Log in Subscribe

The Death of the Downtown We Knew and Loved?


When I was a Walker Jr High student, the Bradenton Herald printed the question, “What can be done to improve downtown Bradenton?”

Not many readers had answers. One that I recall was “Build a big tall building downtown."

Since then, Bradenton has made Manatee Avenue ‘one way' and built a ‘big tall’ courthouse. It has also tried to destroy all the old buildings north of Manatee Avenue along 12th Street to replace them with windowless structures that would house ‘tech’ (like what was built on the corner of 3rd and 12th).

In sum, over the years, our Bradenton government has made some very bad decisions—‘design’ decisions—that have caused downtown to become nearly inhospitable.

If there is one exception, it’s “Old Main Street”—which only exists today because of my stepdad. My stepdad was a retired railway engineer who had been volunteering at the Manatee Players. He appreciated the older vintage-style buildings along 12th Street and was disappointed in their being torn down. My step-dad— singularly—worked tirelessly for years to challenge the city so that these buildings would be salvaged and become what they are today: the only place downtown we have that is a downtown we can go downtown to.

Other than “Old Main Street,” I ask you, as my fellow Manatee County residents, what else is there?

I do not personally recall (since I was a student at Walker Jr) of any city government official having a design degree or having studied urban planning. I may be wrong, but the results—which have been pretty decimating to our city, kind of speak for themselves. To me, this is like having someone who has never studied medicine perform a delicate surgery procedure on your child. Or having a stranger who has only watched a YouTube video about law and asking them to represent you in court.

Back in the 1990s, our City Hall was located on Wares Creek on the south side of Manatee Avenue. The Mayor at the time was very popular. He had been enjoying years and years of real and sincere adoration as a city official. For some reason, this Mayor became a bit obsessed with moving City Hall to the downtown waterfront, where an attractive auditorium was already situated—on land deemed as “public” parkland years before.

This City Mayor held a public meeting inside that auditorium to explain his intent. His plan was ‘not’ well received. Those attending that evening became very upset and even angry, and the meeting grew out of control.

Despite the strong, near-violent public protest, this Mayor forged ahead, trusting in his past popularity. He literally ‘plopped’ a large City Hall/Police Department building ‘over’ the existing waterfront auditorium. In case you did not know, our downtown auditorium is still there. It’s just ‘hidden’ underneath the walls and roof of our current City Hall building. Because of this once very popular city official, the public lost the use of this public waterfront parkland. And this City Mayor, along with several who supported him, were ‘tossed out’ of office at the next election.

One act destroyed this Mayor’s decades of popularity.

While caring for my aging mother in my family home, the home where I was born, designed by my architect Dad, the world economy collapsed. This collapse—which caused people to lose their homes, marriages, careers, money, and even lives—was blamed on ‘real estate.’ Even worse, the Wall Street Journal printed that the ‘epicenter’ for this world economic collapse originated in Manatee/Sarasota.

I personally find these accusations by a New York rag to be short-sighted, if not insulting. “Manatee” may have its faults, and growing up here, I’ve personally witnessed some. But to blame the collapse of the entire world economy on all of us is a bit much, in my humble opinion.

So, while my elderly mother rested during the day, I sat at my computer and wrote blogs. Blogs based on my professional experience of having worked for some of the world's largest, most prestigious design & development companies. These included SOM, I M Pei, Rockefeller Center, and many more. I’ve had exhibits of my work displayed in the windows of Tiffany Jewelers, Central Park, on the top floor of Rockefeller Center, and even inside FAO Schwarz, the famous toy store. For years I taught design at Parsons School of Design, considered one of the best design schools in the world.

I wrote these blogs to try to imagine a ‘better’ Bradenton. Not a new or a different Bradenton. But a city that could pull itself out of the mess the outside world had caused upon it. And re-build. Like our ancestors did as our forefathers did. Like our families did after WWII or following the Great Depression. A Bradenton, we could all achieve and regain by appreciating what we have, what made us unique, what made us the special community in which we were born and raised, and getting it back even better than before. Each blog that I’ve written is an attempt to have us imagine how a little part of Bradenton might be improved ‘just enough’ so that we would not only get back on our feet, but become a place that could be truly wonderful. A place even the rest of the world might respect and appreciate. I did not write these blogs as if ‘written in stone’. They are ‘suggestions’ meant to inspire. I appreciate discussion and brand-new ideas. It’s been my hope that others might take up where I left off and do something even more, even better than I’ve imagined.

One area that I focused on, which I felt was my most important blog, was our downtown waterfront. A city waterfront like no other. There are other cities that have waterfronts, and I have worked for major design companies that have re-designed entire downtowns. One thing we would never do is fill a city waterfront with buildings, especially big private buildings, making their waterfront a place where local residents could no longer go. Having access to a city waterfront—for walking one’s dog, riding a bike, roller skating, or drinking some coffee—is essential to the life of a downtown that has a waterfront. Without offering this to its citizenry, one is literally removing the heart from its body and causing the city to die. The blog I wrote suggests appreciating our beautiful downtown waterfront area and converting it into a park peppered with stores, cafes, galleries, etc. What I was imagining was a ‘mix’ of St Armand Circle and St Pete’s very successful waterfront.

During the past two or so years, the local city government has taken on the quest to build a ‘big tall’ building where the current City Hall is presently located. They’ve recently voted to increase the number of floors this building can have, making this building potentially super-tall. From my understanding, this building will be a condominium/hotel combination. In short, this waterfront parkland area will no longer be open to the public but will be a very large, very sealed-off building instead. Every rendering I’ve seen of the proposed design shows massive tall walls built right out to the sidewalk. Causing our downtown waterfront to become more like Tampa, or Sarasota.

As one might imagine, I wrote a few emails to our city government expressing my opinion about this and how this area should be more ‘public.’ One wrote back, insisting that a ‘hotel’ is ‘public.’ This surprised me, as I’ve never imagined myself being able to just walk into a hotel and make myself comfortable in all its rooms because they are ‘private.’ I also wrote about the possible traffic jams, gridlock, parking problems, years of this downtown area being closed off while construction is taking place, causing downtown storefronts to suffer and possibly close, and the stress such a large building will place upon our fire department & utilities, how the surrounding roads and bridges will all need to be modified, etc., etc. And the cost of it all. During a public meeting, a city member addressed the cost by admitting that the money the city would make from selling this property “would not” cover all the changes the city would be required to make because of this new building.

Isn’t that a bad business decision?

Then, a ‘miracle’ happened - and I am not being political. But Biden released a huge grant that was being offered to US cities specifically for the improvement of their downtowns. Tampa immediately applied and was awarded approximately $25 million dollars just to increase the size of a downtown park. That sum is nearly double the dollar amount the City of Bradenton will receive from selling its downtown waterfront. I quickly notified our city government about this grant. I even sent them a link to this government website. Did our city government apply for this money? Money that could be used to make our downtown waterfront wonderful for all of us? I will never know…..

Instead, the City of Bradenton went ahead with the sale of this property, approved a taller building, and will block off and raze this entire area in the not-too-distant future.

Normally, I would say about reading my blog, “Please enjoy…..” Now I feel this blog, which I do believe is worth your reading attention, may be a post mortem."

Hans Carl Clausen is a Bradenton native. A self-described "child of the '60s," he attended Jessie P Miller and Manatee High School before heading off to the University of Florida and then forming Architecte Miniatura, a concierge design & media studio.


4 comments on this item

Only paid subscribers can comment
Please log in to comment by clicking here.

  • slevin

    Mr Clausen - Your Opinion piece perhaps is most important and well-written. Your appreciation for the past and the value to the Community are immeasurable. I want to thank you for your perspective.

    Steven Levin


    Friday, April 5 Report this

  • igobye3959

    It is so dishearting to see this happening to our riverfront. Is there nothing else we can do to stop this distruction? When we moved here 20+ years ago, we were charmed by the small town feel and seemingly competent local government. Now not so much....

    Monday, April 8 Report this

  • historicalnewyork

    Thank you so much for writing this. My sentiments exactly! The loss of green space and the creation of canyons defined by huge buildings with not even a small space for trees between buildings and sidewalks destroy an essential part of Bradenton's identity. And there seems to be little that we can do to stop this extremely misguided development. Your perspective is so much appreciated.

    Sunday, April 14 Report this

  • iambillsanders

    Hans Carl Clausen

    Agree 100%

    I still hope is not to late to do it right.

    We can talk


    Friday, May 17 Report this