Chris Wille: Bullish on Bradenton

Some years ago, Bradenton business and municipal leaders clamored for downtown housing as pivotal to breathing life into an underwhelming city center — mostly abandoned after the workday ended — and thus creating a robust atmosphere for development. Neighboring residents would, the theory goes, put downtown on the map as a happening place for people looking for an urban-style way of life within walking distance to restaurants, entertainment and jobs.

Development came at a slug’s pace. The Great Recession stalled efforts.

Now, revitalization is booming, led by major construction projects set for completion in mere weeks. Those include a high-rise hotel, a major museum expansion, a mixed-use parking garage with retail spaces and a public plaza nestled between City Hall and the garage. That progress coincides with several large residential projects that will bring hundreds of luxury apartments to prime real estate in the city’s core.

Residents already occupy the still growing complex in Old Manatee called the Preserve at Riverwalk, the name a nod to the planned eastward extension of the popular linear park Riverwalk. And that’s just in phase one of the sprawling complex, approximately bordered by 10th Street East and 12th Street East, the Manatee River and Manatee Avenue.

More luxury apartments, branded as the Aria at Bradenton, are rising along Manatee Avenue at First Street and Manatee Avenue. Kurt Kehoe, Orlando-based NRP Group LLC’s vice president of development in Florida, said the city was “very encouraging” about the project.

“The city has bent over backwards on development,” he said.

The complex will contain five four-story buildings and a clubhouse. He expects an October opening of the first building with pre-leasing in May.

“This is a great location connecting to downtown,” he said of the 9.2-acre property. The growth in the nearby workforce and the changing demographics as well as the site triggered the company’s venture.

Meanwhile, construction continues on an apartment complex called the Addison. Most of the units are dedicated to affordable rents as required by eligibility for federal tax credits to spur financing.

The four-story Riversong Apartments, on the Manatee River behind the performing arts center, opened in 2015 — beginning the outburst of large residential projects.

A pending streetscape project on Old Main Street that will link the riverfront with Village of the Arts will also boost downtown’s appeal and walkability. For years now, Old Main has continued to evolve as a dining and entertainment hub and people magnet with the addition of more restaurants and nightclubs as well as street concerts, a farmers market and other events.

In February, the City Council unanimously approved the streetscape project with a budget of more than $4 million. The two-year project aims to enhance the appearance and appeal of Main Street.

A bit of history puts all this in perspective and shows how far Bradenton has come in a relatively short time.

Well before today’s burst of growth, big ideas surfaced in a blueprint document called Downtown by Design. Among a host of objectives, the master plan sketched out Riverwalk.

But that citizen-driven visioning effort, published by the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority in 2007, sat on shelves as the Great Recession froze public and private investment.

Based on resident input, a mission statement for Downtown by Design reads: “Enhance the Riverfront Downtown area as a beautiful, livable, walkable, higher density, mixed-use place and an asset to the entire community and region.”

Carl Callahan, an executive in Bradenton city government since 1992 and currently the city administrator and economic development director, told me that Downtown by Design “really emphasized downtown housing.”

“We’re certainly happy to see” the various apartment projects under construction, he said.

Just one year after that road map to the future came out, the city launched another public-engagement operation — this one focusing on cultural development and placemaking as a driver of downtown revitalization. Some 1,500 people from business, arts, education, tourism and government came together to formulate another strategic effort, this one not so much about bricks and mortar. The effort led to the birth of Realize Bradenton, now a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the city’s social, cultural and physical assets. The development of public art became one of the focal points.

The organization also played a key role in the citizen-driven process that led to the design of Riverwalk, and construction began in 2011. The city’s $6.2 million investment opened to great fanfare in October 2012.

The linear park stretches from downtown’s Twin Dolphin Marina past Manatee Memorial Hospital. It features an amphitheater, a playground and splash pad, a skate park, a fishing pier, artwork and numerous other amenities — with pedestrian links to condos and apartments.

“We want to try to make this as walkable as we can,” Callahan said.

Last week, the City Council unanimously moved forward on an $8 million eastward expansion of Riverwalk by directing construction plans be drawn up.

Years before Riverwalk shovels hit the dirt, a dilapidated but beloved and historic hotel illustrated the steep climb to revitalization. Sitting vacant since 2005, the landmark went through a bank foreclosure in 2009 after it was boarded up by the city. Sitting at the southern terminus of the Green Bridge, the structure could not have been a worse first impression for visitors as the city’s northern gateway.

The hotel won widespread citizen support for preservation, and the city obliged, rejecting offers from several hoteliers who intended to demolish the old to make way for the new.

The city persevered for several years in a search of a buyer who would restore and renovate the historic 1923 hotel, known as the Manatee River Hotel, which closed in 1966 and became a senior citizens residence.

A private partnership came to town and took the rehabilitation risk, and in 2013 the $21 million Hampton Inn and Suites opened. The project won an award from the Florida Trust For Historic Preservation. And downtown finally had a signature hotel again.

Soon, the eight-story, 131-room SpringHill Suites by Marriott, a $22 million investment, will open across from City Hall. Downtown’s entertainment options will then sport a rooftop bar.

The multipurpose and multicolored $14 million City Centre parking garage and retail complex was designed to be an iconic presence with embellishments to disguise its principal purpose.

The debut of the $15 million expansion of the South Florida Museum is expected in June. The architecture of the North Education Center and Mosaic Backyard Universe will serve as public art with tall, glass walls showcasing the interactive backyard filled with planets that will be illuminated in the evening.

The $4.5 million expansion and renovation of the Twin Dolphin Marina will allow larger yachts to visit Bradenton.

ArtCenter Manatee, across Ninth Street West from the museum, intends to replace its 1955 building with a modern facility on the same property but directly to the east. The neighboring Manatee Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2013 to acclaim, took years to build since the board of directors pursued pay-as-you-go construction.

Manatee Memorial Hospital completed construction on its state-of-the-art, $33 million Emergency Care Center in December.

But back to the housing issue. As articulated by Callahan and others, people make the difference in the creation of a vibrant community.

All those new residents won’t be disappointed with the location. Realize Bradenton puts on dozens and dozens of events downtown, including the Bradenton Blues Festival on Riverwalk, all to fulfill its mission: “Enliven public spaces to create memorable experiences and a savvy buzz …”

Mission accomplished, as new residents will discover.

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This massive new development will help reshape Parrish – and bring new demands for services

During the course of his long career, developer Pat Neal has built more than 13,000 homes in Southwest Florida.

But the 5,842 homes he’s planning north of Parrish with his son, John Neal, would be the granddaddy of them all.

The Neals already have approvals to build about 2,000 homes for the Villages of Amazon South as well as a new property on the Fort Hamer Road extension.

“They will all be incorporated into a new community currently of about 5,842 homes at our North River Ranch,” Pat Neal said in an email to the Bradenton Herald.

“If approved, we plan to break ground in the new section of North River Ranch now called Haval Farms by summer 2019,” Neal said.

North River Ranch is part of a surge of development north of the Manatee River expected to bring more than 23,000 new homes to the area in the near future, affecting everything from traffic, to the classroom, and more.

Permitting for Haval Farms, planned for 3,842 homes and 82,000 square feet of commercial space on 1,280 acres, is working its way through Manatee County Government.

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DR Horton has the first phase of its 1,00 home development under construction west of U.S. 301 and north of the traditional Village of Parrish. James A. Jones Jr.

Ground already has been broken on a portion of North River Ranch, including the Amazon South property.

North River Ranch is located one-half mile south of Buckeye Road and borders U.S. 301 on the east side.

“We have broken ground and have sales (and closed title) to DR Horton, DR Horton Express, DR Horton Freedom, and two other public builders,” Neal said.

DR Horton has started land clearing and has a billboard on U.S. 301 advertising that new homes are coming soon to its Bella Lago neighborhood.

Sewer, streets, water and drainage are about 70 percent complete to a point about 1.5 miles north of Moccasin Wallow Road.

“This is the biggest property that John Neal and I have created. North River Ranch will be gorgeous, have the Neal attention to detail, physical beauty, landscaping, place-making and a beautiful physical environment,” Neal said.

“We intend to emphasize family life in this community, It has a great location, two new schools underway (North River High and Elementary School AA) and the possibility of a new middle school and other place-making amenities,” he said.


All of the growth coming to Parrish has not escaped the attention of long-time Parrish residents who worry about the future of the historic village.

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Alan Jones, shown here checking his young potato plants on his farm north of Buckeye Road, is taking a leadership role in helping Parrish adapt and prosper with all the new growth around it. Bradenton Herald file photo

“We don’t want to be forgotten and left as a blighted area,” said Alan Jones of the Parrish Civic Association. “All these new planned developments are coming in and we don’t want to be pushed aside. We don’t want a mishmash of cul-de-sacs and gated communities.”

Jones knows there is no stopping development, and says that Parrish residents themselves and county officials need to step up to ensure the 150-year-old village evolves progressively.

“There are a lot of things that need to be done in Parrish to have a sustainable, walkable community. The county needs to understand all the impacts to this village,” Jones said.

In essence, Parrish residents may have handicapped themselves by designing an overly restrictive overlay district years ago that discouraged developers from coming into the village and contributing amenities, Jones said.

An often-heard complaint in Parrish is the shortage of sit-down restaurants.

“All the things we need in our community, we don’t have. Even to the simple point of getting your hair cut,” Jones said.

An example of what Parrish could aspire to is Southside Village in Sarasota, home to Morton’s Market, and a clutch of attractive restaurants.

“Why can’t we be that?” Jones said.

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North Palmetto continues development boom. Coming soon: A new restaurant and hotel



Development in north Palmetto continues to grow with a new 140-room hotel, restaurant and mini-storage facility being planned as part of the same project at 1550 U.S. 301 N.

New development surrounding the 7.5 acres includes the city’s largest subdivision, Sanctuary Cove, currently under construction on 211 acres consisting of 176 new homes, and nearby will be the new Detwiler’s Farm Market location, which will be its largest site at 50,000 square feet.

The city is looking to clear a few zoning hurdles before design of the project begins. However, the owner, 301 North LLC, is in negotiations with Starbucks, First Watch and Geckos Grill & Pub as potential eateries for the site, as well as a national chain for the mini-storage site.

Palmetto Development Services Director Karla Owens did not name the hotelier, but indicated Extended Stay America, with 625 locations across America, is the likely chain interested in the site.

The vacant acreage was purchased by 301 North LLC in 2005 for $2.6 million at the peak of the real estate bubble, which began to burst the following year. A project planned 12 years ago fell victim to the Great Recession and never went forward. The latest appraisal, according to the Manatee County Property Appraiser’s Office website, lists the value at $812,180.

At the time, the city annexed the property at the new owner’s request, but because a general development plan was never submitted, it has sat without a zoning designation since the annexation.

Owens was directed Monday to begin working on the acreage’s designation, which will be commercial general. Once that hurdle is cleared, the developer can begin to work on and eventually submit a general development plan featuring design and potentially naming the businesses that ultimately will locate to the site as part of the overall project.

City attorney Mark Barnebey said Monday’s approval was only for the zoning request, which the city initiated, and not an approval of the project, which will come back to the commission when ready. Owens said the city initiated the zoning request, “Because this is something the city should have followed up on 12 years ago.”