UNIVERSITY PARK -- Most mornings when Terry Walsh drives to work at the Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club, the commute from his home in Palm Aire takes about 10 minutes.
But on the occasions when the semi-retired club staffer ends his shift at rush hour, the 7-mile commute becomes something very different. On one such recent drive, it took him 38 minutes to get home.
With the new Mall at University Town Center opening in about 25 days, Walsh knows the drive between University Parkway's anchor neighborhoods will get even longer. As much as he likes the idea of the jobs and economic activity the mall will create, he can't shake the feeling that he'll be spending a lot more time in the car very soon.
"It's a mixed bag," said Walsh, who has lived on a quiet street in the Conservatory Estates neighborhood since 2001. "I anticipate it's going to be really bad congestion here."
Long considered to be a neigh
borhood with convenient access to Bradenton, Sarasota, the beaches and Interstate 75, University Park and its environs is set to become a very different place when the 880,000-square-foot mall opens on Oct. 16. Traffic will increase, with up to 12,000 vehicles a day visiting the mall during peak-sales seasons, according to mall development partner Benderson Development. At the same time, more housing is planned to be built near the mall as the area real-estate market heats up with higher home-sale prices and big sales in the apartment segment.
Not to ignore the obvious, area residents who have gotten used to driving to DeSoto Square Mall, Sarasota or even Brandon to get their mall shopping fix are looking forward to upscale shopping coming to their back yards.
"I'm really very excited about the opening of the mall," said Doris Brown, a Lakewood Ranch Country Club neighborhood resident who is a regular Sak Fifth Avenue and Dillard's shopper. "I'm happy to see it come in this direction."
Mall pushing home sales
Somewhere between the good and the bad, the mall is having an undeniable effect on how neighborhoods including Palm Aire, Lakewood Ranch and The Meadows appeal to potential buyers. Area real estate agents say prices are up for homes in the area as new mall executives look for homes and as other buyers look to make the move into the booming retail area.
Terry Fine, a broker with Palm Aire Real Estate Partners tracked a price increase in single-family home sales between and July in Palm Aire equivalent to $25 per square foot. He said homes in the neighborhood are still a relative deal at about $170 per square foot, compared to $200-plus in University Place Country Club and Lakewood Ranch.
"What we're finding are the people who are now looking are looking because that mall is there," said Fine, who is also a Palm Aire resident.
On the other side of the intestate, Michael Saunders &Co. Realtor Deborah Angelo O'Mara can't say that the mall is a verifiable factor in home prices in Lakewood Ranch, but is convinced that the addition of high-end shopping rounds out what the planned community can offer in terms of amenities. "That was the only missing link: the shopping," she said. "Now we don't have to drive to Tampa."
Having a new mall in the offing certainly hasn't hurt O'Mara's business. She said this has been her busiest summer season in Lakewood Ranch.
"Million dollar homes, they're just going like wildfire. You'd think they were $300,000," she said.
Brown, who is moving out of Lakewood Ranch to a home she is currently building a few miles east in The Concession neighborhood, is part of the real estate boom in proximity to the mall. She said she loves both her old and new neighborhoods, and will enjoy life more with the mall in place, especially because it adds an urban feel near her new rural home.
It could also mean that her property is worth just a little more.
"I think it will increase the property values," she said.
The single family market is not the only one that stands to benefit. With about 2,000 new, retail-industry employees required to keep the mall running, apartment neighborhoods are also climbing in value.
In July, New York real estate investment company TGM Associates purchased the 286-unit former Turnbury Park apartments for the highest price ever paid for the complex, $45 million. John Gochberg, TGM's chief operating officer, said one reason for the purchase included the "new mall and improvements in surrounding retail."
More of the same
The mall is just the latest incremental expansion of a growing retail area that has both served and impacted nearby neighborhoods for years. University Park developer Benderson Development has been building retail in the area since it redeveloped a former outlet mall into its Shoppes at University at Town Center. The Mall at University Town Center is the company's fifth retail development in University Park. Taubman Centers of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., partnered with Benderson on the mall.
Todd Mathes, Benderson's director of development, said his company has "traditionally reached out to neighbors," sending representatives to homeowners' association meetings and neighborhood functions. He said it is his company's hope that the new retail, plus new planned residential projects such as the 62-unit Muirfield Village west of the mall will continue to increase the appeal of the University Park and Lakewood Ranch areas.
"The area has just become so highly amenitized," Mathes said. "It's nice to know you don't have to live somewhere else to go shopping."
Blends of big retail-mall developments and housing have been successful elsewhere. In Brandon, where the Westfield Brandon Mall opened in 1995, housing and neighborhoods have grown around retail. Laura Simpson, president and CEO of the Brandon Chamber of Commerce, said the day the mall opened was the start of a growth spurt for the unincorporated town.
"It very much has been a catalyst for further growth in our community," Simpson said. "We probably became more densely populated after that point."
That example and the promise of Mall at University Town Center seems to be enough to keep those who came to neighborhoods along University Parkway for other reasons focused on an overall brighter future for the area. Between the thousands of new jobs the mall is creating and the heightened profile of neighborhoods nearby, neighbors are looking past traffic pitfalls.
That even goes for Walsh, who said he doesn't see the mall playing a role in his life since he's not much of a shopper.
"That mall has probably helped the area in terms of marketing," he said.
And now, traffic
Some mall neighbors will be measuring the success of the venture in terms of how quickly they can drive home at night. That traffic will increase on University Parkway and smaller through roads in the area is a given, but some neighborhoods are preparing to reduce the impact as much as possible.
At The Meadows, a golf course-centered condominium-and-housing development about a half-mile south of the mall, residents have spent the construction phase of the mall planning and lobbying for traffic controls on the main north-south roads that serve the community, Honore and Longmeadow avenues.
Len Smalley, the manager of rhe Meadows Community Association, said members have asked the Sarasota County Planning Commission to lower the speed limit on Honore Avenue between University and Longmeadow from 45 mph to 30 mph. That request was turned down, but the association will make the same request of the county's board of commissioners.
John Spillane, a Meadows resident and a member of the association's governing board, said he is concerned that drivers will use Honore and Longmeadow as a shortcut, since entrances and exits on Interstate 75 will be busy and few other north-south routes serve the immediate mall area.
He's not opposed to the roads being used. He just wants to make sure drivers keep their speeds in check.
"People using it as a shortcut tend to speed," he said.
It will be some time before University Park gets relief in the form of new roads. The Florida Department of Transportation is moving ahead with a plan to rebuild the University Parkway-I-75 intersection into what the agency touts as a more-efficient, $72 million "diverging diamond" interchange, with construction slated to begin in August 2015. Local agencies have also discussed extending Lorraine Road from Lakewood Ranch south to Fruitville Road.
With road improvements promised by a state 2020 analysis, traffic volumes in the area are generally expected to increase along University Parkway by less than 10 percent in most areas. Freeway ramps will see a bigger increase, up about 20 percent.
One measure that was expected to alleviate some traffic pressure starting from opening day, a mall-sponsored trolley service, now will not begin until the mall has been open for several months. Benderson's Mathes said this week that the trolley, originally scheduled to start on several routes Oct. 16, will not be put into place until "customers get acquainted with the new shopping opportunities, roads and parking available at UTC."
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.