It seems there are two kinds of people in the world—those who gravitate toward planned communities and those who swear they would never live in one. They’re too bland, this latter group says, too uniform, with too many rules. They prefer a place where buildings and neighborhoods just appear according to the needs and whims of the times, with the resulting mix of scale and style and period achieving something called “character.”
Character? What about Paris? Back in the 1840s, under the reign of Napoleon II, Baron Haussmann leveled the ancient, unsanitary alleys and slums, and laid out broad boulevards, parks and monuments. Laws were passed concerning the height and appearance of buildings in the various arrondissements. Yes, the most beautiful city in the world was a planned community.
Even the management of Lakewood Ranch would probably find this comparison a little extreme. But the Ranch, as its residents call it, has continued to grow—and thrive. In a faltering economy it’s a bright spot, with home sales increasing and new developments being built. It’s shifting the axis of Sarasota to the north and the east. It’s become a satellite city, complementary but different. And why not? It’s a great place to live.
Some Sarasotans consider Lakewood Ranch just another housing development. In reality, it’s a complete town, all controlled by SMR, a large corporation. “It’s more than just houses—it’s all aspects of everyday life intermingling,” emphasizes Candice McElyea, director of marketing and public relations for SMR. “We’re unique in the state of Florida.”
Lakewood Ranch has all the components of Anytown, U.S.A. There’s a business park that goes on for miles, various sports complexes (including a polo field), schools at all levels, several hotels, movie theaters, and what many consider the best fish restaurant in town (The Lucky Pelican). There are golf courses, health clubs, convenience stores, a YMCA, a hospital, an assisted living facility that specializes in Alzheimer’s, a school for autistic children and a pet shelter. The only thing missing in order to experience the full human spectrum is a cemetery.
But still, there is the nagging feeling that the Ranch has the heart and soul of a housing development. The houses have a similarity no matter what their price, and the landscape is still a little barren in places.
People sense there is something artificial about it, like Seaside (where The Truman Show was filmed), and
Celebration, the Disney planned community near Orlando (both in Florida, mind you.) The challenge that Lakewood Ranch is facing as it matures is a tough one: It has to transform itself from a product into a community.
Lakewood Ranch began life as a 48-square-mile timber ranch owned by Joe Schroeder of Milwaukee. In 1922 it was acquired by the Uihlein family, also of Milwaukee, the Schlitz Beer people. They continued the ranching aspects, and still do. You can see cattle grazing as you drive across University Parkway through the heart of the Ranch.
In 1995 a large part of the Ranch was developed as a master-planned community to serve—and profit from—the Florida boom that everyone saw coming. It was immediately successful, and even during the economic downturn it seems to be suffering much less than the competition. It’s one of the few places in the area where new homes are still being built, and several entirely new communities are taking shape in its northern parameter. The reasons for its success? There’s a lot of money behind it, it’s well-run, and it adjusts to the market, always giving people exactly what they want.
And homes tend to hold their value, says McElyea: “The value comes from the location, the amenities, and the fact that our residents want a safe buy.”
It’s hard to get a handle on the scope of the Ranch, as much of the land is still undeveloped. But most of the currently active communities are located between University Parkway (the old County Line Road that divides Manatee and Sarasota counties) and S.R. 70, to the north. The western boundary is I-75, and on the east it goes just beyond Lorraine Boulevard, with new development in the area called Country Club East.
The archetypal Lakewood Ranch home is a new 2,000-square-foot single-family house with three bedrooms and two baths, a swimming pool and a view of a nature preserve, golf course, or similar home. But there is actually much more variety than that. You can buy a perfectly nice town house-style condo in the Greenbrook subdivision for well under $100,000 (particularly if it’s been foreclosed), and progress from there to paired villas, mid-rise condos, single-family homes as small as 1,000 square feet (which morph and progress, adding trim and extras and bedrooms and bonus rooms), all the way to bona fide mansions that come in at 6,000 square feet and cost more than $2 million. Each price point has its own community, so your immediate neighbors will most likely
be in the same financial bracket as you.
And who are these neighbors? Local lore pegs them as older couples from Michigan who like to play golf, but I came across a much wider variety: a widow from Argentina, an Indian family that owns a chain of convenience stores, a famous sports announcer and a Chabad Lubavitch (the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect) rabbi with six children. But I also came across an awful lot of couples from Michigan.
Young families have a special affinity for Lakewood Ranch. Jocelyn Stevens and her husband, Jeff, moved in right at the beginning back in 1995, and are now in their second Lakewood Ranch house. “It’s perfect for families,” Stevens says. Her son, Andrew, grew up in the Ranch. “The daycare is terrific. And now that he’s in middle school, he can walk to his friends’ houses. He’s even getting his bar mitzvah training here. And there’s great pizza.”
Lakewood Ranch kids do indeed have a good deal. The schools are excellent, there are activities galore, and the homes themselves appeal to children. They’re cheerful, with many bedrooms. Andrew, an only child, has his own room and his own “mancave,” just steps away from the caged pool.
Lakewood Ranch is designed for newcomers, but old-time Sarasotans have also moved here and flourished. Trevor Cramer, retired manager of the Sarasota Orchestra, is a resident (as is, coincidentally, the current CEO, Joe McKenna). Cramer moved here when his neighbors in north Sarasota began raising pigs.
“I didn’t want to live in that kind of neighborhood,” Cramer says. “Having pigs next door is never good for property values.”
Bruce Rodgers, executive director of the Hermitage Artists’ Retreat on Manasota Key, is another cultural leader who felt the call of the Ranch. He and Lisa Rubinstein, a marketing entrepreneur, moved there several years ago. The two probably attend three or four downtown Sarasota arts events a week during season, and Rodgers has a long commute to Manasota Key. So why did they buy in the Ranch? “Value,” says Rubinstein. “Bruce and I are the perfect demographic for a downtown high-rise, but we get so much more here—three bedrooms, three baths, a beautiful view of the lake—for less than half the price of downtown.”
But if there isn’t really a Lakewood Ranch type, there certainly is a Lakewood Ranch house. It is repeated in endless variation through all price ranges and all builders. Some people complain that they all look alike, but in fact they all look different. The design board makes certain of that. The board approves every paint color—no identical hues side by side. Floor plans are flipped, pillars alternated with arches, the landscaping is always different, so none of them look exactly like another. But they all have a strong family resemblance.
The interiors also are similar, but here the Lakewood Ranch aesthetic reaches its height. These are terrific houses. The level of comfort is amazing. The ceilings are high—nine to 12 feet or more—and the kitchen and laundry rooms could not be more pleasant and efficient. The sun streams in from many artfully placed windows, and the layout is put together beautifully, obviously the product of years of experience in the art of using space. Every problem, every situation that could possibly occur in a house is addressed—how to get to the garage, how to glamorize with niches and perfectly placed diagonals. I often take visitors out to see the Lakewood Ranch model homes because those of us who live in ordinary houses are entranced. Never have we seen such luxury, such interior drama, such well-composed rooms. “My house has no hallways,” Cramer points out. “Every inch is used for living space.”
Their exterior architecture is less distinguished. The less expensive homes are quite close together and are seen from the street as a protruding garage door, with a path going around the side, presumably to the entrance. As the price goes up to $225,000 or so, a bay appears to balance the garage. At a half million, the house has stretched out, grown a motor court, and had much decoration, iron work, quoins, etc., applied. As you approach a million the style becomes more operatic, like a set from Carmen. At this price level unusual architectural styles are permitted—French chateau, Beaux Arts. But there is no contemporary or “modern” look. The predominant style is Mediterranean Revival, though lately a “Low Country cottage” look is gaining popularity. Craftsman details are also appearing.
Depending on the community, a list of covenants outlines what you can do and what you can’t. The latter would include things like “no basketball hoops,” “no overnight street parking,” “no mildew on your roof.” Even “For Sale” signs must be a certain kind, and they must be placed perpendicular to the street. If you’re not in compliance you get a letter saying you have 14 days to make things right.
Residents have no problems with these rules; that’s one of the reasons they’re here. They want their investment protected. In some cases neighbors have been known to mow the lawn and trim the hedges of homes that have been foreclosed, until the management told them to stop—that was the responsibility of the bank who owned the eyesore.
Part of the theory behind Lakewood Ranch is protection of the nature preserves and wetlands—more than 50 percent of the land is unbuilt and will remain unbuilt. This means the homes are built close together. Even in the more expensive communities, the house on either side of you will be plainly visible out the side windows. To compensate, the living area is focused toward the rear of the home, where there is a caged pool or at least a lanai. This closeness to the neighbors is the one problem the builders haven’t quite solved, although I’m sure they’re working on it.
It is quite possible to live in Lakewood Ranch and never leave. “People in Sarasota say they never go east of I-75,” says one resident. “Well, some of us never go west of it.” There’s everything you need for daily living, and the situation is only improving. True, the road has been a little rocky. Main Street has shifted its focus from retail to restaurants, and the San Marco Plaza, a Venetian-style shopping area, still has many empty stores. But there is a feeling that the recession is ending—at least in Lakewood Ranch—and that things will only get better.
Lakewood Ranch’s location, once considered out in the boonies, has proved a major factor in its success. It lies right on the I-75 corridor, which is becoming a sort of Main Street of Southwest Florida. It’s entirely feasible to commute to Tampa or St. Pete, or Brandon or Venice. And as through some force of gravity, retail activity has sprung up all around the Ranch, with a new luxury mall that may be anchored by Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom in the works. Another serendipitous happening is Lakewood Ranch’s emergence as a sports center. It hosts softball championships that bring in thousands of overnight visitors, and the new rowing facility at Benderson Park, about a mile away, is one of the best in the nation.
It’s the first Friday of the month, and in Lakewood Ranch that means only one thing—it’s time for Music on Main.
The crowd starts to gather just before dusk. Main Street has been closed to traffic—it’s only a block or two long—and booths have been set up, some from local businesses, some from nonprofit groups. There are food vendors, and the Main Street restaurants—MacAllister’s, Paris Bistrot, Saijo Sushi and others—are already packed.
The people flocking in, many with lawn chairs, are mostly Lakewood Ranchers, though everyone is welcome. There are children of all ages, teens in giggling groups, buff 20-somethings on dates, families with strollers and toddlers, retired couples in neighborly groups. There are so many dogs underfoot that a woman who wandered in unaware asks if this is a dog show.
It’s a well-dressed, cosmopolitan crowd. Some British accents are heard, although the speech patterns of the Midwest and the Florida twang prevail. Girls are working the crowd, selling glasses of wine from a tray. I look at their T-shirts to see which cause this is benefiting. It’s a Catholic school. Perhaps the most Lakewood Ranch touch is the booth recruiting kids for Youth Cricket. Another surprise. Just when you think you have the place all figured out, you find out it’s a cricket center, too.
The band begins to play soft rock. There’s a place to dance down front, and soon a line dance develops spontaneously. The Catholic school continues to sell its wine, fathers put kids on their shoulders, two dogs get into a fight. The food stand in front of the Viking Culinary Center smells awfully good. Out in the parking lot cars are circling, looking for an empty space. There aren’t any. For tonight, anyway, Lakewood Ranch is definitely the place to be.
Where Ranchers Rendezvous
The Trattoria on Main Street. This hip meeting place has OK Italian food and the best bar on the ranch. It attracts a great-looking and often youngish crowd. 8131 Lakewood Main Street, (941) 907-1518.
The Lucky Pelican. A big favorite. It’s informal, with indoor and outdoor dining, and some swear it’s the best seafood restaurant in Sarasota. Order the “fresh fish simply grilled.” 6239 Lake Osprey Drive, (941) 907-0589.
The Broken Egg. Lakewood Ranch’s growing business community does power breakfast and lunch here. Also a favorite of celeb sports announcer and LWR resident Dick Vitale. 6115 Exchange Way, (941) 388-6898.
Lakewood Ranch Cinemas. An offshoot of downtown’s long-running Burns Court Cinema, this six-screen theater plays both independent art films and mainstream movies. 10715 Rodeo Drive, (941) 955-3456.
The Polo Grill. This big, rambling restaurant, owned by Tommy and Jaymie of the Klauber restaurateur family, is the center of LWR social life, hosting everything from charity events to private parties. 10670 Boardwalk Loop, (941) 782-0899.
Buy the LWR Life
Climbing the property ladder.
$173,570>This two-bedroom plus den is a typical Lakewood Ranch “starter.” It comes in at 1,323 square feet and features Corian counters and double sinks in the master bath. Located in the brand-new gated community of Central Park. 5031 Newport News Circle. Listed by Neal Communities.
$236,486>A little larger at 1,870 square feet, this home, also in Central Park, has a more impressive façade, granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. Three bedrooms—or two, plus den. 4808 Claremont Park. Listed by Neal Communities.
$319,000>Though a little smaller than the model above, this maintenance-free home has a beautiful golf course view, high ceilings, columns, niches and built-ins galore. Being sold turnkey furnished. 7807 Heritage Classic Court. Listed by Michael Saunders & Company.
$349,000>All the bells and whistles start to kick in at this price point—Brazilian hardwood floors, a granite island in the kitchen, elaborate master bath, even a fountain in front. Located in the Country Club. 7192 Whitemarsh Circle. Listed by Re/Max.
$485,000>A third garage appears, along with lots of extra space—3,204 square feet, four bedrooms, 3 1/2 baths. Granite in the kitchen, enormous his and her closets, lakefront lot, swimming pool, upstairs bonus room. Located in Greenbrook Preserve. 15024 Bowfin Terrace. Listed by Atchley International Realty.
$750,000>Twelve-foot ceilings, fireplace, pool overlooking a lake. At almost 4,000 square feet, it has five/six bedrooms and tons of kitchen upgrades. Built in 2000. Located in the Country Club. 7925 Royal Queensland Way. Listed by Keller Williams Realty.
$1,241,065>About as good as it gets. At 4,207 square feet it’s not the largest, but it’s packed with custom extras and has a formal, elegant feeling. Leaded glass and spectacular chandeliers, lush landscaping. There’s even a generator. In the Country Club. 13309 Palmers Creek Terrace. Listed by Keller Williams Realty.
Novelist and essayist Robert Plunket is a senior editor for Sarasota Magazine. He wrote “Snowbird Confidential” in December and “They Wouldn’t Live Anywhere Else,” about Sarasota’s Ringling Museum neighborhood, in October. His “Real Estate Junkie” blog appears weekly at sarasotamagazine.com.