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.