In 1955, the majority of downtown’s retail space was located west of Orange Avenue. Ringling Shopping Center was developed on Ringling Boulevard, north of today’s central business district, and around the same time, Maas Bros. opened a department store on Main Street at North Washington Boulevard (also known as U.S. 301). Single-family homes lined Main Street from the site of a former train station, where the 10-story Kane Plaza office building is today.
Between 1985 and 1995, a series of longtime retailers left downtown: McCrory’s Five & Dime, Delson’s Shoes, Cinderella Bootery, The Granary, Chambless Drug Store, The Sport’s Shop and Foleys, to name a few. Many proprietors closed up shop to retire, paving the way for a new generation of downtown businesses. The Granary became a victim of its success and that of downtown at large as without dedicated parking – patrons parked on Main Street exclusively. As downtown became more vibrant and competition for street parking more intense, the 4,500-square-foot, health-food grocery store was forced to relocate to a more traditional grocery location at Stickney Point Road.
Sarasota’s government has also made considerable investments and improvements in the past few decades. Main Street and Ringling Boulevard have been opened at Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41); Main Street was redesigned as a two-way street from Orange Avenue west; commercial properties were acquired at Five Points, leading to the development of the Selby Library and Five Points Park; and Lemon Avenue and Main Street were enhanced with new brick work, landscaping and other improvements. Those improvements helped usher in the development of more than 1,500 new residential units in the downtown area, which in turn has led to a retail renaissance and the construction of hundreds of new hotel rooms for visitors.
Today, downtown is a thriving and prosperous retail sector, with a wide variety of restaurants, financial institutions, fashion retailers, specialty merchandisers, real estate brokerages and fitness centers, among others.
What has yet to be accomplished is a solution to the problem of the lack of connection between downtown and the Bayfront. Though various parties have offered potential solutions, to date U.S. 41 and the vehicular traffic it carries cuts off substantial pedestrian access to the waterfront and the city park. We advocate consideration of a tunnel of some sort, similar to the one installed in Boston. While such a project would require a significant financial investment and leadership, it could provide a dramatic improvement to Sarasota. Food for thought.