluent and tastefully dressed older gay men, and a TV crew inexplicably filming a Spanish language music video.

One of the artisanal young men sees a friend, another artisanal guy. They exchange a soul brothers’ handshake.

“Hey, man,” says one. “What’s up?”

“Not much,” says the other. “Just living the dream.”

True, there’s a touch of irony involved. But when it comes to summing up downtown Sarasota, that

assessment says more than any of those urban-planning studies.


Is Downtown Safe?

This spring, downtown Sarasota made international headlines after the murder of two British tourists in Newtown. City leaders and tourism officials worked frantically to assure the world that visitors don’t need to worry about crime, but for some the question remains: Is downtown safe?

“Downtown—Patrol Zone 5, which we define as between Fruitville and Mound, and between 301 and the bayfront—is safer than it has been in years,” says Paul Sutton, an administrative captain for the Sarasota police force. “We’ve had a 14 percent crime reduction downtown so far in 2011, compared to the first four months of 2010. At the same time, police activity, including arrests, has increased. If you look at the downtown area compared to the rest of the city, only 8 percent of the crime in Sarasota occurs downtown.”

Six most common police activities

January-April 2011

167 field interviews (when an officer investigates suspicious activity)

125 traffic accidents

123 trespassing reports

112 burglary alarms

110 citizens reporting suspicious activity

109 alcohol violations


One Night Downtown

Spotted along Main Street one summer evening

Amanda and Mark Kowalski brought six-month old Grace for her first downtown dinner. They chose the Sarasota Vineyard.

Brigitte and Volker Betzold hail from Germany but now live in Lakewood Ranch. They dined at Salute with friends.

Bruce Black and his wife Susan Marks of Palm Aire take some time to browse at Bookstore One after dinner. Bruce is the author of Writing Yoga.

Susan Rife brought her daughter Christina Cox to the opening night of Honky Tonk Angels at the Golden Apple. Susan was reviewing it for the Herald-Tribune. PS: She liked it.

David Nava, Tak Konstantinou and Jim Lewis dropped by the martini bar at Epicure after attending the Harvey Milk Festival in the Rosemary District.

Attorney Greg Band and wife SAnda had some gelato at Jolly after dinner at Owen’s Fish Camp. “By the time we left Owen’s there was over an hour’s wait,” they reported.

Ilya Shaperseteryn and Maria Eliseeva, vacationing from Moscow, had dinner at Selva. Why did they choose Sarasota? “Your famous beaches.”

Linda Joffe of New College went window shopping after dinning at Mozaic with relatives from out-of-town.

Seth Sherman of Los Angeles dropped by Epicure after attending the wedding of Andrew Foley and Paula Heap, held poolside at 1350 Main.

Buy the lifestyle

Downtown real estate ranges from $6 million penthouses to one-room studios that start at around $100,000—in other words, something for everyone.

50 Central Ave, penthouse

$1.5 million

3 bedrooms, 3 ½ baths, 4,095 square feet, 2 parking places, pet-friendly. Built in 2005. primary residence for affluent couple in the middle of everything in the middle of everything the view, the value (it’s a short sale and has been reduced by $750,000) Michael Moulton, Michael Saunders & Company, (941) 383-7591

1855 Oak St.


3 bedrooms, 3 baths, detached guest quarters, fireplace, pool, 2,162 square feet. Built in 1926. stylish retirement great character, architecturally and historically significant not sure about that color the ultra-sophisticated finishes and the great pool area Lynn Robbins, Coldwell Banker, (941) 366-8070


445 N. Orange Ave., No. 209


1 bedroom, 1½ baths, corner unit, 644 square feet. Built in 2009. pied-à-terre or young professional great style and architecture, luxury finishes a little small the 10-foot ceilings, the Juliet balconies, the European feel Sandra Israelson, UpLink Realty, (941) 920-0523

Top Tables

Our food critic’s five downtown faves right now.

Derek’s Culinary Casual, 514 Central Ave., (941) 366-6565

Both pioneer and star of the Rosemary District, Beard-nominated chef Derek Barnes’ exemplar of urban chic purveys adventurous and winning combinations of flavors and textures he calls progressive American cuisine.


Lan, 1568 Main St., (941) 953-7111

The prix fixe menus at Chef Lan Bradeen’s quirky and intimate little restaurant cherry pick the globe for inspiration. Best bet: nine-course Chef’s Tour, $75 with just-right wine pairings.


MoZaic, 1377 Main St., (941) 951-6272

Chef Dylan Elhajoui’s smart and urbane double-decker restaurant has been a winner in every way since Day One. To die for: sautéed quail with mushrooms, chevre polenta and grape thyme jus.

Nancy’s Bar-B-Q, 301 S. Pineapple Ave., (941) 955-3400

The mouthwatering line-up of smoked meats, Southern sides and cold beer served in delightful old Florida style at Nancy Krohngold’s pitch-perfect barbecue joint is a Q lover’s dream.

Owen's Fish Camp, 516 Burns Lane, 941-951-6936

Owen’s serves clever and delicious Southern comfort food with aplomb in a charmingly renovated fishing shack under a big banyan tree. Don’t miss: fried blackberry pie with vanilla ice cream! —john bancroft

Hot Shopping

Downtown retail is on a roll.

Here’s what’s flying out some doors this summer.


Stitch Boutique, 1463 Main St., Sarasota (941) 366-7268

“Jumpers from Fluxus blow out of here as soon as we get them in. We’re on our third reorder of styles like Raquel and Sauve [from $119]. It’s an ’80s look inspired by the sexy jumper Michelle Pfeiffer wore in Scarface—a one-piece maxi dress with legs,” says owner Vinny Sizemore.


T. Georgiano’s, 1409B First St., Sarasota (941) 870-3727

“The hippie look is hot, and the essential mod shoe is Enigma’s nude platform clog [$115]. We’ve reordered them twice; customers love the look, and they’re so comfortable. I’ve made them part of my everyday summer uniform,” says owner Tatyana Sharoubim.


IOPTICS, 446 Burns Court, Sarasota (941) 955-5133

“Black black black is the haute color of fashion eyewear this summer—yes, summer—with maybe a little tortoise thrown in for good measure. We’ll see it in fashion mags, TV and movies in plastic in every shape from round retro, rectangle and square to the always fab cat eye,” says owner Sharon Katzman.


Main Street Traders, 1468 Main St., Sarasota (941) 373-0475

“Our tunics—Needham Lane’s in happy cotton prints, and shorter kurtas from Cape Madras in Cape Elizabeth, Maine—are a fun resort look and so comfortable, we can’t keep them in stock. The cotton is fabulous—so lightweight—and the price is right [from $59],” says the store’s Brooke Dye.


Juno & Jove, 1425 First St., Sarasota (941) 957-0000

“Calleen Cordero shoes are our No. 1 seller. We’re on our third reorder since the Pancho Weave sandal [$355] appeared in Vogue in January. When customers see any of Cordero’s shoes in the window they come in; they love the hand-crafted look, vegetable dyes and tribal patterns,” says owner Olivia Bono.


Living Walls, 1311 Main St., Sarasota (941) 957-4411

“No matter what Sandy Chilewich does, it’s a fabulous fashion statement, but her new series of pressed vinyl placemats [$34/4] in the Dahlia pattern are doing incredibly well. It’s the fussiest look she’s ever done, yet surprisingly modern in gunmetal—we can’t keep that color in stock,” says owner Alison Bishop.


Black Bird Home Gallery, 1540 Main St., Sarasota (941) 366-0941

“We’re doing well with handmade porcelain vases in pink [$18]—the hot color of 2011 for home. In furniture anything that’s unique or one step from the norm sells out quickly, from mirrors of teak and copper to side tables of hand-carved sandstone [$675],” says owner Wayne Rollins.



Just Add Tumbleweeds

Bridging Main Street’s dead zone.

It’s a common sight in downtowns: A bustling city center gives way to a quiet, less active area often called the “dead zone.” While the exact boundaries aren’t always agreed upon, downtown Sarasota does indeed have a dead zone, and it covers most of Main Street between Links and Orange. The energy of the tightly packed shops and restaurants at the west end of Main and the hub surrounding the Hollywood 20 movie theater to the east stand in stark contrast to this sleepy stretch of the street, where few pedestrians stroll and no big destination restaurant or entertainment center draws a crowd. City planners realize that for downtown to thrive, this area must become more than a stretch of road connecting dinner and a movie.

There are plans to “make it more pedestrian friendly,” says Randy Welker, Sarasota’s new economic development coordinator, including “streetscape efforts as well as destinations that would encourage more pedestrian activity”—which, the theory goes, will attract retail and dining development. One sign of life? Sean Murphy, owner of Anna Maria Island’s Beach Bistro, will open the second version of his Eat Here island bistro on the corner of Links and Main this fall (see page 130)—right at the edge of the dead zone —Beau Denton


Everybody’s Park

Ilene Denton pens an ode to Bayfront Park.


By my squishy calculation, I’ve trod the three-fifths of a mile around Bayfront Park some 3,000 times since we moved to a leafy little downtown neighborhood 20 years ago. I know every tree, bush, twig, bench, memorial plaque and crack in the pavement. I exclaim over the blooming gold trees in April and the olive trees in May. I nod at all the regulars: the dog walkers, bench warmers, Saturday morning joggers, old couples strolling arm-in-arm, dads and toddlers kicking soccer balls, baby-stroller pushers (both the strollers that contain babies and the ones that contain dogs), even some of the homeless guys, depending on what moods they appear to be in. I know who brings extra doggie treats, and what days the Ringling College students will appear with their easels for their plein air painting class. I’ve commiserated with Benny, the maintenance man, about which park regular’s been banned for flinging cigarette butts, and which one leers a little too creepily at women. This morning alone, I watched with a circuit court judge and his wife as a manatee reared up out of the water and gave a little wiggle of its tail. It’s a very friendly park. It’s my park. It’s everybody’s park.  

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