SARASOTA -- An expanded and reconfigured University Town Center growth plan in Sarasota County is moving onto the next round of approvals in January after receiving the OK Thursday from the Sarasota County Planning Commission.
Planners expressed concern about environmental impacts to two conservation areas and the added traffic from an expanded mall, but found no options for restrictions, leaving it to the Sarasota County Commission and Southwest Florida Water Management District to impose if those bodies find it necessary.
University Park's Benderson Development Co. wants to build another 600,000 square feet of retail space and 100,000 square feet of office space on the south side of Interstate 75 and University Parkway surrounding The Mall at University Town Center. Gross leasable space would grow by 680,000 square feet -- from 1.9 million to 2.58 million -- spanning from Super Target east to vacant land surrounding Mall at UTC.
Commissioner Vanessa Carusone voted against approving an application to expand the center and reconfigure the site -- the only vote to deny any of four Benderson requests. Carusone said her main concern was the additional traffic created at the site and a revised staff report detailing a new transportation management group and other changes reached commissioners only Thursday -- the same day as the vote.
"One of my biggest heartburns with this is transportation," she said. "To have this arrive on the day that we're supposed to make a decision really bothers me."
Traffic data showing the effect of the mall isn't available yet because of the timeline Benderson requires to gather data for its property, said Transportation Planning Manager Paula Wiggins. Even if data was available, it wouldn't show the true traffic impact from the mall because not all stores are open nearly two months after the Oct. 16 grand opening
Two commissioners said there could be so much traffic at some point it drives customers away.
"They're a victim of their own success and so are people who live in that area," planning commission Chairman Robert Morris said.
Benderson plans to create a new Traffic Management Association as a private board to influence people not to use their cars as much to
reach their shopping centers. A trolley system is planned to start in 2015 to help.
At least one commissioner was not assuaged.
"I'm very suspicious of TMA, whatever that is," Commissioner John Ask said. "I wish you well."
Planners said they were also concerned about Benderson wanting to build on about 20 acres of conservation lands on the northeast and southwest sections of the property.
Benderson is applying for permits from Southwest Florida Water Management District to turn land it owns in Manatee County near Cooper Creek Boulevard and Interstate 75 into a conservation easement to make up for the impacted wetlands, said Todd Mathes, director of development for Benderson.
Benderson can mitigate damage in Sarasota County by using land in Manatee County because the area is still in the Manatee County drainage basin, according to staff. It will be up to SWFMD to allow Benderson to build on conservation land in Sarasota County and use the Manatee County land to make up for it.
Two residents at the meeting said they were concerned about traffic and environmental issues.
William Schneider, who owns a condo at Las Palmas southeast of the mall, said he doesn't want construction on the conservation land south of Desoto and Cattlemen roads.
"People need to get a chance to review this," he said. "People bought condominiums assuming this would be green conservation land forever."
Benderson's requests now go before the Sarasota County Commission on Jan. 27.
Up to 1,750 homes could be built on the land and the new approvals do not change that number -- just the configuration of where the housing is.
Benderson plans to start construction of its District East at University Town Center beside the Mall at UTC in late summer 2015, Mathes said.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.