On Thursday, the Manatee County Planning Commission took the first step toward encouraging redevelopment along six “urban corridors” in the unincorporated area: Tamiami Trail, 15th Street East, 53rd Avenue West (State Road 70), Cortez Road, Manatee Avenue West and First Street (U.S. 41).
The advisory panel recommended that the County Commission amend the county’s comprehensive land use plan to allow significant increases in potential homes per acre and square footage for offices and retail on properties flanking those major thoroughfares.
If all of the owners of those properties totaling 2,768 acres took advantage of what could be allowed under the proposed rules, the number of potential homes could increase from 7,579 to 24,816. The square footage for retail could increase from 12.29 million to 23.4 million. Square footage for offices could increase from 7.1 million to more than 11 million.
Additional density may be awarded for including features such as affordable housing, public open space or garages instead of parking lots.
If such bonuses were given to all of the properties, the number of homes could be 30,344 and the square footage for retail and offices could reach 36.57 million and 14.38 million respectively.
County planner John Osborne, however, said that maximum build-out — which presumes each property along the designated roads is redeveloped — is unlikely to ever happen.
Pat Tyjeski, a planner with Littlejohn Engineering who is helping with the comp plan revisions and upcoming changes to the land development code, stressed that property owners do not have to take advantage of the suggested options.
“They can still use current standards,” she said. “…We may still see the same ol’, same ol’. We’re not changing anybody’s land use category.”
The hope, Osborne said, is that at least some property owners will take advantage of the extra flexibility.
Existing land use regulations are geared toward the type of lower-density, suburban development that continues to spread in East County, county planners say — making it easier to erect a new subdivision on a cow pasture than redevelop in declining areas that already have utilities, schools and other public services.
The type of mixed-use development with apartments or condos within walking distance of shopping and entertainment that many young adults and retiring baby boomers say they prefer requires so many exceptions and special approvals from the county that developers do not attempt it, Osborne said.
“We need to loosen the handcuffs to allow bigger and better things to happen,” Osborne said.
Planning commissioners and residents who spoke to them shared varying opinions about the merits of allowing greater densities along the six thoroughfares.
“Don’t rush to judgment on this thing,” said Ernest Marshall of the Federation of Manatee County Community Associations. “…The biggest thing to consider is to do it right the first time.”
The federation submitted a statement stressing that “the vast majority of our residents do not want our county to be developed like another high-rise Miami or Fort Lauderdale.”
The organization wants “enforceable language” to require new developments to set up special taxing districts, similar to what already exists in Lakewood Ranch, to pay for their traffic and other impacts and to “confine and sound proof” noise that could affect existing neighborhoods.
“I’m one of the few skeptics of this plan,” said Planning Commissioner Matt Bower, who cast the lone vote against it.
Bower called for not allowing higher densities on Manatee Avenue and Cortez Road any farther west than 34th Street West. He said he would prefer that just the Tamiami Trail and 15th Street be test sites to see how the new rules are implemented before extending the redevelopment options to other areas.
Planning Commissioner Paul Rutledge disagreed. “I think this is a progressive approach,” he said of the recommended policies. “…I like it very much.”
Thomas Denslow, an architect who said he has a client interested in building a hotel on U.S. 41, said the proposal “creates density where it belongs” instead of distant farmland. “I have faith this is going to work.”
Dave Gustafson, former director of Bradenton’s Downtown Development Authority, said the city initially encountered skepticism when it proposed redevelopment of the riverfront and a historic downtown hotel but now those results are widely praised.
“This is the exact same scenario,” Gustafson said of urban areas in the unincorporated county. “…It’s a development opportunity for areas that have been forgotten.”
County planner Lisa Barrett noted that the Manatee Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the recommended policies.
The planning commissioners agreed with Bradley Latham of the Palma Sola Park Association, who asked that the portion of Manatee Avenue west of 75th Street — which is flanked strictly by residential — be omitted from the designated redevelopment area.
The County Commission will decide whether to tentatively approve the amendments to the comp plan. If it does, the Florida Department of Economic Development will have a say and send the policies back to the commission for a final vote.