Activating a Community

SACD professor and students present design ideas to boost profile of Bradenton’s Village of the Arts.

By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (May 3, 2013) – Bradenton’s Village of the Arts wants to attract more people to its eclectic galleries, picturesque restaurants and brightly painted buildings. That won’t happen without planning and action. 

Previously, University of South Florida students in an urban landscapes design workshop impressed town leaders with their ideas for Bradenton’s Riverwalk which opened last October. The relationship with USF continues with a new focus on Village of the Arts.

School of Architecture and Community Design (SACD) Assistant Professor Shannon Bassett, working with her graduate research assistants Adam Skwirsk and Michael Marti, in cooperation with Realize Bradenton and New College of Florida, has stepped up to this latest challenge. An array of creative potential solutions is the result.

Bassett, Skwirsk and Marti presented their final design proposal concepts, "The Village Tapestry," to the area’s residents, artists, and business owners at a recent community meeting. This was the last of a series of presentations following an initial design charrette in January – all involving the community.


In the upcoming month, Bassett will be working on a final proposal document with recommendations to submit to Realize Bradenton, the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority and the Village’s residents. 


“This will provide them with the framework to begin the implementation of the overall plan,” Bassett said.  


To prepare, the USF team walked up and down the streets of the Village. They explored Towles Court, a similar though much smaller community in neighboring Sarasota – one block versus 42 acres. They also researched other successful communities of its type – old, quaint and filling with artists drawn because they can afford it.


The painters, sculptors and jewelry and clothing designers in the Village brought with them a vibrancy and sense of renewal. Galleries, shops and restaurants soon followed along with young families – all fixing up neglected properties. As a community, the area has the potential to expand the range of downtown Bradenton’s appeal to locals and tourists alike. 


Ultimately, working in collaboration, the team arrived at a series of short-term (one to two years), mid-term (two to four years) and long-term (four-plus years) possibilities that address key concerns: connectivity between external and internal corridors, the inclusion of nature, design elements and suggested events that will work together to “activate” designated spots and the community as a whole. 

The team presented maps, plans, drawings and photos at the town meeting which was titled “Plan to Act.” It was held at Renaissance on 9th near the Village and hosed by Realize Bradenton Executive Director Johnette Isham. This was the fourth in the series of meetings where residents weighed in with their thoughts and ideas about what they wanted to see in their revitalized neighborhood.

“We listened very closely to what the villagers, community constituents and stakeholders told us, what they identified as assets in their community, as well as challenges,” Bassett said. “Our design scheme took the approach that all of the pieces which make up vital place-making are already currently in place, yet disconnected. Our design scheme took a multi-scalar to connectivity. The landscape infrastructure was the connective tissue to do so. How the Village of the Arts connects into Main Street and then Riverwalk, how the spine of the Village could connect to its periphery. Right now they are essentially hidden.” 

Bassett, Skwirsk and Marti showed the audience of residents, business owners and elected officials including Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston, what they have in mind for the areas leading into Village of the Arts and within.

They worked with the existing strengths and community assets, namely the renovated homes and galleries that make the area an attraction during monthly art walks. They combined them with such unique ideas as merging vacated alleys and backyards into flexible shared space.

“It would be a bottom-up approach where there would be side paths connecting the street to the back green alleys,” said Bassett. “These could be controlled by the residents, closed sometimes for privacy and open to the public during art openings or during the day. They currently have a garden walk once a year. The gardens are beautiful, often with water features, and we wanted to bring that DNA out into the open.”

The USF team also suggested the creation of rain gardens that would address seasonal flooding in an ecologically sound and visually attractive way and an architecturally eye-catching “bike swipe” (sharing) spot. On the more traditional side they showed a plan for signage, improved street lighting, well-thought-out parking solutions, parks and expanded transportation options such as trolleys. 

“The overlying framework of landscape and ecology-as-urbanism is a design strategy to mitigate the urban flooding issues that the residents currently experience. Our Riverwalk project introduced tidal pools and natural shoreline softening strategies which enabled the city to get grants from SWFWMD (Southwest Florida Water Management District) for the urban design project.” She will continue to work with the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority to identify grant opportunities for funding the physical implementation of the project.

Then there are the bump-outs and pop-ups.

“One of the aspects of our concept was to reclaim the gray infrastructure with green infrastructure,” Bassett explained. “Bump-outs at street intersections for rain gardens are natural ways of dealing with the storm-water run-off and flooding. The green alleyways running behind the houses and in-between create a finer grain of quirky, smaller gallery spaces to form laneway architecture and urbanism. 

“We also proposed a kit of parts of ‘pop-up’ urbanism elements such as movable seating, exhibit space, lounges, etc. which could be used for festivals, taking over abandoned lots and closed streets with temporary urban events.”

Isham, along with New College of Florida Professor David Brain, spoke about the importance of public/private partnerships and cooperation between all the community’s members. 

“Transformational projects need diverse partners who contribute their specialized expertise,” said Isham. “When college and university faculty and students engage in an urban opportunity, the community benefits from their research and fresh perspectives that challenge our thinking.”


Throughout, those partners, the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority, the Bradenton Economic Development Council, Realize Bradenton, the Artist Guild of Manatee, the Village Connectors and many others have been working together to move matters forward.

Brain, a sociologist, facilitated the first design charrette in January following a social and physical asset mapping of the area by his class that began in the spring of 2012. Since then he has been meeting monthly with Bassett and her students. They were part of preliminary planning meetings during the fall and all subsequent gatherings, all hosted by Realize Bradenton.


The final step is the production of the report, due in June. It will document the results of this entire process and provide an outline of projects that can be accomplished in selected timeframes. 


Community involvement is being encouraged all along the way.


Brain reminded the audience at this latest meeting, “This is not about who’s going to do this for us but rather how can we do this, what can you do to move this vision forward.”


The one thing Bassett hopes to avoid is making the area so desirable that real estate developers drive away the artists who are the core of the Village of the Arts.


“Real estate agents follow the artists,” she said. “It’s happened in New York with Greenwich Village, SOHO, and around Boston in Somerville and Jamaica Plain. If an effort is made up front to make a commitment to affordability of studio and gallery space and include affordable housing in the mix, the community can keep its character, charm and benefit everyone who lives there well into the future. This is the kind of experience that will help design students bring great value to communities like this in the years to come.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.