MANATEE -- Benderson Development won the approvals it needed to bring in a new retailer to the former Circuit City space at the Cooper Creek Center off University Parkway.
After negotiating on several issues, the county commission voted 6-1 to allow Benderson variances to the width of its buffers along University Parkway and Cooper Creek Boulevard. The company needed the extra room to expand the retail and delivery space to bring Ashley Furniture into the shopping center.
While the deal was not finalized Tuesday because Benderson was waiting for the county approvals before it could get the permits to expand, getting the new retailer will be a coup for the shopping center. The Circuit City building, an anchor in the shopping center, has been sitting empty for more than two years. Bringing a new furniture retailer into the area also signals that businesses see an impending turnaround in the area’s economy. The area’s closest Ashley Furniture store is in Brandon.
But it nearly didn’t happen.
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Last week the county’s Planning Commission rejected the variances that would allow enough room for furniture delivery trucks. The company worked on several different plans with county staff to try to meet the county’s requirements, but still did not have recommended approvals at the start of the meeting.
Still county commissioners said they wanted to be able to make the project work because they want to attract business to Manatee. Several commissioners also said that based on Benderson’s reputation with the county, they believed that a variance in the buffering would still be high quality.
Buffers are vegetation and other landscaping tools, such as berms and swales, that are designed to “convey to the traveling public a strong image that Manatee County is a high quality place to live, work and visit,” according to the county’s land development code. Buffers are also used to block noise from traffic and business in mixed-use communities where houses might be affected.
The Cooper Creek Shopping center is at the intersection of Interstate 75 and University Parkway and was a dying outlet mall with mostly empty storefronts when Benderson bought it in the late 1990s and turned it around. The transformation, including facade improvements and landscaping, brought retailers back to the area and impressed commissioners Donna Hayes and Robin DiSabatino.
DiSabatino said she often calls the developer when she visits the shopping center just to tell them how much she appreciates what they did at the site.
But the site had several limitations when Benderson bought it, including a large Florida Power and Light right-of-way along the border of the property. The large, grassy right-of-way offered plenty of distance between the shopping center and the road, but it did not leave a lot of room at the property line for the landscape buffer required of the developer.
In the end, Benderson won county commission approval, with Joe McClash voting no, for the buffer variances by promising to increase overall buffers.
“There’s no question that our development meets or exceeds the county’s requirements for Planned Development Mixed Use,” said Paul Blackketter, a project manager for Benderson. “This is an innovative use of modern design techniques. We’re not breaking rules or asking favors. This stays within the intent of the code.”
In other action, county commissioners approved an increase to some of the fees for parks and recreation services. The new fees pertain to tennis and racquetball, recreation instructors, personal training classes and the G.T. Bray recreational facilities. The new schedule offers a range of fees and does not clearly state what the new fees will be.
Parks and Recreation staff was also asked to reconsider fees for infants and toddlers. Currently babies six months and younger are admitted to facilities free of charge.