Creative energy reshapes Sarasota Design District

Community leaders in Sarasota’s Rosemary District and the coincident Sarasota Design District are eager to forge a pioneering identity in the city’s new urban redevelopment -- and they plan to do so with style. 

From an outsider’s perspective, downtown Sarasota’s historic Rosemary District may evoke a somewhat perplexing contrast between the haves and the have nots.

By day, Rosemary represents modern luxury. A stroll through the neighborhood features interior design business fronts, architecture and construction firms, galleries and showrooms filled with high-end furnishings that capture the attention of homeowners with an eye for sophistication. 

However, as dusk turns into darkness, the most visible population of displaced people in the city of Sarasota emerges in the Rosemary District. The homeless gather on the sidewalks by the dozens after sundown to seek the most bare necessities of a warm meal and a bed for the night at the local Salvation Army.

In the eyes of longtime local business owners and urban planners, Rosemary brims with unique character and a rich history that inspires its tremendous potential. The recent growth of the Sarasota Design District organization mingles with an energetic movement by ambitious developers to create residential spaces in the district -- a bold step forward in a neighborhood that has, for over a century, struggled to thrum a resilient heartbeat in the face of its disadvantages.

Getting our bearings

Central Avenue serves as the Rosemary District’s backbone. It is bordered by Fruitville Road and 10th Street to the north and south, and Orange Avenue and Tamiami Trail to the east and west.

Rosemary is the city’s original black settlement, known as Overtown at the turn of the 20th century, when racial segregation made it necessary for residents to develop an insular, self-sustaining community of homes and amenities -- including a church, grocery store, pharmacy and a doctor’s office.

By the 1970s, however, families began to move out of Overtown and into outlying residential neighborhoods. Healthy households and commerce were replaced by transience, drug abuse and prostitution. The Rosemary District struggled well into the 1990s. 

Creating transformational change

By the turn of the millennium, Rosemary’s unique historic structures and low rent began to attract the attention of building and design artists, such as contractor Pat Ball, who purchased and renovated the historic African Methodist Episcopal (AME) in 1986. 

“I’ve always made part of my business doing restoration art, and I was romanced by the old building. It had good bone structure so we gutted it out and put a whole new interior in it,” Ball says of the building, which was built in 1926. 

A boat-builder by hobby, Ball originally renovated the structure to serve as his workshop before converting it into office space. Today, the exposed, hand-masoned concrete block of the original church and neighboring Hood building houses Ball’s own construction business, two architectural firms, and a landscape architect.

“A lot of people drive through the district and perhaps see the homeless, or a lot of transitional or transient people -- and that’s all they see. Designers drive through here and see the buildings,” says Greg Hall, President and Principal Architect of Hall Architects, located on the ground floor of the old AME church.

“I think people in construction and design-related fields can look past the tarnish and patina that kind of develops and see the real bones of the place and its potential. This a very unique and special place.”

Hall is a founding member of the Sarasota Design District, an organization that launched in the summer of 2014. The Sarasota Design District is the brainchild of Michael Bush, president of the Rosemary Neighborhood Association and owner of Home Resource, a modern and contemporary home furnishing store.

“I have always felt that at the right time, Sarasota could have a real Design District. ... Earlier [in 2014] I sat down and mapped out every entity and their locations. I was shocked to realize that we effectively had 20 entities that were associated with home and design. From there, I got in contact with each merchant and said, ‘I have an idea, and I’m interested in seeing how people respond to it.’ The response was kind of amazing.”

Building community

More than half of the design-related business owners there formed the Sarasota Design District organization, which President Karen McKeiver, says aims to foster and promote the growth of building arts-related businesses in the community through education and outreach. 

“We want to bridge the gap between the building design world and the greater Sarasota community. … We also want to keep a certain amount of control, if possible, in growing the Design District and keeping the area building arts-related,” McKeiver says.

The first Sarasota Design District event was a “10 x 10,” an icebreaker in which business owners introduced themselves and their work to the community through short, visual presentations. The 150 attendees indicated an encouraging level of interest in the emergent Design District. 

The buzz humming throughout Rosemary is evident not only at the neighborhood grassroots level, but also at City Hall. According to City of Sarasota Chief Planner Ryan Chapdelain, there are six separate residential and mixed-use development projects planning to break ground in Rosemary. 

“I think the level of excitement in Rosemary with all these projects in the pipeline is somewhat palpable. … What we’re seeing there is a market for apartments in and around downtown, and I think the Rosemary District is ripe and ready for redevelopment,” says Chapdelain.

Aiming for urban density

In 2014, the city of Sarasota enacted a plan that allows for greater density in the district. The three-year plan implements an allowance for up to 75 dwellings per acre in Rosemary, tripling the previous code that allowed for 25 dwellings per acre, and giving the neighborhood the opportunity to expand vertically in the form of multilevel homes and mixed-use workspaces.

Private developers have set their sights on the potential of Rosemary to ultimately circle back to its origins as a neighborhood where residents may both live and work locally, now with convenient access to modern urban amenities. 

Projects in the pipeline at various stages include Vanguard Loft, a six-unit residential space; Cityside, an apartment complex slated for 450 units; 20 townhomes at the Villagio at Rosemary Place, and proposed mixed-use projects at Rosemary Square, Sarasota Flats and Risdon.

“Out of all of the projects being proposed in that neighborhood, I would say that 90+ percent of them have a very good chance of becoming a reality. The financial strength of the people behind the projects and the interest they've generated is key,” says veteran Sarasota Commercial Realtor Ian Black, whose office is located just outside the Rosemary District.

Black notes that the timing for development in Rosemary is ripe. The real estate market is healthy, and the projects are backed by committed investors.

“With a lot of these properties, there’s a significant amount of cash or equity going in to make them possible. These projects are not happening because banks are financing them,” Black says. “These projects are happening because there is a real demand for them.”

Innovative trailblazers

Vanguard Loft, designed by Rosemary District architectural firm Halflants + Pichette is the first to apply for a building permit review, and has already pre-sold four of its six 1,500- and 2,300-square-foot residential units prior to breaking ground.

“Vanguard Lofts is a game-changer,” says Black. “They’re bringing in exciting urban designs, and they’ve proven that they have people’s attention with their pre-sales. They’ve got four firm pre-sales -- a number that is pioneering.”

Principal Architect Michael Halflants says Vanguard Loft and the other residential development projects in the Rosemary District are innovative trailblazers in their efforts to promote a more modern, urban live-work culture in downtown Sarasota.

“It’s a sustainable thing to do to try to densify the core. Nationwide, the cities are densifying their cores. It’s a different way of living, to live in the neighborhood, or within walking distance of where you work,” Halflants says. 

“Here, the appeal is not just the businesses and restaurants that are in downtown Sarasota. We also have the access to the beach, the Selby Botanical Gardens, to the performing arts. … For a small city, it has a lot of amenities, and these new projects will provide attainable housing near those amenities.”

Halflants is associate professor at the University of South Florida School of Architecture and Design, where he teaches a class on modern housing. He believes that development in the Rosemary District could have the same positive impact in downtown Sarasota as the much anticipated development of the Channel District waterfront in downtown Tampa.

“I think Tampa is an example of a city that has a lot of potential to move forward with housing at its core. For awhile, downtown Tampa was just a business district, but now we’re seeing a few residential towers. … The city has a very different feel now that some of the housing has come back to the center.”

Challenges ahead

As for the transient population sharing the streets of Rosemary -- the answers are neither clear nor easy, but the general consensus among business owners and developers is that the growth throughout the Rosemary District will play a role in promoting change.

“There needs to be a concerted community effort to address this problem. It has been done elsewhere, and it can be done here. The resources are here to do it. It may not be fixed right away, but we need to start the process,” says Black.
“Obviously, there are people who will use it as a reason not to be in the area. There are other people who recognize it as part of the urban fabric. We’re not unique in that respect -- it happens all over the country. One thing that will help to alleviate the situation will be having more feet and eyes on the street,” he adds.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith is a freelance writer and certified yoga instructor living in the historic, colorful Gillespie Park neighborhood of downtown Sarasota. A Florida native, Jessi spent her childhood exploring the mangroves along the riverbanks of the Manatee River, and to this day refuses to live anywhere that is not within walking distance of a body of water. She received her BA in Art History from Florida International University prior to moving to Sarasota, where she channeled her passion for the arts into a writing career and found yoga to counteract the effects of hunching over a keyboard for days at a time. Today, when Jessi is not writing or teaching, she enjoys traveling, thrifting and indulging in the Bay area’s distinctive culinary and craft brewery scenes.
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