Benderson Development seeking county approval to substitute office space for retail as build-out of University Town Center continues

During Planning Commission hearing, company’s director of development talks of changes in retail market over the past few years

An aerial graphic shows the Mall at University Town Center (right) and other portions of the development just south of University Parkway. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Because of dramatic changes in the retail market over the past several years, Benderson Development Co. is scheduled to petition the Sarasota County Commission on Aug. 28 for formal changes to its plans for the build-out of University Town Center (UTC).

On July 11, the county’s Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend that the County Commission approve a series of changes Benderson is seeking for the UTC near University Parkway. The site consists of about 281 acres, according to a county staff report.

“Five, 10 years ago, we could have named dozens of ‘junior boxes’ and ‘large boxes’ that would have loved to open new stores [in UTC], but that’s not the reality today,” Todd Mathes, Benderson’s director of development, told the planning commissioners during the public hearing early this month.

He was referring to major retail chains.

County Planner Vivian Roe put it a bit differently the same evening: “The retail market is kind of flat-lining …”

Conversely, Mathes added, “Our office market … vacancies are very low.”

“On the positive side of things,” Mathes continued, “as a community, we’re continuing to grow into very much a strong and real American city … with opportunity for a diversified economy.”

This graphic shows the approved facets of University Town Center. ‘DRI’ refers to Development of Regional Impact, a designation in county land development regulations. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The county staff report provided to the Planning Commission in advance of the July 11 meeting explains that on July 27, 1993, Sarasota County originally approved plans for the UTC. The agreement has been amended several times since then, with the most recent version of the Development of Regional Impact (DRI) calling for the allowable retail space to increase to 2,280,000 square feet of space. Office space would range up to 320,000 square feet, the staff report added.

The DRI also is to encompass 500 hotel rooms, a maximum of 1,750 multi-family dwelling units and a completion date of Dec. 31, 2020.

Benderson has asked to extend the build-out to 2030, county Planner Roe said on July 11.

During his presentation, Mathes did indicate that Benderson hopes to complete the build-out by 2025.

Roe further noted that the total of new residential units would remain between 750 and 1,750.

A matrix was used to calculate the number of vehicle trips associated with the UTC, she continued. The overall figure would stay the same, as well, Roe said, even with the proposed development changes.

The staff report explains, “The use of the proposed Matrix would allow the exchange of uses [among] retail development, office development, hotel rooms, and residential units, while maintaining the existing approved transportation trips. The existing UTC development currently contains hotel and retail uses, but no office or residential uses to date. The Applicant has noted that the retail and office markets have changed in the past several years and flexibility is sought to be able to vary the land use mix (less retail and more office).”

Additionally, the report pointed out that “sufficient road facility capacity is projected to be available to accommodate development …” The report added that the additional homes and businesses are expected to generate up to 3,885 new afternoon peak hour trips through 2030. The total p.m. peak hour trip generation allowed is 7,344, the staff report says,

This graphic shows the transportation matrix. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Roe also told the board members on July 11 that, under the earlier terms of agreement with the county, Benderson was supposed to have been operating a trolley around the UTC. “There has been a trolley that has been sort of operational,” she said. “It needs to be running.”

Revised language in the DRI calls for flexibility in regard to routes and timing of the stops, she continued. Nonetheless, she pointed out, the revision says, “This trolley will be established by January 2020 and will be operational for five years.” Benderson has agreed to that stipulation, she added.

Originally, the trolley was to have gone into service in October 2015, according to a document in the staff report.

Two Neighborhood Workshops were conducted on the proposed changes, Roe noted. The first, held on April 12, 2018, drew 14 people, she said. The second, on June 19, had six attendees.

Most of the questions from those members of the public focused on plans for stores, which were not related to the changes under consideration, Roe added.

Water quality monitoring changes

This chart is among the changes the Planning Commission recommends the County Commission approve in regard to the water quality portion of the agreement. This table contains just part of the proposed lab parameters. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During his remarks, Mathes also referred to changes in the UTC plans regarding water quality issues. He explained that Benderson’s environmental scientists and county staff members collect water in the Cooper Creek watershed on both the Manatee and Sarasota county sides of University Parkway. “What they were interested in 15 years ago,” he added, is not what they are interested in today.”

“We’re updating all of that” in response to comments from county staff members and representatives of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), Mathes said.

The original agreement specified that the UTC stormwater management system “shall meet the design standards applicable to stormwater systems that discharge into Outstanding Florida Waters (OFW), in effect as of the date of issuance of this Development Order, as provided in Chapter 403 [of the Florida Statutes], and in [a series of chapters] of the Florida Administrative Code.” A new line in that section says, “In the event of any conflict between said rules and any conditions of the Development Order, the more stringent shall apply.”

Further, a new exhibit attached to the agreement discusses revisions of “The Ambient Water Quality Monitoring Plan.” It calls for surface water monitoring to be conducted at three locations, with preliminary sampling results reported to the county each quarter. One location is the point where Cooper Creek flows into the UTC from Nathan Benderson Park.

The exhibit also says, “A full set of water quality data for the previous year shall be uploaded to Florida’s Watershed Information Network (WIN) data system annually in April of each year.”

Only one member of the public had signed up to address the Planning Commission on July 11. Devin Harms, who said he lives near UTC, voiced concern about the potential of a business locating in the development area that might result in contamination of the Cooper Creek Watershed. For example, he talked about a pool supply store with which he is familiar in another city, which has a large outdoor chlorine tank. The dumping of a significant amount of chlorine into the Cooper Creek Watershed would be devastating to the environment, Harms stressed. “Be cognizant of the creek that’s flowing through there.”

In his rebuttal, Mathes used a map to show that, because of the zoning in the area of the UTC adjacent to the watershed, multi-family residential units will be constructed there. The other area of concern in the watershed is zoned Commercial General, he added, which allows no toxic chemicals.

Full endorsement

Planning Commissioner Teresa Mast. News Leader image

After Planning Commission Chair Kevin Cooper closed the public hearing, Planning Commissioner Teresa Mast made the motion to recommend that the County Commission approve the proposed changes. Planning Commissioner Colin Pember seconded the motion.

“I think what this really is highlighting tonight is that we are an ever-changing population here, and we are seeing that in the current climate, regretfully, our malls are dying on the vine,” Mast said. “So I appreciate that this absolutely beautiful parcel is going to continue to thrive, and, I hope, bring great economic impact …”

“This is a big project … an excellent project for our area and region,” Pember added.

Then, when Cooper called for the vote, it was unanimous in support of the motion.