Administrative review process approved for buildings with 5,000 square feet or less in The Bay Park

Bay Park Conservancy representatives contend change will allow them to save money by being able to proceed faster with plans

After the second and final reading this week of the relevant ordinance, the Sarasota City Commission voted 4-1 to amend the Future Land Use classification of nearly 9 acres of The Bay Park in downtown Sarasota from Open Space-Recreation-Conservation to Metropolitan-Regional No. 5, including Action Strategy 2.13, which will allow for city staff to approve certain elements of the park.

The land-use change applies to the portion of the park bounded by North Tamiami Trail on the east, the boat basin on the south, Sarasota Bay on the west, and a Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL) substation on the north. The affected area, as city documents explain, is the city-owned Centennial Park, which consists mostly of boat ramps and a paved parking lot, as city staff has pointed out. Consistent with that, the agenda request form for the commission’s April 17 regular meeting notes, the section of The Bay Park on that property will include “boat ramps, paved parking, and park related commercial uses.”

As a result of the vote, all of the park will be in what is called the Bay Park Zone District.

Additionally, the ordinance allows for a maximum of 10 live-work spaces — such as studio apartments — for artists who would be associated with the cultural venues planned in the park. However, as stated by Commissioner Erik Arroyo in the motion, those units must be associated with “a qualified arts organization and approved by the city manager.”

Initially, the Bay Park Conservancy, which manages the park and raises private funding for its amenities, sought city administrative approval for any structures in the next two phases of the park that would comprise 10,000 or fewer square feet. That staff review of plans would have been in lieu of City Commission approval.

However, as proffered by representatives of the Conservancy on March 20, the administrative approval will apply only to structures comprising 5,000 square feet or less room.

Being able to move forward with administrative approval will save the Conservancy time and money, both Bill Waddill, the Conservancy’s chief operating officer, and William Merrill III, a partner with the Sarasota law firm Icard Merrill, stressed to the commissioners.

A slide Waddill showed the commissioners said that a six-month delay in work on Phase 2, given an annual 7% inflation rate applied to the estimated cost of $65 million, would add $2.3 million to the total expense.

Phase 2 will include the $15-million Dockside/South Canal District; the $20-million City Side Cultural District; and the $15-million construction of the Sunset Boardwalk and Pier.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch cited the administrative approval facet of the plans as her primary reason for casting the “No” votes on the Future Land Use map change in the Comprehensive Plan amendment and Action Strategy 2.13.

“This has been an exemplary process and an exemplary project, with lots of ‘pushback’ ” from the public at times, she said of the creation of the park. Allowing for administrative approval would deviate from that, she pointed out. “I see [the requested actions] as taking away the magic of what has happened [on the bayfront].”

Further, Ahearn-Koch voiced concern about the Future Land Use designation itself. The agenda request form explained that the land uses associated with that include the following: parks and open space, government uses, restaurants, performing arts centers, museums and cultural facilities, galleries, retail, and mixed-use development.

“There are a lot of uses that can be interpreted as entertainment,” Ahearn-Koch stressed; “a lot.”

She also criticized the Conservancy representatives’ plans for food and beverage concessionaires.

Waddill told her that The Bay Park is the 31st park that he has worked on during his career. (He was a long-time employee with the Kimley-Horn consulting firm before his retirement and subsequent employment with the Conservancy.) Almost all of those parks have food and beverage concessions, he said, which are a primary factor in the success of those facilities.

Moreover, Waddill pointed out, if the Conservancy had to design each segment of the commercial space in Phases 2 and 3 of the park, win City Commission approval for it, and then build it, “It would take 10 years. … That would cost us more money.”

Waddill and attorney Merrill both noted the increase in inflation over the past two years.

Among the public critics of the administrative approval process, Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck stressed during the March 20 hearing that the changes the Conservancy was seeking “broadly will allow retail, restaurants and other commercial, non-park-type development.” The Conservancy leaders have cited public demands for “more park now!” Lobeck continued. However, he cautioned, “The secret agenda behind this is private interests who want more space on the waterfront than they can get today.”

The structures that will be subject to administrative approval most likely will be restaurants, based on the nearly two hours and 15 minutes of discussion between the Conservancy team and the commissioners on March 20.

Boaters’ continuing objections

Planning for Phase 3 of the park is years out, as Waddill, of the Conservancy indicated to the commissioners on March 20. Nonetheless, boaters and charter captains made it clear during the public hearing that day that they remain concerned about the effects of the park plans on the Centennial Park Boat Ramp.

Referring to the boaters, Andrejs Spalvins of Sarasota told the commissioners, “We’re David and we’re going to have to slay Goliath. … There are two mainland ramps for boaters — 10th Street and Blackburn Point,” in South County. All of the others are on the barrier islands, Spalvins added.

If the ultimate design for what will be Phase 3 reduces the parking for boaters, he continued, “All of that [boater] traffic will then go out to the islands with their trucks and their boats,” which will exacerbate the existing traffic congestion on the Keys.

“Please, please don’t hurt our trailer boats,” he said, which prompted applause in the City Commission Chambers.

Another speaker who talked about demand at the boat ramp — Jeff Lukowsky of Sarasota — characterized the situation thus: “It’s a madhouse, and it’s been that way for years.”

A third speaker, Jay Riggs, noted the “explosion in population of an estimated 10,000 people per year moving here.” He has heard nothing about a Phase 3 design that would accommodate the resulting increase in the number of boaters, he continued. Yet, Riggs pointed out, “We should be planning a new city marina [with 300 slips] to the west of the boat ramp on 10th [Street]. This is our only chance to make the best of our last 53 acres of bayfront that we have to accommodate people. … This project as proposed ignores the issues facing our boating community and shouldn’t be approved …”

Waddill of the Conservancy told the commissioners that the nonprofit has a Boater Working Group with more than two dozen members. He and other leaders of the Conservancy plan to convene a meeting of that group this summer, Waddill added, to discuss planning for the boat ramp. Other sessions have been held with boaters in the past, he said.

Further, Waddill emphasized, “Our organization has worked very hard to earn the trust of our community. … We … do what we say we’re going to do.”

During his public comments, Riggs, the boater, countered those comments. Riggs told the commissioners that while Waddill believes boaters trust representatives of the Conservancy to improve and maintain the boat ramp, “I don’t see it that way, and I don’t think anyone here does.”

Waddill did acknowledge to the commissioners that parking “is obviously an issue” for the park in general. “I hear it every day [from users of the park],” he added.

The Conservancy team is working with FPL to try to expand the parking area to the north,” Waddill pointed out. “We’ve not pushed on it hard,” he admitted, because the Conservancy’s focus had been on Phase 1 of the park, which opened to the public last fall.

Subsequently, Waddill explained, the nonprofit team has been working on Phase 2, with the design set to start in May. It will take three or four years to complete that area of the park, he added. Planning for Phase 3 will follow the completion of Phase 2, he said. “We can’t take on all those different phases of the park at one time.”

With a unanimous vote on a March 20 motion by Arroyo, the commissioners directed representatives of the Conservancy to come back to them with changes in the master plan for the park that will include expansion of the Centennial Park Boat Ramp.

Waddill also reminded the commissioners on March 20 that Phase 2 will be created in a flood zone. The plans call for a “food village,” with food trucks, for example, which easily could be moved if a storm were approaching. “There’s not any permanent brick-and-mortar restaurants” in those plans, Waddill said.

Construction of about 1,000 feet of a new seawall, to replace a crumbling section of seawall, also is an element of the Phase 2 work, he added.

Diving into the details

During the board members’ questioning of the Conservancy representatives, Commissioner Arroyo asked Waddill about the size of the restaurants that would be included in Phase 3.

“Our original master plan included a business plan that reflected earned income” to maintain the park, Waddill pointed out. Food and beverage revenue that would stem from private establishments has been estimated in a range from $650,000 to $1.1 million, to minimize the amount of taxpayers’ money needed to support The Bay Park’s operations, Waddill added.

“We’re thinking probably two to four restaurants in the 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot range … to generate that sort of revenue,” Waddill said.

Commissioner Debbie Trice noted that the Bijou Café and Patrick’s restaurants in downtown Sarasota contain approximately 5,000 square feet each.

Yet, with administrative approval, Arroyo continued, the City Commission would have no say about the restaurants or other potential businesses that would be using city-owned buildings in the Canal District.

“Pretend we approve this,” Arroyo told Waddill, and the Conservancy signs a lease to allow Silicon Valley Bank to occupy one of the buildings. “People are furious,” Arroyo continued his narrative. “Are you going to be responsible, or are we going to be responsible for that?”

Waddill replied that the Conservancy would have to follow the city’s government procurement process and issue a Request for Proposals for any concessionaires for the park.

Arroyo also asked Waddill whether the Centennial Park Boat Ramp facility could be expanded.

“We can absolutely expand that ramp,” Waddill replied. Preliminary analysis suggests that two more boat ramps could be constructed, bringing the total to eight, he said. “But any of that is a change to the master plan that would have to come back to the commission to evaluate.”

Then Waddill again focused on the administrative approval process, explaining that it could save the Conservancy six months in building out Phase 3, which would mean a monetary savings of an estimated $8 million to $10 million, which could be used for other purposes.

Arroyo acknowledged the idea of “more park, sooner, at a lower cost.”

Waddill further explained that, over the past five years, the Conservancy staff has realized that the original vision for Phase 3 will have to be modified because of the difficulties in winning he necessary permits for the original design. The master plan “needs much more study and revisions,” he added, which will necessitate the Conservancy’s coming back to the commission for its approval.

Attorney Merrill noted that the commissioners could designate the size of each building in Phase 3 before approving those changes.