Isn’t it always the way? Like the legendary New Yorker who has never been to the Statue of Liberty, many Sarasotans have no idea what our neighbors to the north, Palmetto and Bradenton, have to offer. Perhaps this lack of awareness is a remnant of the old rivalry between Sarasota and Manatee counties, a bit of the superiority complex rumored to affect those of us who live in the southern portion of the bi-county area, on land that used to be part of one large entity.
Whatever the reason for this regrettable gap in our neighborly knowledge, an entertaining way to rectify the lapse would be to take a drive along the beautiful banks of the magnificent Manatee River. (The river, itself, is an under-appreciated resource, stunning in its wide, lazy expanse.) Both the north and south banks of the river, near the western mouth where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico, offer interesting lessons in history, architecture and planning.
Let’s start with the booming eastern side of Palmetto, on the north bank. (Perhaps we can make this a trendy status question: "Do you live on NoBa?") Just across the U.S. 41/301 bridge on the right, near the Manatee Convention Center, an ambitious new development, Riviera Dunes, is spreading along the riverfront. The most conspicuous structure is a condominium tower nearing completion, Laguna at Riviera Dunes. (Who thinks of these amazing names?) A variant of the Mediterranean Revival style, itself a peculiar kind of applied decoration that has come to replace integrated architecture in many of our new buildings, this tower is less appealing than the more restrained marina building nearby which, while it is undeniably Med-Rev, is better proportioned. The marina includes an excellent new restaurant, the Mangrove Grill, which overlooks docks lined with impressive boats.
Just beyond this, as the harbor shoreline curves to the northeast, three more condominium towers, Bel Mare, are planned. These will fill the remaining space before the dense and relentlessly Med-Rev gated community of Riviera Dunes itself and the new townhouses at The Hammocks at the eastern end of the enclave.
Just around the corner to the northeast lies a fascinating example of visionary recycling of existing buildings, where the Manatee School of the Arts has brought new life to an old bowling alley. In the opposite direction, back at the Haben Boulevard intersection with U.S. 301, lies the sprawling and surprisingly handsome Manatee Convention Center.
Turn back, crossing to the south bank (come on, let’s call it "SoBa") and head west along the magnificent miles of Riverview Boulevard, past superb houses, under mature trees, constantly glimpsing the rolling river. First, however, spend a bit of time on the riverfront in downtown Bradenton, where Riverside Park, near the attractive Holiday Inn complex, provides a compelling view across to Palmetto. Next door, Riverside Drive, consisting at the moment of slightly down-at-the-heel houses, is ripe for sensitive redevelopment. Back near the South Florida Museum and Riverpark, a restored hotel on 10th Street, Barcarotta Boulevard begins and takes you past the Twin Dolphin Marina and restaurant, City Hall, the Manatee Players theater and the central library. They constitute an agreeable municipal center, which has been controversial because it occupies the most valuable land in town and is virtually dead after office hours, not the most effective way to stimulate mixed-use activity in the evenings. Nonetheless, the promenade is charming, the human scale agreeable, the views superb.
Follow the signs marked "Riverwalk" to the west, and you’ll pass some perfectly restored craftsman cottages on First Avenue West and several imposing houses commanding stunning river views on 18th Street West. When you return to Old Main Street (almost impossible to avoid, due to the mysteries of Bradenton’s one-way street system), enjoy its shady charm as you proceed south to the lovely Courthouse Square, a real American place, and on to Manatee Avenue West. Take a brief detour to look at the charming fieldstone cottages on Third Avenue and 20th Street, and then head toward the river bank to start your inspection of the marvels of Riverview Boulevard.
Is this a parallel universe, or what? Gone are the gaudy excesses of Mediterranean Revival, gone the deadly straight streets, gone the flat terrain we see too often in Sarasota. At least until you reach the fringes of Palma Sola, practically at the gates of Anna Maria, Riverview Boulevard wanders through shady alleys of mature trees, rising and falling, crossing small bridges, as truly handsome houses appear on either side. On the north, these are mostly stately homes with docks, commanding panoramic views of the river. On the south side of the street, the houses tend toward more modest dimensions. Most noteworthy: Almost without exception, and on both sides of the street, the houses reflect an honest architectural commitment. They’re often built of handsome brick, or in Colonial style or as a derivative of the Key West/Cape Cod vernacular.
This is unknown territory to most of us, and the inhabitants of these lovely houses would probably prefer it stay that way. They’ve managed to keep the purveyors of Styrofoam kitsch and stucco furbelows away, opting for a genuine "Old Florida" domestic architecture that looks lived in and loved. Yes, these homes represent a lot of money; but, for the most part, they do so with good manners and secure style. We in Sarasota might do well to reflect on that.