Sunday, August 9, 2009

Good Old Urbanism - Sarasota, FL

Continuing our exploration of examples of successful "old urbanism," existing communities that already manifest many of the principles of the New Urbanism .

Sarasota FL, a lush and quirky small city on Florida's Gulf Coast, is trying to use principles of New Urbanism to weave its various charming "old urbanism" districts into a cohesive live-work-culture-nature experience.

Blessed with a gorgeous location, nestled alongside the mid-Gulf Coast, an hour south of Tampa, protected by even more gorgeous barrier islands--here called "keys"--including Longboat Key, Lido Key, St Armands Key, Bird Key and Siesta Key--Sarasota is also the arts and culture capital of Florida.

In its very walkable and compact downtown, you'll find theatres, a beautiful opera house, a soaring modern library, a purple-painted waterfront concert hall, a municipal auditorium, upscale shops and restaurants, Whole Foods Market, and many art galleries.

A few blocks away, across the only scenic section of Tamiami Trail (Hwy 41), is the magnificent Sarasota Bayfront Park, lined each winter season with modern sculptures, and featuring a lovely tree-shaded walking path and park, impressive yachts, and two restaurants, one upscale and one of the sea-shack variety.

Several blocks south of Main Street, separated by a non-descript, pedestrian-indifferent office-building-zone, there is a charming antiques district, called Burns Square, along Pineapple and Orange Avenues, with restaurants and boutiques, an art movie house, and a neighborhood of artist studios offering monthly Friday night studio/gallery strolls.

Crossing Tamiami Trail and south a few blocks more, is the tiny retail crossroads called Southside Village, surrounded on one side by a lush neighborhood of old residental streets and on the other by the expansive Sarasota Memorial Hospital Center. Southside Village has been undergoing "upscaling" in recent years, and it's a delightful mix of lux gift shops, gourmet markets, restaurants featuring international cuisines, as well as cozy neighborhood bar-restaurants, bakery-cafes, hair salons and boutiques.

A few winding miles down the road is Siesta Drive, which crosses Sarasota Bay and winds through Siesta Key, a tropical paradise enlivened by Ocean Boulevard with its funky shops and restaurants, leading to an exquisite wide beach composed of soft, powdery white sand that is 99% crystal. Perfect for walking, swimming, sunning, parasailing, and sunset-watching and applauding, which is a nightly tradition on Siesta.

Heading northwest from downtown Sarasota, over a couple of short bridges, you enter the world-famous St Armands Circle retail district. It's a "circle" of short blocks that wrap around a park on St Armands Key. There is every kind of store and restaurant, as well as Lido Beach, a long and deep expanse of not-so-soft sand with unbroken vistas across the blue-green waters of the Gulf.

Over another couple of bridges and you're driving alongside the perfect lawns and landscaping of Gulf of Mexico Drive on Longboat Key, a golf-course- and luxury-high-rise-lined gold coast community with its own long strip of wild beach towards the north end. Cross another bridge and you're on lovely Anna Maria, a key of old houses and cute shops just north of Longboat and west of Bradenton.

All these bridges and keys, taken along with downtown proper, make Sarasota a diverting place to live. Within a few miles of any one spot is another with different views and amenities.

The urban design challenge for Sarasota is to connect at least a few of the downtown pedestrian districts with one another, so as to encourage walking and biking among them. Each district is charming, but one has to get into the car, drive, and find another parking space, in order to go from one to the other.

Another problem for retail and dining establishments in the area is the seasonality of their customers. It creates the odd phenomenon of a downtown filled with high rise luxury condominium apartment buildings and plenty of retail, yet lacking significant pedestrian street life. It's a very relaxing downtown compared to most, but not so healthy for the businesses trying to make a living there.

A step in the direction of energizing downtown Sarasota is the high-rise residential/retail complex anchored by Whole Foods Market. It has become a nexus for grocery shoppers as well as people working at their laptops either in the cafe within the store or at the tables outside. It's a lovely spot to grab a bite from the salad, soup, hot food, or deli counter and sit outside socializing with friends or simply watching the passing scene. There's a free parking garage on ground level right in front of the entrance to Whole Foods Market, which makes it easy.

Looking beyond the downtown core, Sarasota is a city of neighborhoods characterized by houses of many design styles and eras, most of which are serviced by convenient local shopping plazas. The commercial spine that links all the Gulf Coast cities in this area is Tamiami Trail (Hwy 41), a six-lane shopping strip with every chain store and restaurant and car dealership one could ever need (or not need!). It's convenient and also frazzling at times. Luckily there are ways to get many of one's errands done while mostly bypassing or simply crossing it at critical spots.

What's amazing about this city is that, from moment to moment, you can choose to be in a sophisticated urban downtown, or walking a soul-expanding white powder beach and staring out into the vast emptiness of the gulf, or sailing your boat on the bay, or enjoying a quiet life in a nice little house with citrus trees in your backyard, or taking advantage of theater and restaurants, all within a few minutes drive of wherever you started.

Residential real estate values, after soaring for a few years during the boom, have been battered by the onslaught of foreclosures sweeping the area, due to the current economic downturn. But as the real estate folks always say, "location, location, location," and the natural beauty and cultural richness of this town are still a big draw, especially to Boomers preparing to retire and longing to escape snow shoveling.

While the days of a $20,000 beach cottage on Siesta Key are long-gone, there are some real bargains to be had right now, if you can find the financing. With careful sleuthing, there are still good values to be found here, especially in older neighborhoods undergoing upgrading.

Part of Sarasota's appeal is that it's more age-diverse than other Florida towns--lots of young and middle-aged families, year round retirees, snowbirds, and singles of all ages. And it has an energy you can tap into if you're looking for things to do. It's also exceedingly laid back, requiring not much of anything if you want to kick back and enjoy gazing at seagulls and pelicans.

One other convenient feature of Sarasota is its airport, code named "SRQ": small, modern, and underutilized. It's only a 15 to 20 minute drive to the airport from downtown. Many travelers choose to fly into Tampa and take the 1 1/4 drive to Sarasota. But it's so easy and low key to arrive right in Sarasota, that it makes living here even more appealing. As soon as you're off the plane, you're "home."

More about Sarasota FL . . .

Amy A. Elder, Sarasota, 2003
Patricia Ringling Buck, et al, A History of Visual Art in Sarasota , 2003
Bonnie Wilpon, Bonnie Wildon, Sarasota-Bradenton, FL , 1999
Editors of Twin Lights, Sarasota, Florida: A Photographic Portrait , 2000
Chelle Koster Walton, Karen T. Bartlett (photographer), The Sarasota, Sanibel Island and Naples Book: A Complete Guide , 2001
John Howey, The Sarasota School of Architecture 1941-1966
Steve Rabow, Steve Rabow's Guide: Sarasota, Bradenton and Venice , 2000
Michael Brown, Streetwise Sarasota
Kevin C. Myers (preface), Buy It, Fix It, Sell It: Profit , 2003 (not specifically about Sarasota, but it's a thought . . .)