Benderson plans trolley service to serve Mall at University Town Center

cschelle@bradenton.comJune 29, 2014 

UNIVERSITY PARK -- In a little more than 100 days, shoppers from as far as Tampa and Fort Myers are expected to pile in their cars to peruse the 100-plus stores in the Mall at UTC -- prompting worries locally about congestion as talk heats up about a major construction project for the Interstate 75 interchange on University Parkway.

A trolley service and bike-sharing program is in the offing to encourage shoppers to ditch their cars, as Benderson Development Co. seeks a series of approvals from Sarasota

County that would put the rest of its University Town Center residential and commercial components into motion.

Benderson plans to shuttle people from shopping center to shopping center along University Parkway, plans filed with Sarasota County this month show. Benderson is also asking for 600,000 square feet of additional retail space, and to relocate its residential component in a plan that details the transportation improvements.

The first phase of a free trolley service is expected to be ready in time for the Oct. 16 grand opening of the Mall at UTC, Todd Mathes, director of development for Benderson Development Co., told the Bradenton Herald last week.

Benderson plans to create four main trolley routes using private buses, along with two branch routes that could pick up shoppers from Lakewood Ranch, The Fresh Market and as far away as Fruitville Road in Sarasota.

The planned routes, covering at least a dozen square miles, include:

• UTC : Serving the Mall at UTC, Nathan Benderson Park and SuperTarget

• Cooper Creek: Two routes, clockwise and counter-clockwise, linking Shoppes at Cooper Creek, offices, Benderson headquarters and hotels with the Mall at UTC.

• Lakewood Ranch: Connecting to Lakewood Ranch Medical Center with UTC

• Meadows: Connecting Meadows residential area to UTC

• Fruitville: Connecting Osprey Commerce Center, Sarasota Commerce Center II and University of Phoenix campus to UTC

Benderson plans to spend $3 million to start the trolley service and spend more than $250,000 annually to maintain the service, according to an analysis by Benderson consultant Kimley Horn and Associates. County staff were not aware of any grant requests that could help Benderson's private shuttle.

"We've had a few different firms driving the routes recently to determine the most efficient headways, and we're talking to vendors that have flexibility in terms of trolley and shuttle types," Mathes said. "We want the service to be convenient and scalable, and will implement the service first within the properties Benderson has developed, from the Shoppes at UTC west to the Market at UTC and south to the mall."

Benderson has looked at leading transportation firm Veolia Transportation as one of its vendors for the trolleys, according to its application filed with Sarasota County.

Benderson is also required to build a Sarasota County Area Transit transfer station on the UTC property, which would also be used by Manatee County Area Transit and the private trolley service, providing a regional mass transit link to the bustling retail corridor.

"We're now looking at opportunities putting it adjacent to this property on Benderson Park property," said Tom Polk, director of Planning and Development Services for Sarasota County.

The station, which would handle eight buses, could have a temporary surface location operating by July 12, planning officials said. Benderson is finalizing its design before construction begins, and the county hopes to have the station open in time for the mall's opening.

As some of the routes enter into Manatee County, Manatee County Area Transportation staff would provide comments on the plans because the submission is part of a Development of Regional Impact modification. That prompts comments from neighboring jurisdictions, said Sage Kamiya, deputy director of Public Works, traffic management. But a separate formal request to establish the trolleys would not be needed in Manatee.

Two regional planning councils, state agencies and the City of Sarasota will also review the requests, Polk said.

Len Smally, manager of the Meadows Community Association, was at a sparsely attended neighborhood workshop Wednesday held by Benderson concerning the changes. While Mathes was informative about the modifications in residential and retail items, Smally said, nothing was mentioned of the trolley service.

Smally had heard that a trolley is in the works, but didn't know until asked by the Herald that Benderson has mapped out a stop in his privately managed community. Nonetheless, he's receptive to the proposal.

"I'd have to take that issue to the board, but I think we would be glad," Smally said. "Mass transit is great. It keeps people off the roads."

The Meadows' roads are technically private roads, Smally said, so a shuttle stop would require board approval.

Mathes said those routes, such as the Meadows, would be brought to the community to determine whether they would be receptive to being added in a future phase.

Transportation key for project OK

In Benderson's request, the University Park-based developer is also seeking permission to tweak its University Town Center property beside the mall and Sports Authority. Benderson is asking for an additional 600,000 square feet in retail and another 100,000 square feet in office space to bring totals for retail space to 2.28 million square feet, which includes the mall, and 320,000 square feet of office space.

Transportation will be a major consideration when requesting additional retail and office space, Polk said.

"It is a substantial increase, so transportation is important to that already-impacted intersection," he said.

It's not just cars and buses that are in the mix. Benderson is also proposing a bicycle sharing program for the area, allowing people to find a stand and rent a bike for a ride to get around the park and shopping center.

Benderson is working with Alta Planning and Design, a top pedestrian and bicycle engineering company, to create a network of paths and trails for the program.

"Initially we'd like to install stations near the future SCAT facility, close to the park and close to our hotels so visitors to our area can safely and efficiently rent a bike and explore their shopping, dining and recreational options," Mathes said. "Helping our customers to park once and our neighbors find alternative modes to work, shop and dine at the UTC shopping centers will have a tremendously positive impact on the community we're building."

Bike share stations are planned for about 10 locations in all, with much of it within the UTC property and one at the southern entrance of Benderson Park, with all of its recreational amenities.

The county is also hiring a bicycle transportation coordinator to examine bicycle planning improvements.

The changes could influence decisions on other planned transportation improvements in University Park. Sarasota County staff members are still identifying possible improvements.

"I would suggest those projects would take this into account, and that's what we're trying to plan for in the future," Polk said. "We've had a long history with Benderson Development identifying necessary road improvements, mitigating their impacts with this project."

Benderson is studying a network of 10-foot-wide off-street trails along University Parkway and throughout University Town center. The network would include a pedestrian overpass linking a proposed trail connecting Cattlemen Road, launching over Interstate 75 and connecting to Professional Parkway in Lakewood Ranch. Benderson is also looking at intersection improvements along the extended portion of Cattlemen Road at Nathan Benderson Park, as well as on DeSoto Road at the UTC entrance and in front of the planned Homewood Suites.

In Manatee, Benderson is studying adding a roundabout on Cooper Creek Boulevard at an entrance to the Shoppes at UTC, and intersection improvements at Cooper Creek and University Parkway, as well as Honore Avenue at University Parkway.

More retail to come

Benderson is also requesting to move its residential component of UTC to the southwest corner of its property to make way for retail and office space east of the mall, with hopes of beginning work there in the first quarter of 2015. A 140,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shops store is planned for that space.

"We currently have approval to build office, retail and residential and hotels within that area of UTC, and are proposing the expansion because the configuration of our existing improvements can accommodate the additional space," Mathes said. "There's always been a strong market demand for the expansion, especially the additional retail space given the residential growth."

The county would have to approve the changes before Benderson could start its retail construction on the eastern property, Polk said. The proposed plan also shows a parking deck to serve the retail and office space on the eastern shopping area, as well as a parking deck for a future department store at the Mall at UTC.

Benderson is incorporating property acquired on the western edge of UTC to use as open space, according to the application, as well as vacant land it bought from a church on DeSoto Road that could be held for future development.

What the residential mix will look like is still being determined, Mathes said. The county removed an affordable housing requirement in a previous approval. Between 750 and 1,750 homes can be built at UTC.

"We're not proposing any changes to our existing residential approvals aside from a reconfiguration of the location of the residential component within UTC," Mathes said. "We are moving forward now on construction of our first hotel at the property, and are very excited about that."

The rezoning submission is considered a substantial deviation from the Development of Regional Impact, altering various thresholds for changes to floor space, building location and boundaries of the property.

"There are percentages set forth in the statutes, so that's what trips more changes to the DRI," said Sarasota County Mark Loveridge.

Benderson's bundled requests include four major components, Loveridge said:

• A major comprehensive plan amendment for changing the future land use map with text amendments

• A DRI approval

• A rezoning petition for changing the boundaries and amending stipulations for the development

• Request a special exception that essentially restates permission for having an outdoor garden center, changing perimeter setbacks to zero feet within property, stating hours of operation for business and establish hours for outdoor and indoor entertainment

The county is in its first 30-day sufficiency review and additional review period is likely, according to Sarasota County planning staff.

Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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