Village of the Arts creates sense of place in Bradenton

A typical neighborhood association might frown upon its residents painting their properties in bold hues of sunshine yellow, lime green, royal purple or fire engine red. So even at first glance, one thing is immediately evident about Bradenton’s colorful Village of the Arts: This is by no means a “typical” neighborhood. 

In the years since its establishment in 1999, the Village of the Arts (VOTA) has experienced mixed-success in its endeavors to carve out a niche as an eclectic, affordable live-work arts district in downtown Bradenton, FL. The economic recession that rocked the nation starting in 2008 took a heavy toll on VOTA, stalling its growth. But with the market on the rise, the Village is eager to begin a new chapter.

Today, the Village aims to grow by exploring a strategic process called creative placemaking, and is taking steps to establish itself as a definitive hub for arts and culture, with the help of the City of Bradenton and the nonprofit organization Realize Bradenton.

The goal of creative placemaking is to create a destination with an artistic social character and identity, to animate existing physical structures and spaces to facilitate cultural activities, and to promote greater visibility and business viability in a region or neighborhood built primarily upon the arts. This strategy is accomplished through a collaborative effort between cities, nonprofits and community sectors to share the workload in conceptualizing and implementing plans.

“What’s happening in the Village of the Arts symbolizes the best of what can happen when people come together to accomplish great things. It’s the best of placemaking when communities, city municipalities, nonprofits and businesses work together toward a shared vision,” says Realize Bradenton Director Johnette Isham.

Building an arts community from scratch

VOTA set roots in a struggling area near the southern end of downtown Bradenton, where by the late 1990s, several historic homes built in the 1920s and 1930s sat in states of disrepair following decades of neglect. Where most people saw blighted homes in a troubled neighborhood, the pioneering members of the Artists Guild of Manatee, the nonprofit organization responsible for the formation of the Village, saw something different: a blank canvas with low rent and exciting potential.

Through the Artists Guild’s efforts and cooperation from the City of Bradenton, VOTA was established as an overlay district, meaning that zoning regulations provide residents with uniquely lenient live-work rights within the Village’s approximately 42-acre boundaries. 

In the last 15 years, the neighborhood has undergone a visible transformation, as its dilapidated buildings experienced a gradual, colorful rebirth. Today, approximately 40 businesses—art studios and galleries, eclectic shops, restaurants and bakeries, a yoga studio, an independent bookstore and publisher, and two health and wellness centers operate within VOTA. 

But becoming the largest artist colony in Florida does not come without its share of growing pains. Simply defining a cohesive identity in an experimental, built-from-scratch, live-work community filled with strong-willed creative thinkers can be a challenge of its own, but throw in a market-crippling economic recession during the project’s formative years, and suffice it to say, VOTA’s first decade was a bumpy ride. 

“During the years when many other arts communities failed, the Village stuck it out. Just the fact that we’re here 15 years later is really good. We did not fail — and we went through one of the worst economic times since the Great Hurricane and market crash that rocked Florida in the 1920s,” says City Councilman Patrick Roff, elected official for VOTA’s Ward 3. 

Roff notes that although the Village is beginning to bounce back from the recession, it is currently operating at just one-third of its potential capacity. But as the Village enters its adolescence, Roff and other VOTA supporters believe it is prepared to grow.

A revitalized economy and real estate market helps. So does the fact that VOTA has won the support of community leaders, including Roff’s colleagues at City Hall, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and Realize Bradenton.

“I give credit to the stick-to-it-iveness of the Village residents who have been willing to hang in there through the hard times. Now, the City has really committed. There have admittedly been times when our commitment has been distracted, and that’s when Realize Bradenton took on the Tapestry study to redirect our attention. Now we’re ready for real progress, and the timing couldn’t be better,” Roff says.

Weaving the fabric of a community: The Village Tapestry

In spring of 2012, the Artists Guild, Realize Bradenton and the DDA teamed up with noted urban Sociologist David Brain and 17 of his students at New College in Sarasota to initiate the creative placemaking process in a project that would become known as the “Village Tapestry,” a conceptual outline of VOTA’s future. 

Brain’s students conducted a neighborhood conditions survey and led a series of community workshops to learn about the social fabric of the Village, and to identify how it could build upon its strengths. Among the Village’s greatest assets, they discovered a robust core of creative visionaries who came to be known as “Village Connectors.” 

“Some pretty obvious things popped out, like areas of activity central to the Village that really worked, and that there is a much more diverse population there than people recognized. We came to the conclusion there needed to be a social, community-building piece of work done to get people more connected,” Brain says. 

Assistant Professor Shannon Bassett from the USF Department of Architecture and Community Design in Tampa and two graduate research assistants, Adam Swirsk and Michael Marti, entered the project in Spring 2013 to drive discussions with the Village Connectors about urban design solutions. The USF team developed a plan for action, which Realize Bradenton would develop into a visual metaphor, the Village Tapestry. 

The Tapestry outlines resident-identified priorities: addressing lighting discrepancies and storm water drainage issues, the creation of water-nature green streets, better connectivity and transportation options to other areas of downtown Bradenton, activation of unused spaces through tactical urbanism, improved visual representation for the Village and expansion of the overlay district along Tamiami Trail. 

In just one page, the Tapestry weaves together “short-term,” “mid-term” and “long-term” plans to action for each of its key elements, providing a clear, goal-oriented outline to strengthen the physical and social fabric of the Village over the course of the next four years and beyond.

Village Task Force: Bringing plans to action

With the Tapestry Plan plan in place, the next step was to take action: Enter the Village Task Force committee. The Task Force was established in 2013 to ensure that there would be project leaders working to push the Tapestry vision forward.

The Task Force is chaired by Bank of the Ozarks Division President Kerry Ward, who also sits on the board at the DDA. Roff and Isham along with City Planning and Community Development Director Tim Polk, Public Works Director Claude Tankersley, DDA Executive Director Dave Gustafson and VOTA resident and Artists Guild President Amara Nash.

“My vision in pulling this task force together is to try to get the right people in the room,” says Ward. 

“We created a spreadsheet and looked at that Tapestry plan. We said, ‘OK, what are the things that can be done in the first couple years? What do we need to start laying the groundwork to accomplish two, three, four years out?’. From there, we decided who would be the leader in each project, and we started talking processes.” 

Polk and Tankersley created an ad hoc committee to address Tapestry bullet points at the city government level, including street flooding and lighting discrepancy in the Village, which residents say rendered parts of the neighborhood inaccessible or unsafe after dark, affecting viable business hours. 

“I believe in a process where first you plan the work, and then you work the plan,” Polk says.

“We know that if the public sector doesn’t step up and show real real buy-in for the project, it will be hard for the private sector to follow. They need to see how much public involvement is behind it before they make investments. We want to step up and show up, so we’re involved. We’re providing real dollars to the table whether from the federal government or general fund to do these projects.”

Public Works conducted a lighting study, and in January, city officials approved $120,000 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding to install approximately 140 new LED light fixtures in the Village, a project slated for completion by the end of 2015. Flooding problems have also moved to the top of the City’s priority list, beginning with the installation of a storm water drainage system and a new water main.

To increase visibility and help cement VOTA’s identity, Polk has also worked alongside the Artists Guild to change the ordinances in the Village to allow standardized signage, indicating to visitors which properties are open businesses and which are private residences. 

“In a neighborhood like the Village, it’s important to be able to see that this is a gallery space, this a restaurant, this is someone’s home — but the signs were violating our city ordinance,” Polk says. “So we were able to work with the ordinance and come up with uniform signage to show which businesses are open.”

Amara Nash notes that receiving support from the city has encouraged an upswell of optimism and participation in neighborhood projects at the community level in VOTA.

“When I talk to friends in other cities or people who have moved here recently, they’re just in awe of the support and buy-in we have from the City of Bradenton. The fact that they’re so willing to help is really exciting, and that excitement has crossed into the Artists Guild and throughout the Village,” Nash says. 

While city officials work to revitalize the sidewalks and streetlights in the Village, Nash says the Artists Guild and VOTA neighborhood committees have “taken on a number of projects to create a stronger sense of place and a stronger brand,” including developing a uniform color palette for signage and logos, standardizing PR verbiage, and designing and publishing an official Village map. 

“The more people involved, the more enthusiasm, which allows the whole thing to escalate in a more rapid and apparent way,” Nash says.

Growth and visibility for VOTA: 14th Street redevelopment

The special zoning in the VOTA overlay district is what provides the Village its unique character and potential to be a viable live-work arts district, but the district’s current boundaries present one the greatest dilemmas hindering the neighborhood’s success. The current geographic boundaries of the Village insulate its visibility from two main corridors of traffic, on the east side of 14th Street West (Tamiami Trail) and to the north at 9th Avenue West. 

VOTA residents and members of the Village Task Force agree that extending the arts district to the east side of Tamiami Trail and further north along 9th Avenue West would stimulate the visibility and economy of the Village by driving more traffic into VOTA.

A proposal to extend the overlay district was presented in a public meeting on April 2 at the Bradenton Police Department Substation on 14th Street West, and will undergo a final staff review before going to a planning commission on May 20 and a city council vote in late June.

In the meantime, the Task Force has its eye on the Manatee Inns site, a vacant 3.36-acre land parcel that backs up to the Village along 14th Street West, within the boundaries of the proposed expansion, and is seeking responses to a request for qualifications (RFQ) for developers and designers to share their visions.

When the Manatee Inns site was last up for development in 2008, Roff and Ward both note that a proposal for progressive, multi-use artist housing by Gorman & Company Development caught the eye of the DDA and city officials, but the project fizzled due to poor market timing. Both Task Force members indicate that the committee is still attracted to the idea of artist lofts, but hopes developers will let their imaginations take the reins as they respond to the city's RFQs.

“The DDA and Village Task Force kind of have a vision of what we think it should be, but we don't want to stymie anyone else’s creativity. We wrote into the RFQ that we want them to share that creativity with us,” Ward says.

Task Force members believe the right redevelopment project for the site could serve as a dynamic catalyst for the Village, and they are committed to keeping the public involved in the decision-making process. Once the selection committee chooses qualified proposals, they will undergo a public vetting process before any project is confirmed.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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