WEST BRADENTON -- In fields once famous for thousands of Gladiolus cultivated over the years, Whiting Preston is sowing seeds for an urban village -- housing, retail and hotels called Crossroads -- on 1,322 acres of his family's land.
Until now, the Preston family kept its farming operation in an area surrounded by growth, unlike many other neighboring farmers who sold their land and moved their operation to East Manatee.
Today, roads and sidewalks intersect through the fields still managed by the 122-year-old family farming company.
Preston has decided to embrace the changing landscape but wants to hear from Manatee County residents about how his fields should be transformed.
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"We're sort of at a point right now where we need to put something down on the property that we can look back on and say it's a great asset to the community," Preston said. "Whether or not we continue to farm, we may have to move, but that will be it. My kids are too young to know what they're going to do."
If you like or dislike his plans, he says he wants to hear from you: He's asking area residents to submit comments at www.bradentonsfuture.com.
"We think it's important for us to have this conversation about what we're doing and why we're doing it," Preston said.
Preston's new master-planned community is set to have a small, old-town feel that relies heavily on a grid pattern instead of a dead-end cul-de-sac maze, lending itself to a New Urbanism-inspired design with details unlike any other development seen in Manatee.
"We want to embrace West Bradenton -- it's where I grew up," Preston said. "I'm proud of West Bradenton. Our idea is to invite West Bradenton to ultimately enjoy some of the things on the property."
He has room and the right under county regulations to build 8,500 homes and 4 million square feet of commercial space on the 1,322 acres, creating the largest housing development project in Manatee County. But Preston says he doesn't want to approach the maximum entitlements.
A pre-application draft with the county shows he wants to build 6,500 homes, 2.78 million square feet of commercial/ retail/ office and two 250-room hotels. The commercial uses will be broken up into three District zones in neighborhood/ village centers.
"You'll either have more residential or more commercial. One will play off the other because you have a limit of what you can build," Preston said.
The Crossroads contains three distinct neighborhood designs: District, Borough and Neighborhood, according to his pre-application filed for county staff to review before hearings begin. Once his plans are filed to gain approval, a hearing is required before both the Manatee County Planning Commission and Board of County Commissioners.
Welcome to the neighborhoods
The project's centerpiece may be a new 19-acre man-made lake, west of 75th Street and south of Cortez Road and surrounded by the Borough. A walking and biking trail meanders southeast across 75th Street into a larger trail section that goes all the way to 51st Street on the eastern edge and south of one of three commercial districts on the northern parcels.
Canin Associates, a master urban planner in Orlando, has drafted a 50-page draft design code for the Crossroads.
"The Florida environment is such that it's a great place to be outside most of the year," Preston said. "What better way to travel from Point A to Point B than with a bike or a golf cart?"
The District zones have three distinct areas: spanning from 86th to 71st streets along Cortez Road; another in the southwest portion of the Borough south of the planned lake; and at 51st Street and 53rd Avenue west adjacent to IMG Academy. The first district, near Cortez Road, and the third district, near IMG Academy, each include proposals for a 250-room hotel, according to draft plans.
Each District is predominantly for commercial use, weaving in housing -- inspired by places like Baldwin Park in Orlando. Buildings could reach six stories with outbuildings at two stories.
Within the District are at least four concepts: The Workplace area features office and research areas, with some apartment homes and scattered retail with office buildings close to its frontage. The Main Street features lower density retail, office, townhomes and apartments with tight streets and wide sidewalks. The Service Center is designed for places like car repair shops and other commercial uses that don't mesh well with homes. District General includes a "variety of nonresidential uses and civic buildings of regional importance," the draft states. A regional shopping area is also planned.
"The mixed-use is about work, live and play and opportunity to do all those uses within the same property," Preston said.
Churches, daycares and cultural facilities will be sprinkled throughout the Crossroads to weave in with other mixed uses, according to the draft code. For instance, the neighborhood general area will allow use like a bed and breakfast, according to the draft code.
The Neighborhood area includes a Neighborhood General and Neighborhood Centers and has plans for 3,500 homes. A Neighborhood General area could feature three-story single-family and attached homes and also allow two-story outbuildings. Neighborhood Centers could see three-story homes, live-work units, small mixed-use buildings, apartments and office buildings.
Some homes will see alleys, streets and a mew, which is a small park in between homes to be shared. Some neighborhoods will see a court design and others a pocket neighborhood.
Other neighborhoods will be pulled in with a Dutch-inspired bricked walking area resembling a pedestrian mall.
Plenty of parks are planned for the Crossroads -- ranging from half-acre pocket parks and dog parks to playgrounds and two-acre parks -- as well as green space that can reach up to eight acres.
The Borough is proposed for higher density mixed use with 3,000 homes planned. Single and attached homes plus larger apartment buildings could reach six stories in height, but would have to be three stories or less within 60 feet of the Neighborhood General to create a blended look.
A new downtown by design
Preston's plans will be influenced by the Urban Land Institute report and the Manatee County "How We Will Grow" report, providing guidance on the character of the community.
The county's comprehensive plan encourages more suburban communities with cul-de-sacs, and there's a clearer path to an urban-style community design that will likely be seen in Preston's plans, providing for a higher aesthetic standard, said John Osborne, Planning and Zoning official for Manatee County.
Osborne considers the Crossroads as close to a true mixed-use concept as a developer can get.
"What he's proposing on Manatee Fruit Farm is very much like a little old town," Osborne said.
Having so much vacant land offers flexibility where he's not as bounded to community.
The community could have some New Urbanist influences that traditionally feature picket fences on small lots and rear car access garages for a walkable, efficient community. The New Urbanism design is also meant to help calm fears of creating congestion, with enough retail, entertainment and office space mixed with housing to be a self-sustaining village. It's certainly not going to be a gated or walled community.
"I think this would be a great opportunity to put a New Urbanist neighborhood, certainly parts of it will lean to that. I don't know that it could be the entire" plan, Preston said. "Clearly that type of feel could and should be allowed to occur."
What sets this apart from Lakewood Ranch is the Main Street feeling and design, Osborne said.
"Lakewood Ranch took a shot at it, but it's a cul-de-sac," he said. "Those businesses don't have a lot of traffic capture."
Within the village feel, there is a good chance a big box store or two will be there, as well as some shops, but Preston wants it to be comfortable.
"I think where people will like to hang out is in the smaller shops and smaller restaurants," he said.
Without a named home builder, it's difficult to predict home designs.
"Whatever we do it has to belong and has to be authentic and be something that works with the community," Preston said. "There will be a need to match that up. As far as the detail goes, I think we'll just have to see how far that will take us."
Edward Hill of Hill Real Estate Strategies in Longwood was among the attendees accompanying Preston at a pre-application meeting with county staff. Hill specializes in master planning and land development and previously worked from 1997 to 2006 for the St. Joe Company, which developed Arvida on Perico Island. He was the project manager for the Little Harbor Resort community in Ruskin that features 2,000 mixed-use homes.
No matter who comes on board, the builder has to be flexible with his vision.
"What's important to us is that they share our vision and the thoughts of a mixed-use community and what that can be," Preston said.
The project's planner has designed places including Avalon Park in Orlando, a 1,800-acre master planned community for 8,500 residents. It features some of the same Smart Growth concepts as are being proposed for 5,181 acres in Edgewater and the Crossroads.
The West Bradenton village could lend itself to looking in part like Celebration and Orlando's Baldwin Park, he said. Baldwin Park markets itself as "Neighborhood Friendly | City Smart." It is a 1,100-acre neighborhood featuring 8,000 residents and 125 businesses in a master-planned development with a lake, school and a village center that offers retail. Construction of Baldwin Park began in earnest in 2001 after years of planning and demolishing the former Naval Training Center.
All told, Preston still owns more than 2,000 acres in the county. His family sold much of its land here for development and road extensions, including Lockwood Ridge Road.
While he's lived here for ages, his name isn't as prominent as some of Manatee County's home builders. The Prestons stayed mainly out of the headlines by selling land instead of developing it. Preston has been known in Manatee as the guy who sold land for development and not the planner, with the exception of the Bay Pointe at Terra Ceia Bay project in Palmetto -- Manatee County's original Community Development District -- and Bay Club.
Today Manatee Fruit Farm is chiefly a landscaping and potted plant operation for grocery stores, landscapers and brokers and independent garden centers. At one time gladiolus washed the landscape, but a disease consumed the crops in 2006, killing 70 percent of the bulb stock, he said.
The gateway to development opened in 2010 when Manatee County deemed his land suitable for mixed-use development, creating a new community in West Bradenton.
"We just haven't had investment in the southwest sector," Preston said. "It's now a good time to bring this part of town back to life."
Preston also owns 360 acres on Cortez Key that will be developed as a separate community called Peninsula Bay.
He also owns 350 acres surrounding the Terra Ceia project, but is not actively developing it. The adjacent North River Baseball Fields are set to open in August on land that the county bought from Preston in 1998.
His land deal to Jacksonville-based St. Joe Co. to build Arvida on Perico Island garnered controversy in 1998 with plans for 10-story condominiums, earning a fight from environmental groups and residents and eventually a legal battle with the county. Minto Communities began buying the land several years ago to develop what is now called Harbour Isles.
Preston said the Crossroads will not be a quick dig and build, as plans could continue to change as he collects community comment.
Market demand will also dictate phases and his master-planned village could easily take 20 years to build out "if it's done right," Preston said. Permitting will lengthen the initial phase.
"Our hope is to be able to put together a master plan that will be somewhat flexible that, as the market place changes, we'll be able to meet that market demand," he said. "What you don't want to do is start out on a plan where you can't achieve it. That doesn't serve anyone's interest."
The plan resembles something that might have been attractive during the housing boom, Osborne said, but Manatee County just wasn't made to have this type of community then.
"During the boom, there were also projects like this out there, but they were in places that would support it for sure, like college towns," Osborne said.
Neighboring IMG Academy
IMG Academy is a powerful economic driver in the county, and IMG's needs and wants help shape Preston's vision, even in the balance of commercial and residential.
"Frankly, if IMG gets bigger and can get as big as it is, there will be a lot more job opportunities and a lot more office and retail," Preston said.
Preston's land abuts IMG Academy, which spans from its entrance at 5500 34th Street West to west of 47th Street West.
"IMG is an important economic pillar in this area, and it's important for the sports industry," Preston said. "We think this offers the golden opportunity to create West Bradenton as a place to live and go to."
Preston has had several discussions with IMG that could help influence his project. His friendly relationship with the sports performance school led to a deal in 2011 to sell 110 acres for IMG's football stadium, finishing up work on a fieldhouse and adding practice fields for football, soccer and lacrosse.
"I think it's been good for Manatee County and good for the sports industry," Preston said. "It created opportunity and created the type of focus on international sports."
While IMG did not return a request for comment, officials have written to the county endorsing other developments that would feature a hotel by its campus. The majority of IMG's hotel bookings are at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota.
As the campus grows and adds more events and plans to bring all of Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference teams in for spring training, housing for players is a big need. At least one team wasn't happy with having to commute from Sarasota to IMG, highlighting the need for a hotel.
"We think it makes a lot of sense to have a hotel on the property somewhere," Preston said.
His spokesman Scott Carpenter, who has done public relations for Minto Communities, backed off on committing to a hotel.
"I think that will be driven by what people are wanting," Carpenter said. "If we get a big response 'no hotel,' that would be something we would value and look into."
Long Bar lessons
Just last year, Larry Lieberman and Carlos Beruff's process unraveled with their Long Bar Pointe proposal across the street from Manatee Fruit Co. -- making it easy to see why Preston wants to avoid public controversy. Long Bar Pointe ended its mixed-use, marina plans after a 13-hour meeting in front of more than 1,000 people at the Bradenton Area Convention Center.
"I grew up here, and I think it's important that I hear from the neighbors," Preston said. "That's my approach."
He has an up-to-date website ready to gather comments from the start, he has his own spokesman to organize strategy and is pulling his neighbors into the process before he shows off a plan.
"We're going to take public comment not only up to the point where we're submitting the plans but after that for a period of time," Preston said. "We'll be meeting at that point with neighborhoods and other parties interested in our plans."
Preston might avoid much of the controversy because, even though he has waterfront land on Cortez, he doesn't own submerged land rights like Beruff and Lieberman.
"I think if there's anything we heard from the community is they want to make sure the mangroves and seagrasses are protected, and we hear that loud and clear," Preston said.
He hasn't thought about having a full-blown design charrette where neighbors are invited to work with consultants to plan the community and its uses, something that's been done on a smaller scale to rework the historic Sarasota High School campus. Currently no neighborhood workshops are planned.
"We are promoting the website as the most expeditious way for us to get the community involved in what we're trying to do," Preston said.
A few other key differences from Long Bar Pointe: The Crossroads does not lie in a flood prone area and its evacuation zones are in B and C instead of A. But a western portion of the project lies within the 100-year floodplain.
While Preston is touting openness to the community, Cortez resident Jane von Hahmann has reservations about the project. The former county commissioner was one of the primary opponents of Long Bar Pointe and isn't sure how much traffic will be self-contained.
"The thought of anyone going to work there is going to live there -- it doesn't work that way," von Hahmann said.
Often the homes and apartments are too expensive for the type of jobs found in the office and retail buildings, she said. She also sees struggling businesses in village centers anchored by a Target in those communities Preston envisions modeling, she added.
But the key, she said, is if Preston follows through on his promise to listen.
"It's one thing to make people feel like they get to have input," von Hahmann said, "but if you don't listen and respond to their concerns, then that's just a play."
The Crossroads draft plans show about eight collector roads or extensions of collector roads to handle the bulk of in-village traffic to exit and enter the community, beyond the alleys and side streets that will serve the homes and shopping centers. Additional roundabouts are proposed on 75th Street, as well as a stoplight at 81st Street and Cortez Road, another at 53rd Avenue and 51st Street and two signals for the walking trail crossing 75th Street and 53rd Avenue. A traffic study has not been submitted yet to the county.
The expansive acreage Preston holds means he has a lot of options for the Crossroads.
"Because of where we are and what's going on, there's an immense amount of flexibility, but that just means that we can do so much in terms of how we present the community and what it's going to look like," he said.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.