Only two months after the grand opening of The Mall at University Town Center, the inevitable is happening at a fast pace. When Benderson Development Company unveiled plans for the upscale mall, the sprawling site included far more than this regional retail centerpiece. And the UTC expansion plan is now moving forward through Sarasota County's approval stages.
As envisioned, Benderson hopes to increase retail space by 600,000 square feet, quite a bit compared with the mall's 880,000 square feet. Shopping options would mushroom along the University Parkway corridor between Manatee and Sarasota, already home to a large array of restaurants, big-box retailers, boutiques and other offerings -- giving Benderson millions of square feet of shopping there.
The development company, headquartered in University Park, also plans to build another 100,000 square feet of office space as well as hotels and up to 1,750 homes in the latest proposal.
The growth will increase the power of this regional economic engine. Coupled with the growing international reputation of Nathan Benderson Park south of the mall, the area's potential impact on tourism becomes even greater.
As is well known now, the world-class rowing park is set to host the 2017 World Rowing Championship.
Sir David Tanner, the performance director of the Great Britain Rowing Team, validated the park's claim during a recent visit to assess the complex. As the first international team representative to visit ahead of the championship event, his remark that the park is on par with any rowing facility in the world carries significant weight.
The major drawback about all this growth is traffic congestion, with commuters and nearby residents who must navigate through the corridor regularly most impacted. But Benderson and Sarasota County are working out the details on traffic planning and management to help alleviate the challenge sooner rather than later.
Benderson's idea for creating a Transportation Management Association with oversight by a private board looks promising. With a mission of directing transit solutions for the entire commercial district on both sides of University Parkway, the organization would offer options to car travel between shopping centers -- including the many Benderson properties along University in Manatee County.
Benderson has committed to launching a trolley system for the big 2015 shopping season. Other alternative ideas in discussion are remote parking and shuttles, public buses that utilize a new station Benderson is building, and a Zipcar-type vehicle-sharing program.
We'd welcome a resourceful Transportation Management Association that can convince people to utilize forthcoming options.
Plus, infrastructure improvement projects that would ease congestion are in the works. Benderson proposes to build two roundabouts on Cooper Creek Boulevard in Manatee County to improve traffic flow.
A new Interstate 75 overpass just south of the park would provide another east-west option, especially for Lakewood Ranch residents who'd rather avoid University Parkway.
Sarasota County is in the preliminary stages of pushing overpass approvals forward with many steps ahead and no proposed construction schedule yet. This could be an essential piece of the region's transportation puzzle.
A third project, though, is set on a fast track -- interchange improvements at University Parkway and I-75. The diverging diamond intersection at University and widening of the interstate to eight lanes will speed traffic in all directions. The state earmarked some $83 million for the project with incentive money to hasten construction.
The work is expected to be completed in August or early September 2017, ahead of the rowing championships -- a coup for local leaders who lobbied hard for an expedited project. That unity indicates regional support for the entire development.
Benderson has already created a jewel with The Mall at University Town Center. This should engender confidence that the company's expansion plans will mirror that high quality.