Neighbors briefed on North Trail project

City officials for years have been seeking redevelopment of the North Tamiami Trail. Photo by Norman Schimmel

Developer Frank Chinnici has his eye on the largest plot of undeveloped land along U.S. 41 between downtown Sarasota and the airport. On Aug. 2 he held a neighborhood workshop to brief residents on both sides of the Tamiami Trail about his plans.

It’s Chinnici’s first local development, although he has built several projects in upstate New York. He said he bought a house in Sarasota in 2004 and moved here full-time in 2009.

The property is on the eastern side of the road at 4644 N. Tamiami Trial. It encompasses 6.2 acres and is zoned “community commercial” and “single-family residential-low density.” Chinnici is seeking to make the entire parcel “community commercial.” This will require a change to the city comprehensive plan’s “future land-use map.”

Chinnici hired Joel Freedman to be his local representative. “The existing zoning can accommodate 133 units. We are proposing 152 units, so that’s only 19 additional units,” said Freedman.

The developer is still working on a site plan, which must incorporate drainage, landscaping and parking, as well as building height and placement. But his initial plans call for first-floor commercial development. “Things like insurance, dentistry, a little tiny village,” said Freedman.

Jay Patel, who has focused on North Trail improvements for years, said the project could be an essential ingredient in spurring real development along the corridor. “The biggest challenge is – not enough people to support retail. We have four years of study, and for us, there are not enough rooftops [e.g. population],” he said. “We have water on one side and an economically stressed area on the other.”

Chinnici’s plan is to produce rental housing, along with the commercial venues on the first floor. His design would put a four-story building along the Trail, plus one five-story building and three four-story buildings set away from the Trail. “It would be a catalyst to get things going,” he said of the project.

His first desire was to build rental housing near downtown, but he could not find any available property. The acreage along the North Trail was almost as good, he said, with its proximity to the colleges and mass transit.

Nonetheless, neighbors warned him about what he was getting into.

“The Day’s Inn is one of the hot spots for narcotics,” said a woman attending the meeting. “The Flamingo Motel is another. You’ll need law enforcement input.”

“We are under no illusions about what is happening in this neighborhood,” said Chinnici. “We know the character. I’m not in the business of housing ‘crackheads’. But if somebody like me doesn’t step up and do something, who will? It has to be economically feasible.”

Parking on the site will be a challenge. Chinnici hopes city staff and the City Commission will be amenable to allowing parking under the buildings as a type of “commercial use.” He said the open parking area will be permeable, to allow stormwater to percolate into the ground. That will save the developer money because it will reduce the amount of stormwater retention required.

Chinnici doesn’t yet have any firm ideas regarding the architectural style of the building. Neighbors were quick with suggestions.

Chinnici said, “I lean more towards contemporary than the Spanish thing. I love the looks I see on the Ringling [College of Art and Design] campus.”

It was a standing-room-only crowd at the early-evening meeting in City Hall. Chinnici will be spending more time there, because compressive plan changes and subsequent zoning decisions undergo serious staff scrutiny before going to the Planning Board and City Commission.

There were some objections to Chinnici’s plans. One neighbor was concerned about scrub jays and gopher tortoises on the property. She also worried aloud that the buildings’ occupants would simply be pimps and prostitutes.

“This project will have on-site management and security,” said Freeman. Rents are planned for $1,200 per month.

Another developer supported Chinnici’s hope the buildings would clean up not only a portion of the North Trail but also put some eyes on North Watertower Park to the east of the property.

“We built the San Marcos,” said the developer, referring to the condominiums at 1188 N. Tamiami Trail. “I was solicited [by a prostitute] the first time I looked at the property. We don’t have the same problems there now. The people who live there call the police now. It’s completely changed that area.”

Freedman says he expects to file all the required paperwork for his project by the end of August.