When Manatee County commissioners approved the Lake Flores urban village project for West Bradenton, Whiting Preston earned accolades for his visionary mixed-use development. The president of Manatee Fruit Co. and lifelong Manatee County resident won the day with both a well-designed community and a convincing campaign to secure public acceptance.
His development of 1,300 acres of family farmland south of Cortez Road and north of El Conquistador Parkway still has some critics. The thousands of new residents, the workers and patrons in the commercial and retail spaces, and the hotel guests will undoubtedly increase traffic. That challenge must be met as the project progresses down the road to its 20-year buildout.
Today, however, the commission's unanimous approval of a rezoning request signals the embrace of a walkable community and infill project, two major elements in the cultural movement to the New Urbanism concept that is sweeping the country. Also, this infill development advances several county priorities.
"Clearly there is a highlighted need for investment on this side of town," Preston told commissioners before last week's vote. Indeed, there is. As he further said, "From an economic standpoint, this is very positive for Manatee County and the area."
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The broader economic implications from Whiting's project are creating excitement in the community. Lake Flores, whose east-west boundaries are IMG Academy and 86th Street West, holds the potential to help spur greater revitalization of the Tamiami Trail corridor, aka 14th Street West and U.S. 41, as well as Cortez Road and elsewhere.
The county has been working to push redevelopment through various incentives and policies. Infill projects are also high on the county's priority list to cut back on sprawl, which is expensive to service.
Commissioners heard a host of positive public comments on Lake Flores at last week's meeting. "This to me isn't a game changer for South County," neighborhood resident Melton Little said. "It is a life preserver. We are going to die if we don't have this project or something like it."
The proposed mixed-use Long Bar Pointe project just south of Lake Flores along the shores of Sarasota Bay also held that potential. But the developers proposed monumental environmental impacts, including mangrove removals and bay dredging, that inspired broad community opposition. Commissioners ultimately rejected the request for policy changes to allow that particular project, but pieces of the project are still in play.
Whiting's approach to winning project approval should serve as a model for other developers to follow. His transparency included a website (bradentonsfuture.com) that detailed his plans and solicited hundreds of comments.
His frequent appearances at public gatherings and community organizations took that a step further -- to ensure Manatee residents understood the Lake Flores development.
The development plan calls for 6,500 residential units, 1 million square feet of retail space, 2 million square feet of commercial capacity and 500 hotel rooms.
Residents will enjoy the live, work and play concept embedded in New Urbanism, with walking and biking major modes of transportation.
They and visitors will also enjoy the 374 acres of open space, including a 19-acre manmade lake and walking and biking trails linking the project's three distinct neighborhood designs.
Traffic will remain a big issue. The mayors of Anna Maria Island's three cities expressed their concern in a letter to the county over the potential impact of Lake Flores on island visitation as new residents exacerbate traffic congestion and the parking crunch.
But commissioners asked the developers whether they would consider installing a parking lot so a bus could haul visitors to the island and reduce traffic. That idea was well received, another sign of the developers' community mindset.
Rick Fawley of Fawley Bryant Architecture also spoke to commissioners, calling Lake Flores "unprecedented" and "a positive example of change."
We agree and have high hopes for Lake Flores.