Bradenton council's wary approval of downtown development's changes

On a wing and a prayer, Bradenton's City Council approved a development plan for the downtown Sandpile that holds the promise of future improvements more in keeping with long-held vision for the site -- but that is only a promise.

Bradenton Riverfront Partners II, LLC won unanimous approval for a "first class" apartment complex that will rise four stories, an upgrade from the three-story building plan the council rejected last June but not quite the five stories the city authorized in 2009.

This compromise RiverSong apartment complex features 179 residences, down from the 225 units of the taller building. That earlier plan included 19,000 sqaure feet of ground-floor retail and bank space, but the current blueprint does not -- a loss. The partnership, though, points out that future construction calls for 30,000 square feet of retail on the 14.62-acre "Promenade at Riverwalk" development.

And there's the rub -- a promise.

Of the 16 stipulations attached to the approval, the partnership vows to begin building a restaurant 90 days after a certificate of apartment occupancy has been issued. The restaurant would be located west of the Manatee Players Performing Arts Center, under construction with a March 2013 completion date. The theater and restaurant would complement one another nicely.

Councilman Patrick Roff expressed an "uneasy feeling" about the restaurant stipulation and "hope everything comes true as promised."

We share both that unease and hope.

The development of the Sandpile features a checkered history of starts and stops. Grandiose plans for three eight-story residential structures, seven retail and office buildings and a hotel fell apart, though one condominium tower, RiverDance, did come to fruition in 2007. RiverSong went through several incarnations, including senior residences before finally morphing into apartments.

That shaky history is certainly grounds for trepidation.

We trust that Bradenton Riverfront Partners, which holds a 99-year lease on the city-owned site, will come through this time.

Atanta-based developer Oxford Properties expects to complete construction on RiverSong by spring 2014. With the city's highly anticipated Riverwalk project scheduled to debut this fall and renovation of the landmark "Pink Palace" on track, more Sandpile development and residents will add more luster to downtown.

In recommending council approval, the city staff evaluation stated: "Over the life of this project, the type of development and amenities envisioned by both the applicant and the City have been revisited and modified numerous times to coincide with the financial realities and real estate trends of the area. ... this iteration of the plan retains many of the key tenets of urbanism sought by the City."

The City Council showed patience and courage last year in turning down the request for a more modest development. The current plan is an improvement thanks to Bradenton Riverfront Partners and Oxford Properties, and it is time to forge ahead.

While not the big, bold vision we had hoped would emerge, the Promenade at Riverwalk does look promising. We expect nothing less than the complete picture.