WEST BRADENTON -- Lifelong Manatee resident Whiting Preston's vision to transform his family's West Bradenton farmland into an urban village may soon become a reality.
Plans for Lake Flores -- a 1,322-acre mixed-use community calling for 6,500 residential units, 1 million square feet of retail space, 2 million square feet of commercial space and 500 hotel rooms -- were filed May 29, 2014. The general development plan and request for rezoning are expected to go before the Manatee County Planning Commission on July 9 and to the Manatee County Commission sometime in August.
"We are excited about it," said Preston, president of Manatee Fruit Co. "Nothing has really changed from our initial submittal and intent of our submittal, which is to invigorate this part of town. We are trying to create with the project a sense of place in West Bradenton for people to potentially enjoy with various uses -- not only people who live in the community, but people who surround the area."
The project seeks to transform a swath of farmland south of Cortez Road, east of 86th Street West, north of El Conquistador Parkway and west of IMG Academy.
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Because the project calls for more than 800 residential units, it falls under the county large project review process, which Preston calls a "comprehensive review process." Discussions with the county started at least a year before plans were officially filed, he noted.
"Because of the comprehensive nature of large project review, the county wanted to evaluate all the aspects of the project -- planning, utilities, traffic and environmental, just to name some," Preston said.
What will it cost?
Asked for an estimated development cost, Preston said it is too early to predict. Preston also wouldn't say whether he would be the sole developer.
"We are definitely going to need to bring in some expertise in various parts of this project, so we have had a number of discussions relative to this, but again most people are waiting on this GDP plan to get approved before moving forward," he said.
Lake Flores, with an estimated 20-year buildout, is ultimately for future generations, Preston said.
"We are trying to create a bright future for Bradenton, and we think this matches up with creating those bright futures that
will help the future generations that live here and move here," he said. "We have sort of the right ingredients to have a really interesting viable part of the community."
Trends toward mixed use
Developments similar to Lake Flores are becoming increasingly popular in Florida and across the country.
Eliza Harris Juliano, director of urbanism with Canin Associates, is a master urban planner in Orlando working on the Lake Flores project. She cites a number of reasons why these developments are gaining popularity:
Millennials and baby boomers are looking for less maintenance and more convenience in where they live. People want to quickly get to the grocery store and restaurants without driving. Families want to give their children a little bit of freedom before they get their driver's license.
"As downtowns are getting more expensive, more urban places are being built in places outside of downtown, and to get a suburban place, you have to go farther and farther out every year," Harris Juliano said. "Looking at suburban infill locations like Lake Flores is becoming more important."
Trends toward these type of developments have been "slowly building up for the last 20 years, but really accelerated in the last decade," Harris Juliano said.
Canin Associates developed a similar project in the Orlando area called Avalon Park. When the urban planner drafted a 50-page draft design code for Lake Flores, they used lessons learned, including the best place to locate a commercial center within the project, Harris Juliano said.
The town center in Lake Flores is proposed at the edge of the community at Cortez Road and 75th Street West.
"Lake Flores town center is at the edge of the community accessible to people in the community but also neighbors around," Harris Juliano said. "The hope is that people who would otherwise have to go much farther down Cortez would be able to do that closer to home."
Throughout Lake Flores, there would be a lot of green space in the form of parks and a new 19-acre manmade lake. Housing within Lake Flores would be a mix of single family homes, townhomes, apartments and condos, Preston said.
"There will be a broad palate of residential units as we can attempt to achieve," he said. "The marketplace will dictate what gets built."
Focus on Southwest Manatee
With the establishment of the Southwest Tax Increment Financing District and update of the county Land Development Code, the county is focusing on redevelopment along the urban corridors and in the southern portion of the county.
Within the boundaries of the TIF, Preston believes Lake Flores can be the largest single contributor. If 3 million square feet of office and retail space and 500 hotel rooms are built, Lake Flores will create 11,000 jobs from the project, Preston said.
The SWTIF was created to focus on redeveloping Southwest Manatee. Much of the revenue funding the TIF is expected to come from tax receipts from new development such as Lake Flores, and that money will go toward public safety, transportation and small business projects and rehabilitation.
"There could be a very big potential in terms of job generation and improving household income in this part of the county, which is why the county put together the TIF," he said.
At buildout, Lake Flores will create about a $2 billion tax base, Preston said.
"If all those things come to place, then it would be a huge economic boom," he said. "There is going to be more funding that comes available to redevelop this part of town, and clearly those neighborhoods are going to benefit as well. And as their property values go up again, those monies will also be available within the TIF. It's not just Lake Flores. It's all the properties within this area. It is a pretty big area."
Whether Lake Flores could spur other redevelopment in the area is yet to be seen, but Preston said he thinks it could prompt others to come into the area. Long Bar Pointe, a proposed mixed-use residential project on 463 acres near Sarasota Bay off El Conquistador Parkway, is another large-scale development planned in the county's urban service area. Long Bar Pointe would neighbor Lake Flores.
"I think this will help give some confidence to people who have property and who have interest in this part of town in investing in West Bradenton and helping to redevelop West Bradenton in some of the more tired areas that have aged," Preston said. "I think this will not only help the project itself by getting this approval, but I also think it has a great impact on the neighborhoods that surround it in a very positive way. I think it will help everywhere."
In the Land Development Code, which favors less walkable areas, it is "very difficult to reuse and redevelop a site," county planner John Osborne said. For example, an area like Bradenton's Old Main Street with a sense of place would be illegal to build today under the code, he said.
"There is no flexibility to build things that we actually cherish in Manatee County," Osborne said. "The code hasn't kept up with development trends and people are going back to more walkable areas."
The county is rewriting the code to make redevelopment easier along the urban corridors and in infill areas such as Lake Flores.
The code rewrite will allow for more "flexibility in design and encourage people to have a chance to develop and use property more efficiently," Osborne said.
Without residents living in an area, it is difficult for businesses to stay open. Projects such as Lake Flores help bring new people into the area, Osborne said.
"Any time you have more people moving into the area, you have more economic development for the area, restaurants and shops," he said. Lake Flores would be "another shot in the arm economically in an area that really needs it."
Pointing to Lakewood Ranch's Main Street as the closest thing the county has to mixed use and New Urbanism, Osborne said it has become a successful destination in East Manatee.
"Lake Flores may be something like that for Manatee County if approved by planning commission and board," he said.
Public input on Lake Flores
Since Lake Flores is different than typical Manatee County projects, Preston has been speaking to various groups in the county about his vision. On Thursday morning, Preston and other members of the Lake Flores development team will speak at the Bradenton Country Club.
"We felt it was important to get people to understand and get on board with the fact that this should be a very positive impact to this part of town overall," Preston said. "There are always challenges, but overall, if you take a look at the entire project and really what it means for this part of town, it should be a very, very good project for Manatee County."
Preston wants to ensure Manatee residents understand the Lake Flores development.
"I think it is really important for people to have a way to ask us questions directly and for us to answer the question so that they understand what it is we are trying to do," Preston said. "By having these meetings and by having people be able to stand up and ask a question, generally, they've appreciated it, and it is one of the reasons we have had so much support for this project."
As another mechanism to hear from the community, BradentonsFuture.com was launched in February 2014. So far, there have been more than 200 comments on the website, half of which have been positive and the other half critical or neutral, Preston said.
Increased traffic is the biggest concern.
As Manatee County continues to grow -- it has grown by 50,000 people in 10 years -- traffic congestion skyrocketed, especially in season. Lake Flores would have more amenities close to homes as opposed to more sprawling neighborhoods in East Manatee, which Osborne said would require shorter and fewer car trips, reducing the number of cars on the roads.
Lake Flores also has a 50-foot-wide path running through the property connecting the town center to IMG Academy. The multimodal trail would encourage other methods of transportation such as walking, running and biking.
"The people that live in those places like Lake Flores, trips are a lot less and reduced in length and what they do recreationally, they don't take a car to get to," Osborne said. "There are certainly great things happening in the area. Efficiency happening in Lake Flores."
As the community expresses concerns and comments about the project, the development team has posted responses.
"A recurring theme in many of the negative responses we get to our vision of Bradenton's future is that new developments are the reason Bradenton's population spikes and traffic increases," a post on the website reads. "The fact of the matter is, it's actually the other way around: it is growth that drives development. ... Far from being the problem, responsibly planned communities -- like that which we envision in Lake Flores -- are a necessary response to growth that is already coming."
IMG welcomes Lake Flores
The Preston property will be developed regardless, said Chip McCarthy, co-managing director of neighboring IMG Academy.
The question is how?
"We are extremely excited that the landowners are master planning this project," McCarthy said.
McCarthy said the area needs this project and developers are invested financially and emotionally.
"They have community ties to it," he said. "The owners live in the community. It is something that is important to them, which I think is great."
McCarthy said IMG Academy has met with the Lake Flores team multiple times.
"I think they are doing that with everyone," he said. "They are trying to do everything in the right way and get collaboration in the community. I think we cannot be in a better position."
With the internal travel planned for Lake Flores, McCarthy said IMG Academy students and clients could use those paths to traverse the property. The 500 hotel rooms would also help address the hotel room shortage in the immediate area.
"You have a work, live, play situation, which is way more sustainable and a better overall environment for everyone involved," McCarthy said. "It is a large parcel which you don't typically see with urban sprawl. ... It is something that is needed in our community and something that we would love to see."
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.