Longboat Key revitalization plan will spruce up Whitney Beach, residents hope

jsalman@bradenton.comAugust 14, 2012 

LONGBOAT KEY -- Every day on his morning walk, islander John Perry passes multimillion-dollar estates, quaint boutiques and stunning Gulf views.

But that scenery quickly fades in a small corner of town known as Whitney Beach.

Instead, the 10-acre stretch along Gulf of Mexico Drive on Longboat Key's northern tip is plagued with run-down buildings, overgrown weeds and vacant storefronts.

Perry, who lives just blocks away, has grown tired of the eye-sore.

"Something has to be done," he said. "I keep hearing about these big plans, but I haven't seen anything."

The town of Longboat Key may have the key to change that. It has approved an overlay district for the island's blighted north end that area residents and businesses hope will spur change.

The overlay will provide more flexibility for property owners willing to invest in Whitney Beach by allowing multi-use development between two neighboring properties.

For example, if investors were to now purchase a commercial building and an adjacent residential lot within the district, they could develop both as either commercial, housing or a combination of the two, said Robin Meyer, the town's planning director.

The idea is to encourage someone to come in and spruce up several of the properties at one time -- also opening the door to more modern mixed-use developments that may feature retail, general office and residential space all in one building.

"The overlay allows people to share uses between property," Meyer said. "It gives us more options."

Whitney Beach began to spiral into decline in the 1970s, when Publix first opened on Longboat Key. The chain supermarket took key tenants -- and their shoppers -- to a more robust commercial center on the southern end of town.

The small commercial district at Whitney Beach never could keep pace.

The neighborhood now plays host to a run-down gas station, with boarded windows and failing structures.

An abandoned bank sits across the street, amassing

exotic weeds and knee-high grass.

Empty beer cans litter the wooded areas that separate the nearby shopping plaza, which has more empty storefronts than viable tenants. In one section of the shopping center, the roof has caved in.

A Boston development group that now owns the plaza has been promising change for more than a year. But things have only grown worse, said John Hutson, who operates a dry cleaner there.

He said the biggest problem is finding business through summer's slow season, when the population on Longboat Key shrinks from 28,000 in spring to fewer than 5,000 in September.

"It's really tough in the summer," Hutson said. "This place needs some good tenants. It's going to take something to get people from the other end of the island to drive up here."

Town officials hope the overlay is the answer.

When first proposed earlier this summer, the idea sparked opposition from some residents who feared it ultimately would lead to a new hotel or high-rise condos.

But the island's 40-foot height limit will remain in place there, easing many of those concerns.

Several independent groups, including students and architects from Ringling College, had pitched plans for what redevelopment could look like. Those ideas too scared many of the nearby villagers, said Mayor Jim Brown.

"Doing an overlay really is just adding a tool to the toolbox for people who might want to come in and turn that area around," Brown said. "It's still going to be a tough sell. You need lots of flexibility to get anybody to do anything in this economy."

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman

Bradenton Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service