LAKEWOOD RANCH -- The massive development project taking shape north of State Road 70 is hard to envision while taking a quiet drive through its center. Only an occasional construction crew passes by amid empty farmland.
But when it's eventually completed, Lakewood Centre will be a mixed-use town center similar to Lakewood Ranch Main Street but on a larger, denser scale not yet seen in this master-planned community.
First approved seven years ago by Manatee County commissioners, momentum is building for the 697-acre project by Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. The plans include provisions for thousands of homes and apartments, more than 1 million square feet of both commercial and office space, and a 300-room hotel that could rise as tall as 12 stories, dwarfing any other building on the Ranch. The project stretches from Lakewood Ranch Boulevard in the east to Pope Road in the west, Malachite Drive to the north and SR
70 to the south.
The Lakewood Centre isn't expected to be complete for another decade or more, but signs of activity are already present in and around the land that was previously home only to grazing cattle and a star-crossed ice hockey arena that never came to fruition. There's an almost-completed new medical office building, a luxury apartment complex already full of tenants, another in the works and three adjacent neighborhoods with hundreds of new homes under construction.
With all that housing in place and much more to come, developer SMR says it's just a matter of time before the area reaches a "critical mass" of residents that will support new businesses and turn Lakewood Centre into an "activity center" with residences, employers and entertainment options in close proximity.
"We heard year after year after year of 'live, work, play,'" says County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, whose district includes Lakewood Ranch.
"By the time Lakewood Centre is built, you're really going to see that."
What it will look like
When Lakewood Centre is built out -- which is expected by 2026 -- it will feature a total of 4,683 residential units, 1.674 million square feet of commercial space, 1.463 million square feet of office space, a 300-room hotel and 36.8 acres of park land.
SMR officials examined other mixed-use town centers in Florida and around the country back in 2005-06 to formulate their own vision for Lakewood Centre. They visited locations such as CityPlace in West Palm Beach, billed as the "premier shopping, dining and entertainment district in Palm Beach County"; the upscale Mizner Park in Boca Raton; Stapleton in Denver; and the Reston Town Center in Virginia.
The aim was to study examples of a "more dense urban environment that allowed for walkability and that jobs-to-housing mix in close proximity," said Todd Pokrywa, SMR's vice president of planning. Lakewood Centre would be "a hub for entertainment, office and commercial use," he said.
Work has begun on the first of three phases of the Lakewood Centre project. First came the Lost Creek Resort Apartments complex on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, which leased its 272 units within six months of opening in 2011, then was sold off by developer P.A.C. Land Development of Winter Park for nearly $40 million.
P.A.C. is back for more with the development of Creekside Apartments, a 256-unit complex being built right next door on 17 acres of land across from Manatee Technical Institute's East Campus.
A little farther south, at the corner of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and Rangeland Parkway, construction crews are putting the finishing touches on a 25,400-square-foot, two-story building for Intercoastal Medical Group, the first office or commercial component of the project.
SMR has made a "tremendous investment" into the infrastructure needed to support all the new residents and added traffic in the area, Prokrywa said. The company paid for a new traffic signal at Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and Malachite Drive, which SMR is extending to the east to link up with Pope Road and the new Esplanade Golf & Country Club.
Rangeland Parkway -- formerly known as Center Ice Parkway, before the partially built ice hockey arena fizzled out about a decade ago -- has also been extended to Pope Road. And Pope has also been lengthened to the north and will eventually run straight up to State Road 64.
Commissioner Baugh has no concerns about the development's impact on infrastructure or traffic. Instead, she's excited about what it will mean to the region's economy.
"It's huge," Baugh said. "If you look at the county and tax revenue and jobs that are created, Lakewood Ranch really does contribute now. Once all of that is developed, we're just helping to increase our economy in Manatee County. It's going to increase jobs, it's going to increase revenue, it's going to increase entertainment."
Pokrywa credits flexibility built into the plans approved by Manatee County with allowing SMR to respond to market demands and other projects around the area. For instance, the developer got unanimous approval from commissioners in October to trade land uses within Lakewood Centre and give up some office and commercial space in return for more new houses amid a resurgent real estate market in East Manatee.
Several single-family home developments have popped up within a few square miles, including Taylor Morrison Home Builder's Esplanade, Builder Lennar's Bridgewater and Neal Homes' Central Park neighborhood. When completed, those projects will put more than 2,800 homes all around the perimeter of Lakewood Centre.
SMR is now turning its attention to adding town homes and smaller single-family homes, Pokrywa said, with more activity expected as early as 2014. And the mixed-use designation for Lakewood Centre would allow the developer to then woo businesses seeking new or relocated corporate headquarters with an abundance of workforce housing right next door.
"It's important we bring a critical mass of people in close proximity to bring that live-play dynamic," said Pokrywa, who declined to say just how many housing units SMR hopes to establish before adding more retail or office development.
There's also been "a lot of discussion" about options for the hotel, Pokrywa said. The need has grown since the advent of the Premier Sports Campus, a 140-acre facility built in 2011 a few miles up SR 70 that draws thousands of visitors for competitions and practices on its 22 sports fields.
Lakewood Centre has approval for a hotel of up to 12 stories tall, or 140 feet; the next tallest building in Lakewood Ranch is the Holiday Inn at University Parkway and Interstate 75, which stands at five stories.
Amid all the construction, SMR plans to preserve some of the land's natural beauty through parkland and a system of trails connecting through Lakewood Centre to the Esplanade. Parks and trails are "the No. 1 amenity people like about Lakewood Ranch, when you ask residents and prospective residents," Pokrywa said.
With more development coming rapidly, SMR's planners say they're mindful of how Lakewood Centre fits into the region.
"We need to really plan this and how it looks as a community so it's successful going forward," Pokrywa said.
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.