Future of the Van Wezel a key question in the community
With more workshops held this week — and more planned for May and June — representatives of the Sarasota Bay Planning Organization (SBPO) are working toward a Sept. 6 presentation to the City Commission that will feature final recommendations for 53 acres of property on and near the city’s bayfront.
The discussion will include estimates for the associated expenses, SBPO Executive Director Bill Waddill told the commissioners during their regular meeting on April 16.
The final vision will be a distillation of meetings, workshops and conversations conducted already with more than 9,200 people, Waddill added. Additionally, more than 700 individuals attended the workshops the SBPO held prior to those set for this week, he pointed out.
The September discussion will include talk of how to finance the vision, he said and “recommendations to get started as soon as we possibly can,” if the commission approves the final design.
Last year, the SBPO hired Sasaki of Watertown, Mass., to create the concept for 42 acres of city-owned bayfront land and surrounding property. The Sasaki consultants were due to be with him that day, Waddill noted at the outset of his April 16 remarks, but their flights had been cancelled. They were expected to arrive in time to participate in the workshops, he added.
“Any good master plan is a vital, flexible plan … that you move forward as you go … and gauge your success as you go,” Waddill told the board. The design team, he noted, “can’t possibly anticipate that everything is going to be perfect on our site …” For example, he said, updates in technology no doubt will affect the need to modify facets of the initial design.
“I think you guys are doing a great job so far with the actual product,” Commissioner Hagen Brody told Waddill and Jennifer Compton, a member of the SBPO board of directors.
Brody asked when the group plans to start working on how to pay for the vision that Sasaki will create.
“After this week,” Waddill replied. Following the workshops, Waddill added, the Sasaki team will refine the concept and the SBPO “can hone in on costs,” based on what the majority of the public approves of in the latest proposals.
“Let us know what we can do on our end,” Brody told Waddill, adding that the commissioners can communicate to the city’s legislators and congressional representatives the need for financial assistance. Referring to the latter, Brody added, “I think it’s that big of a project. … I want to see this come to fruition.”
“It’s not uncommon to have 10, 15, 20 or more funding sources, both public and private,” for this type of project, Waddill responded. The consulting firm the SBPO is using for The Bay Sarasota also worked on New York City’s High Line development, he noted, so it has experience with all sorts of funding options.
“The High Line is a public park built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side,” Friends of the High Line explains on its website.
Among the key issues the public has zeroed in on for the bayfront, Waddill pointed out to the City Commission, is the future of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. “We’re simply facilitating the community conversation.”
City Manager Tom Barwin — who is the City Commission’s liaison to the SBPO — added that discussions also have been held with representatives of Sarasota Orchestra, which has had its home on the bayfront for decades. Its largest performance venue is the Van Wezel, Barwin noted.
Sarasota Orchestra will need “an acoustically perfected performing arts hall,” he said.
The SBPO also has responded to information from the management and foundation of the Van Wezel about the need for a new venue on the bayfront that would have to be sustainable for 50 years, Waddill explained.
The latest three Sasaki concepts incorporate the Van Wezel into the design, Waddill noted. “Ultimately, that’s the decision of the … City Commission on what they would like to do with that building.”
With all the concepts, he continued, the other primary issues the public has focused on are access to the site, transportation and parking. Regarding the latter two, he added, “We’ve heard that a lot.” Nonetheless, Waddill pointed out, “We’re not in charge of what’s going on on [U.S.] 41.”
In fact, he said, Sasaki has been looking at “creative ways” to enable people to reach the bayfront by going over U.S. 41.
“Everybody is very concerned about the two buildings — [the former home of] G.WIZ [science museum] and the Van Wezel,” Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch told Waddill. People have focused on four options for those structures, she continued: leaving them where they are; re-purposing them; demolishing them; and moving them.
“I really would love it if we could avoid [tearing down] the Van Wezel,” she added.
Furthermore, transparency about the decision-making and communication with the public are necessary to reassure everyone in the community, Ahearn-Koch said.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Waddill replied. Even if the final plan called for a new performing arts hall, he said, the Van Wezel probably would need to be used for another five to seven years.
Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie noted that Waddill had spoken to her one-on-one, as he has with other commissioners. She asked him to comment publicly on a question she had asked: Is the SBPO having difficulty reaching any specific stakeholders to ascertain their views in the planning process?
The four groups with which the SBPO has not had as much success, he responded, are African-Americans, Latinos, young professionals and families. However, Waddill continued, “After a few stops and starts,” he felt engagement with the young professionals in the community had improved significantly. To reach families, he said, the SBPO has worked with the Sarasota County School District.
Additionally, he told the board, efforts have begun to get the organization’s email blasts to leaders in the Latino community, including links to The Bay Sarasota website and links about the activities that have been underway.
It would be interesting this week, he said, to gauge the success of those efforts from the attendance at the workshops.
Vice Mayor Liz Alpert also talked of her discussion with Waddill one-on-one regarding the need for the bayfront to have a wide range of free activities to draw a variety of people.
“We’re continuing to work hard to do that,” he replied. One example, he noted, might be showing movies on an outer wall of the performing arts hall venue.
Waddill also reminded the commissioners that the SBPO provides details about past workshops on The Bay Sarasota website, along with information about the concepts as they are refined. He encouraged the public to take advantage of opportunities to review the material.