LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Construction of the new community of Lakewood Ranch Waterside officially began Tuesday afternoon with a groundbreaking between two lakes just off a rough stretch of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard now closed to traffic.
Waterside, or The Villages of Lakewood Ranch South as it was referred to in 2001 when plans were first unveiled at what is now known as the Hyatt Regency Sarasota, will be built on 1,425 acres of a 5,940-acre site, leaving 4,065 acres as open space.
"I have been waiting 25 years for this," said Rex Jensen, chief executive officer and president of developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch.
It is the most significant development yet under the Sarasota 2050 plan, which guides development of Sarasota County east of Interstate 75 through the year 2050.
The Waterside property is south of University Parkway, the Lakewood Ranch Corporate Park and Sarasota Polo Club.
Envisioned are 12 neighborhoods with 5,144 homes to be built around a series of seven lakes.
Single family homes, town homes, condominiums and apartments are planned with 40 percent of the new housing designated as work force housing.
Jensen called the groundbreaking a special day, and one that will ultimately result in many of those who work at Lakewood Ranch but live elsewhere, to be able to call the Ranch home as well.
Sales are expected to begin in 2017. The first builders are Pulte with 246 homes planned, and Homes by Towne with 571 homes planned.
Also planned are 390,000 square feet of commercial and office space, including a 140,000-square-foot village center.
Construction of the village center, on the banks of the largest of the seven lakes, is expected to begin in January 2018.
Residents will be able to take water taxies powered by quiet electric motors to visit the village center, which will house shops, restaurants, apartments and more. No watercraft with internal combustion engines will be allowed on the lakes.
In addition, SMR has already launched a road building program to extend Deer Drive, Lorraine Road and Lakewood Ranch Boulevard south into Waterside. Eventually, Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and Lorraine Road will be extended to Fruitville Road. Road and utility improvements are being financed by a $79.5 million bond issue through the Lakewood Ranch Stewardship District.
Jensen's comments about SMR starting construction on 9 miles of roads to serve the new community, and relieve some of the overcrowding on Interstate 75, drew enthusiastic response from the crowd at the groundbreaking ceremony under a white tent.
At some point, a pedestrian and bike friendly bridge over Interstate 75 will be built connecting Waterside with Cattlemen Road near The Mall at University Town Center and Benderson Park.
SMR is touting the 1,000 acres of lakes and 20 miles of shorelines as an amenity for the new neighborhoods, offering boating, kayaking and canoeing. Waterside will also feature hundreds of acres of parks and open spaces.
All homes in Waterside will be built to Florida Green Building Coalition standards for energy efficiency, sustainability and clean indoor air with drought-tolerant landscaping.
It is anticipated a new public elementary school will be built in Waterside with a pedestrian connection under Lorraine Road to the school and park.
Jensen paid tribute to his former boss and former SMR Chief Executive Officer John Clarke for his vision in acquiring right-of-way for the Lorraine Road extension 20 years ago, and also for leading the fight to save and restore Long Swamp as a pristine environmental area.
"You can also thank John Clarke for a real sense of stewardship. Because of his help, Long Swamp, a 400-acre environmental system in crying need of help, is now a thriving environmental success," Jensen said.
Amy Meese, a consultant on the environment for Lakewood Ranch, said nature is a big draw, and that often what viewers see on National Geographic can be observed by just walking out their door.
She predicted Long Swamp can become a first-class, fully interactive environmental learning center.
The discovery center could be opened in phases, and be something truly remarkable for the community, Meese said.
Alan Maio, chairman of the Sarasota County Commission, called the groundbreaking a big day, and noted Waterside will provide a major part of the regional roadwork needed under the 2050 plan.
Maio praised Waterside as a safe, walkable community where one-third of the property will be greenways.
"That is a major, major big deal," Maio said. "We are absolutely delighted."
Jensen also shared the spotlight with the first two builders in Waterside, Pulte and Homes by Towne.
"It's an incredible location," said Pulte Division President Richard McCormick.
"I am excited to think ahead 12 months when we will have our model homes open."
Kohn Bennett, Florida Division president for Homes by Towne, recalled his company built homes in Lakewood Ranch's first villages, Summerfield and Riverwalk, more than 20 years ago.
"Who knew that it would one day be home to more than 20,000 residents and that businesses would clamor to be here?" Bennett said.
To achieve the groundbreaking for Waterside required vision, planning, insight and uncompromising patience, Bennett said.
"You are in for a treat, those of you who have not seen these lakes," Bennett said.
The success of Lakewood Ranch has depended in large part on the partnerships SMR forged with Southwest Florida Water Management District, Manatee County, Bradenton, Sarasota, Sarasota County and the Manatee School District, Jensen said.
"We are looking to start a new partnership with the Sarasota School District," Jensen said.
Shirley Brown of the Sarasota School District, said she, too, is looking forward to the partnership, and praised the planning for an underpass that will allow children to walk safely to school.
Jensen closed by noting Waterside represents a big concept and big challenges, but "they are going to happen," and the massive capital improvement project will be completed in record time.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.