UNIVERSITY PARK -- Shoppers hustle and bustle in and out of the big-box stores at The District at University Town Center, their red shopping carts dotting the huge parking lot of anchor SuperTarget.
Across the street, cranes and bulldozers are steadily erecting what will become The Mall at UTC, a $315 million project that promises to be the premier destination for high-end shopping between Tampa and Fort Myers.
A steady stream of cars pours on and off University Parkway at Interstate 75. And just a short drive from the intersection, down the freshly laid North Cattlemen Road extension, joggers and bikers are enjoying the serene settings of Nathan Benderson Park, where a 400-acre man-made lake replaced what was once an excavation pit for road construction.
The area known as University Town Center is buzzing with activity just about any day of the week. The 1.5 million-square-foot Benderson Development Co.'s project, sitting on the Manatee-Sarasota county line at I-75, is envisioned to include hotels, restaurants, a movie theater, shops and homes -- and 2014 will see several milestones pass that will make that vision a reality. The grand opening of the two-story luxury mall and other new retail shops, plus major tune-ups for the world-class rowing and other Olympic sporting events slated for Benderson Park, are among this year's landmarks.
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A giant sign at the entrance to University Town Center welcomes shoppers with the opening date of the 880,000-square-foot mall: Oct. 16, 2014.
Before then, the public can expect an official announcement of several more tenants by April, said Octavio Ortiz, the mall's general manager.
Officials with Taubman Centers Inc., a partner on the mall project with Benderson Development, last month formally announced five of the six sit-down restaurants coming to the mall: The Capital Grille, Cheesecake Factory, Kona Grill, Seasons 52 and Brio Tuscan Grille. And they plan to unveil more retail shops all at once to generate more buzz.
Additional mall tenants include American Eagle Outfitters and Smoothie King, the Herald has reported. The mall will be anchored by Dillard's, Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue. Taubman officials wouldn't comment on what percentage of the mall's 115 spaces are already leased.
Construction is "still on target" for the October opening, Ortiz said last week. One major milestone will be when the building becomes "airtight" and can be climate-controlled.
Contractor dck worldwide is handling the main structural work for the mall itself, while individual contractors are constructing the 180,000-square-foot Dillard's, 160,000-square-foot Macy's and 80,000-square-foot Saks that will then be linked up with the main building. That work should be done by the time the mall opens.
"In some instances with some of the tenants, it does come down to the wire," Ortiz acknowledged.
Just across the street from the mall, more commercial buildings are popping up around The District, Benderson's shopping center that includes national retail giants Target, Best Buy, Old Navy and Sports Authority. A new, standalone Fidelity Investments bank and Florida Blue health insurance building are now open. An 8,000-square-foot Ethan Allen furniture store is expected to open next month, followed by a 4,100-square-foot Panera Bread sometime this summer, said Mark Chait, Benderson's executive director of leasing for the Southeast.
Including the under-construction mall, Benderson controls 200 acres of developable land among all its properties in the University Parkway corridor, which include The Market at UTC (home to Kohl's, The Fresh Market and Buffalo Wild Wings), The Shoppes at UTC (BJ's Wholesale Club, Total Wine and the new Nordstrom Rack and LA Fitness) and The Square at UTC (Home Depot, Carraba's).
Of those, only The Market has a few vacancies, with the others 100 percent leased, Chait said.
In the coming year, Benderson is "going to continue to lease what little vacancies we have, and we're going to continue to build around The District," Chait said.
Benderson also has approval to build a standalone movie theater at University Town Center, but there are no definitive plans for that project yet, Chait said.
Big year for Benderson Park
Paul Blackketter's 2014 calendar at Benderson Park is steadily filling up.
"We have events easily every other weekend," double the amount of last year, said Blackketter, chief operating officer of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Association, the nonprofit that manages the rowing facilities there.
"It used to be just April," said Blackketter, also a project manager for Benderson Development. "Now we're seeing that it's going from December all the way into October. Very soon we're going to see events every month of the year."
Blackketter's tireless push to attract world-class rowing to the park paid off with September's announcement that Manatee-Sarasota will host the World Rowing Championship in 2017.
Blackketter helped secure $40 million in public and private funds to help lure the sporting event here, and part of his sales pitch was that improvements to the park would have a domino effect, bringing other high profile events, along with lots of visitors and millions in economic impact.
In May, the park will host the USRowing Southeast Regional Championships, an event that has come to Manatee-Sarasota before, but "it's grown exponentially over the years," Blackketter said. This time, 2,500 athletes are expected.
In October comes an international dragon boat festival, which will bring more than 3,000 breast cancer survivors from 12 countries to Benderson Park.
Both are significant test events for the 2017 rowing championships, which could see as many 42,000 athletes, coaches and fans descend on the area.
Also coming to the park in 2014: The Florida Intercollegiate Rowing Association championships in the spring and the pentathlon World Cup Finals in June, the first of four major pentathlon events, including the 2016 Olympic team trials, slated for the region.
Twenty-four collegiate rowing teams will also train this year at facilities at Benderson Park, Fort Hamer Park in Manatee and in Osprey.
There are also several local 5K races and fundraisers scheduled at Benderson Park in 2014, and the community will get to fully enjoy the park in April with the completion and connection of tracks and trails around the lake.
"People will be able to come out and exercise, do 5Ks, bike and rollerblade," Blackketter said. "What we really want to see is people biking from their home to the venue. Everyday users, we see that significantly increasing."
Volunteers are also needed for this year's events, with Blackketter and his team offering training programs to certify people in first response, CPR and boat safety.
Phases I and II of construction at the lake include its shaping and dredging and the building of a bridge and "regatta island," and were funded with $19.5 million from Sarasota County. Those are 90 percent complete, Blackketter said.
The next phase will include construction of restrooms, a starting line tower and a new buoy system -- "basically the touches of what it will take to host the worlds," Blackketter said. Work on the finishing tower, boathouse and offices should be finished by late 2016 or early 2017.
Hotels, housing and traffic
With plans for shopping and recreation well under way, hotels and housing are the remaining pieces of Benderson's University Town Center project that have yet to see action.
The initial plans for UTC include allowances for 500 hotel rooms and 1,750 multi-family residential units, but further plans have yet to be filed, according to Sarasota County planning officials.
Benderson envisions two hotels in the southeastern quadrant of the UTC property, with perhaps a third to follow in the future, according to Chait.
"We haven't finalized any deals, but we're getting close," Chait said.
He offered few details on what's to come with the housing component of UTC.
"We're still kind of working through that," he said.Work has started on Muirfield Village at Honore, which will add 62 townhomes from builder MI Homes just to the west of University Town Center on Honore Avenue, and on The Venue, a 237-unit luxury apartment complex a few miles up University Parkway on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard.
With the influx of shoppers, tourists, visitors and new residents at UTC, Manatee and Sarasota officials have expressed concerns about the traffic headaches that will come to the already-busy University Parkway corridor.
The Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization, the region's transportation planning body, is urging the Florida Department of Transportation to take a "comprehensive look" at the area's traffic situation to find cost-feasible projects that might alleviate the gridlock.
FDOT has plans for an estimated $49 million overhaul to the University Parkway-I-75 interchange that would add a "diverging diamond" intersection aimed at improving traffic flow. But that project has no funding for design or construction listed in the state's five-year work plan.
Even with the interchange overhaul, which is still years away, FDOT officials have warned the project will fail without other improvements to surrounding intersections, which would require millions in local funding.
Benderson officials are looking to increase county bus stops and expand a trolley service through their shopping plazas and the mall to help shoppers get around and lessen the project's traffic impacts. They also acknowledge the roadway improvements will be needed, even if they are years away.
"I think it'll be important for the entire area," Chait said. "The University Parkway corridor is of significance to both counties."
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.