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Some on city council say 14th Street loft plan ‘stinks’

BRADENTON — A proposed deal on the development of artists lofts on 14th Street West drew fire from several city council members and started a debate over whether the city should take a loss of more than $1.5 million to spur development in the depressed area to raise tax values.

Councilman Gene Gallo said at a workshop meeting Wednesday the proposed terms with Gorman & Co. to build a 72-unit residential and retail complex on the approximate 3.4 acres “stinks.”

“This lease is front-loaded for the developer,” Gallo said, considering that the city paid $2.1 million for the property.

The deal to sell the property for $576,000 was being negotiated between the Downtown Development Authority, a city community redevelopment agency, and the Wisconsin-based firm picked to construct a mixed-income project of residences, storefront galleries and artist studios on the property in the 1400 block of 14th Street West where the Manatee Inn motel was located.

“The timing for this is terrible,” Gallo said. “We’re dealing with taxpayer money and the DDA board doesn’t have to answer to them, but the city council does.”

DDA board Chairman Kerry Ward said they were very aware they are spending taxpayers’ money.

“We take it very seriously,” said Ward, a vice president of business banking for Wachovia Bank, “but the council in the future will be faced with making bigger decisions.

“The days of pavers and light posts are behind us,” he said, referring to the cosmetic streetscape improvements the city did in various areas, such as the Village of the Arts and Manatee Village.

Councilman Bemis Smith was concerned with what the residents will say when they hear the city was giving away $1.5 million during a time when there are budget shortfalls.

“We are the board of directors for the citizens,” Smith said, “and have to ask are they willing to spend the money for something like this?”

He also questioned if the DDA knew from the beginning it was going to forfeit $1.5 million, would a smaller, maybe local developer been more inclined to submit a proposal.

Councilman Patrick Roff said the 14th Street West corridor has been in a depressed state for at least 40 years and that was still a mindset with many local developers.

“We needed someone from the outside that sees the area differently,” Roff said.

As for the $1.5 million hit the DDA would have to take to encourage redevelopment of the district, Roff said, “Cleaning up a mess is always more expensive than maintaining it.”

For Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey, who grew up in the neighborhood near 14th Street West, it was a matter of making an investment now for a return in the future.

“It’s incumbent on the city council and the DDA to do what they can do to improve the area,” Barnebey said. “Because of what was allowed to happen in the past — call it deny and neglect — I would like to see the city be more proactive.”

The DDA purchased two pieces of property in late 2005 and in early 2006, and received proposals for development early this year.

Gorman was picked over two other finalists because of its proposal to cater to the creative class community, whereas the other two proposals were aimed at senior housing.

The DDA board felt that the project would complement the Village of the Arts, which is south of Ninth Avenue West, between Ninth and 14th streets west.

The 25-year-old firm has completed similar projects in other cities, especially urban renewal areas, where it designs, builds and finances the development.

The project will be patterned after the Gorman-built complex Park East Enterprise Lofts in Milwaukee, and would be similar to projects in Moline, Ill, and Racine, Wis.

Ray Forsythe, director of the city of Moline Economic Development Office, said he was pleased with the two projects Gorman developed in his community.

One was converting an old high school into residential units and the other is the construction of a retail and residential complex on a former factory site.

Forsythe said it was typical for the city to purchase property for redevelopment and use a reduced selling price as an incentive.

“We didn’t have any opposition from the city council,” he said, “But there was some taxpayer push back on the high school project.”

The second Gorman project, which will begin construction this summer, had less citizen opposition because of the success of the first project, Forsythe said.

Gorman has done three projects in Racine, according to Matt Sadowski, the city’s principal planner.

“Our experience with them has been very good,” Sadowski said.

He said now may be a good time to invest in redevelopment, as long as there is “a comfort level with the developer and the city council.”

The city just denied a recent proposed project, Sadowski said, “not because of the economic times, but because the community didn’t think it was right for the neighborhood.

“In these times, if there’s a developer that wants to do a project, that’s a good sign,” he said.

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