BRADENTON -- The pitch from Ed Vogler and his business colleagues described a grand vision for the pivotal waterfront land known as “the Sandpile:” an 20-screen movie theater, a hotel and a complex of restaurants, retail stores and residential developments.
Most importantly, the project would kick off within six months.
That was 13 years ago. Today, an apartment complex has been built where the movie theater was to have been. While another residential unit has also been built, the restaurants, stores and a hotel are still in the planning stages and have no time line for construction.
On Wednesday, the Bradenton City Council will hold a public hearing over a key revision in yet another residential development on the waterfront land: River Song, proposed to offer small apartments for rent at $900 to $1,500 a month.
It’s a plan that, for the past two years and up until last month, called for ground-floor retail, something city planners and several activists believe is pivotal given downtown Bradenton’s need for revitalization. But developers are now seeking the council’s permission to remove that retail, the latest and most controversial adjustment in a River Song plan that has changed four times since it was introduced.
To Vogler, who has served as the public face for various entities involved in Sandpile development since 1999, the latest River Song change before the city council is a minor adjustment made necessary by “post-2008 fall-out” that left commercial entities with no interest in ground-floor retail at River Song.
“We’ve returned to the historical approval that has existed for this site over time,” he said in mid-May to the city’s planning commission, which approved the River Song change by a vote of 3-2.
But many others say the council’s decision on River Song will drastically affect the future of downtown Bradenton.
“I really think the council needs to look at what they’re allowing to happen,” says J.B. Taylor, chair of the city’s planning commission, who voted against the River Song change in May. “This is the last individual piece of property in the downtown area that is on the river. I’d rather it sit fallow for a couple more years than be developed like this. We need economic development -- but we need the right kind of economic development.”
“If I were on the council now, I’d say wait a while for something good to come along, rather than have a development that won’t be viable 10 years from now,” says Jeff Carman, a councilman from 1997 to 2001. “Wait for something better to come along. Rentals aren’t the way to go, in my opinion.”
“It’s sat there this long and we’ve lived without it,” says Bill Evers, who was mayor when Vogler’s corporation, Bradenton Riverfront Partners, first pitched their grand plan in 1999 for 28 acres of the Sandpile. “So let’s save it and get what we want down there, not what some developer wants. If we have to wait for another five years, it’s worth waiting for.”
Vogler, a real estate attorney, is one of five partners in Bradenton Riverfront Partners II and also represents the developers seeking to build River Song. He contends that opponents to River Song, which would consume about 3.5 acres of the Sandpile’s remaining 13 acres, are misconstruing its role in the overall development plan.
Retail and commercial development is still part of the overall plan, Vogler says. Residential development has always been a high priority, to city planners as well as his company, and is needed to attract and support commercial development.
“The plan conceived by Bradenton Riverfront Partners, in the urban form as a mixed-use project with front-end loaded residential to create the market for commercial and retail, exists and is being implemented consistently and logically over a period of time,” Vogler says. “There haven’t been any interruptions to that vision except for the marketplace.”
Before Riverfront Partners
The delays in development that have occurred since Bradenton Riverfront Partners’ involvement are only the most recent in the 45-year history of the Sandpile, a 55-acre chunk of land created in 1966 when sand was dredged from the Manatee River bottom.
“One of the greatest waterfronts in the world and an attraction beyond compare” is what Sterling Hall, Bradenton’s mayor at the time, described as his goal when he and the council moved forward with a $2.6 million, 30-year bond issue to pay for the Sandpile.
For the next 10 years, at least nine ideas for the Sandpile came and went without any development. They included a botanical garden, theme park, collection of museums, shopping center, replicas of Christopher Columbus’s ships, a branch of the University of South Florida, a 35-acre zoo, “the world’s largest swimming pool” and a public library.
In 1977, another common theme of the Sandpile emerged: complications. That was the year city officials discovered the land they’d created still belonged to the state, which owns all “submerged lands.” The city worked out an agreement to buy the Sandpile from the state, but was prohibited from ever selling it.
Then came a new series of grand plans unrealized for the Sandpile. For two years, the city council pondered an idea to build a civic center on the site, a plan that eventually came to fruition in Palmetto and resulted in the Manatee Convention Center.
Four other plans came and went over the next 20 years -- several courtesy of some of the region’s best-known developers and community leaders, and each with the goal of building some combination of hotels, restaurants, retail, office and residential development.
One of those failed ideas came from former Sen. John McKay, who wanted to build a low-rise office building for Staff Leasing, then one of the state’s largest employers. Another idea that never came to fruition was a collection of low-rise office buildings pitched by former construction leaders Mike Carter and Dan Blalock.
The area was even considered for the city hall and safety complex that now sits off the water on 12th Street.
Several times, the city entered into long-term leases and several times, the developers in charge defaulted or pulled back.
Despite so many failed plans, the period of 1984 to 1998 also led to some key developments on parts of the Sandpile. Those include the Holiday Inn Riverfront (now the Courtyard Marriott), the Plaza del Rio office complex, and the River Yacht and Racquet Club.
Interest in developing the rest of the Sandpile reached an all-time high in 1998, when five developers stepped forward with interest in leasing and developing the 28 acres that remained of the tract. They included Vogler’s Bradenton Riverfront Partners, which was eventually chosen by the city for the project.
The modern era
When Bradenton Riverfront Partners signed an “option to lease” agreement with the city council in 1999 over 28 acres of Sandpile property, optimism and urgency ruled the day. The 99-year lease the partnership eventually signed with the city in March 2000 proclaimed that the proposed development was “in the best interests of the economic redevelopment of the downtown areas of the city of Bradenton.”
The lease, which required annual payments of $10,250 per acre, required development on the multiplex to be completed within six months, barring permitting complications. It also required development on the rest of the plan, which included a hotel and restaurants, to be started within two years.
It included additional payments due for development delays, and it gave the city the option of taking back tracts that had not been developed after five years.
The business people leading the project brought a history of success. David Band and Mark Kaufman, two of Vogler’s partners, had just completed the Hollywood 20, now a key attraction to downtown Sarasota. Ron Allen, another partner in Bradenton Riverfront Partners, had built the highly praised Lakewood Ranch High School and Manatee County Government Administrative Center.
Benderson Development, which originally was competing with Bradenton Riverfront Partners but then teamed up with the group, had a history of successful development throughout the region. And Vogler was a longtime business leader whose credentials included leading the Manatee Chamber of Commerce board.
But even before Bradenton Riverfront Partners began making lease payments, its plans changed. The first step off the charted course, in 1999, involved Tropicana: Vogler and his partners saw a chance to woo the juice giant’s office complex to the Sandpile and reworked their plan around the possibility.
That effort failed, delaying the Sandpile’s further development about nine months. In 2001, the movie theater pulled out. Bradenton Riverfront Partners eventually replaced it with what was then called MainStreet at Bradenton, and what is now known as 210 Watermark.
The pattern of delays continued as questions arose over the extension of Third Avenue West, which was to be the prime road leading to the development. Though those issues were eventually sorted out, they played a role in slowing development plans. The 99-year lease with Bradenton Riverfront Partners went through three amendments between its signing in 2000 and December 2004.
Amid a troubled real estate market and foreclosure actions, the eight-story condo development known as River Dance was started and completed, and plans for the residential development now in question, River Song, proceeded. Bradenton Riverfront also adjusted its original plan to preserve the ArtCenter of Manatee at its current location, and to relocate the Manatee Players onto the Sandpile.
The debate at hand
Today’s debate about River Song, a project its developers would like to start later this year, extends beyond Bradenton Riverfront Partners and the Sandpile.
At its heart is a dilemma city planners have been grappling with for decades in their repeated efforts to revitalize downtown Bradenton: The city needs more retail to attract more shoppers and diners, but retailers aren’t interested in downtown unless and until it has a greater concentration of cash-spending residents.
“One of the things we’ve learned is that it singularly takes residential projects to generate demand for mixed use,” Vogler told the Planning Commission in May. “We’ve been trying hard to bring to downtown Bradenton the residential components that are so essential.”
Even opponents of River Song agree that Bradenton Riverfront Partners’ plan to build more residential development throughout the Sandpile is necessary for a thriving downtown.
“Vogler does have one point,” Taylor says. “The demographic that retailers look at, for Bradenton, sucks.”
It’s true, he says, that there are still not enough residents located within a mile of the remaining Sandpile area to attract commercial or retail development.
“We always envisioned that you need more people to have a vibrant downtown,” Evers says. “The business community knows that if we could support a grocery store, or a furniture store, or any of these types of things, they’d be there already. We need apartments. But we need commercial, too. They have to come in together.”
Vogler says opponents to the latest version of River Song are overlooking the fact that commercial development remains a part of future development plans for what remains of the Sandpile. In fact, he says, the remaining development includes almost 40,000 square feet of commercial development.
But Taylor says River Song, with its location right up along the planned Riverwalk park development, needs commercial on its first-floor more than any other part of the development.
“There’s a real concern I have for ground-floor residential apartments looking out at the Riverwalk,” he says, referring to a project that will be created using $5.5 million in taxpayer funds. “There are stories all over Florida of condo development and residential development shutting down waterfronts. The retail and commercial on the ground floor will help to buffer the residential part.”
Another aspect of the debate involves the type of housing that is planned for River Song. That characteristic has been in constant flux since the building was first proposed. Its different forms have included luxury condos, luxury senior housing, and luxury apartments.
Now that the plan is proposing rental units aimed at attracting young professionals or single people, many opponents to the latest River Song plan say it will endanger the property values of nearby condo owners, and the overall quality of life along the waterfront.
“As a long-term homeowner in Bayshore Gardens, I can personally tell you what downtown will eventually look like with a bunch of renters,” wrote Manatee County resident Susan Young in a letter to council members. “They do not have the same mindset as a homeowner when it comes to taking pride in their home.”
“Building a rental apartment building ... on a prime piece of riverfront land will not serve our best financial interests nor more importantly the interests of Bradenton,” says River Dance condo owner Victoria Horstmann in a letter to city council members.
“In our building at River Dance, we have had major problems with renters,” writes River Dance condo owner Tom Seguin, also head of the development’s homeowners association, in a letter he read to the planning commission. “In our opinion, they just don’t bring the same pride of neighborhood as owners do. (Wife) Donna and I think this will be more like affordable housing.”
But Vogler says opponents are again overlooking some key details. Creating such a sharp distinction between renters and owners -- especially when it comes to condos -- is unrealistic, he says, especially since many of the units at River Dance are rented out to tenants.
Vogler also says labeling River Song as “affordable housing” is an extreme mischaracterization: While the proposed apartment units in River Song are small, they would rent for about $1.20 per square foot, more than most rental properties in the county.
“I think there are a lot of beautiful rental communities that are properly managed and don’t exhibit any problems,” he says. “And in the past, I’ve heard all of the other criticisms about condos: that they’re only for rich people, that there are no opportunities for artists, for students and for the rest of society. So the way this is being skewed is inconsistent with the variety of housing options that we want to bring to downtown.”
The big picture
Vogler is unabashed in his advocacy for a satisfactory review of Sandpile development during the Bradenton Riverfront Partners era.
He says the Sandpile’s development since 2000 has proceeded as comprehensively and quickly as possible when considering the effects of the recession. Vogler also says Bradenton Riverfront Partners’ efforts have either provided or generated much of the key infrastructure needed when commercial development becomes possible.
Those key pieces include the construction of Third Avenue, made possible through two grants for which Bradenton Riverfront Partners’ development plans were the prime driver; a retention pond to handle drainage from any development throughout the remaining 13 acres; and parking spaces in both the River Dance parking garage and elsewhere on the development that will be available to those who frequent the coming retail establishments.
Bradenton Riverfront Partners also gave up part of the land it was leasing to the ArtCenter of Manatee and to the Manatee Players, Vogler says.
Two current council members who have been involved in Sandpile development as long or longer than Vogler encourage the public to inform itself on the tract’s long-term history and turn out Wednesday to express their opinion.
“I’m going to wait and see what happens at the public hearing (on Wednesday),” says Marianne Barnebey, a council member since 1997. “I will say that if you look at the theories put forth in the original plan and what people have been saying they want in downtown Bradenton, it might look a little different than what’s being proposed. So it’s very important that we have public input, and that the public weighs in on these plans.”
“I have to go into that public hearing with an open mind and be careful not to have a predetermined idea,” says Harold Byrd Jr., who was also a council member in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “But I do feel strongly we shouldn’t rush into any type of decision that’s going to tie our hands for the long term unless we’re absolutely sure.
“The public needs to be present at this hearing and let their feelings be known.”