After two years of refining concept for gateway sign to downtown Sarasota, Downtown Improvement District fails to win City Commission support

Organization planned to pay for design and construction of arch over western end of Main Street

Of the three potential designs that Sarasota firm DSDG submitted in its response to the Request for Proposals for a downtown gateway sign, this is the one the DID board members said they preferred. However, the DID did not propose this as the concept for City Commission approval. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Years of advocacy by members of the Downtown Improvement District (DID) for a gateway arch that would welcome people to downtown Sarasota culminated this week in defeat at the Sarasota City Commission dais.

On Jan. 21, Commissioner Liz Alpert found only one other supporter on her board for the DID’s concept — Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie.

“I still can’t get behind the over arch … design,” Commissioner Hagen Brody told Dr. Mark Kauffman, a long-time member of the DID board, and John Moran, the DID’s operations manager. “I think [it is] tacky.”

“I agree with Commissioner Brody,” Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch said.

Commissioner Willie Shaw joined them in opposing Alpert’s motion.

During a Jan. 22 telephone interview about the vote, Kauffman told The Sarasota News Leader, “The DID is very disappointed. We’ll probably just drop the matter,” since the City Commission seemed to have no interest in it.

During a Jan. 21 presentation, Susan Dodd, a city redevelopment manager, explained that the DID would like to see an arch placed over Main Street near the street’s western terminus at U.S. 41, between Gulfstream Avenue and Bayfront Drive.

Since December 2017 — the last time the commissioners discussed the proposal for a downtown gateway — the DID board members continued work on their idea, Dodd said. They based their subsequent steps on comments aired during that meeting two years ago, she added.

These are the other two concepts DSDG submitted in response to the DID Request for Proposals — but only as examples of the type of work it could produce. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Then, in early 2019, the DID issued a Request for Proposals for a firm that could create the design, and the DSDG Architects firm of Sarasota was the top-ranked responder, Dodd pointed out.

“They’re not seeking approval for a specific design concept at this time,” Dodd noted of the DID board members; nor could they provide any construction estimates.

What they were seeking on Jan. 21, she continued, was approval to spend $32,550 of revenue collected from the Downtown Improvement District property owners so DSDG could create a design. Then, DID representatives would be back before the City Commission for final approval before moving on to the construction phase, Dodd added.

The DID board’s goal, she said, would be “a well designed, iconic gateway …”

Kauffman reminded the commissioners that the DID had been working on “a significant gateway sign for downtown for many months/years. We did not rush into this project.”

He also reminded them that the DID has enhanced the downtown through a number of initiatives — from cleaning the sidewalks to paying for enhanced landscaping. “Most importantly,” he continued, DID has focused on “permanent infrastructure,” which he called “the gifts that keep on giving,” including the wider sidewalks along parts of Main Street.

These are examples of gateway signs the DID found in other communities. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Then Kauffman explained that the DID board undertook research into city signage around the United States and the world. “We came up with various parameters [for the Sarasota project],” he continued. It had to be “significant and meaningful, classy and refined [and] a crisp, modern, iconic design, easily visible for pedestrians and vehicles [and] reasonably maintainable. … We feel it should not be tacky, with oranges and palm trees.”

DSDG “responded to our goals,” Kauffman added.

However, before allowing the firm to proceed with a design for the proposed Main Street location, he told the commissioners, the DID needed their approval.

Two speakers on Jan. 21 offered full support for the project.

Roger Barry, emeritus professor of the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning at the University of Cincinnati, told the commissioners, “Downtown continues to lack the visibility and recognition of the nationally known St. Armands. … This recognition of downtown is vital.”

The second speaker was Ken Shelin, who, like Barry, lives in downtown Sarasota. A former city commissioner, Shelin told the commissioners, “Almost everyneighborhood in our city has signs at their entrances, which not only helps to locate them but enables people to recognize the special character they possess.”

This is an aerial view of the intersection of Bayfront Drive and Main Street. Image from Google Maps

Shelin added, “Downtown’s not as obvious as you might think. … Downtown is actually hidden from view” from drivers on the Tamiami Trail and even on Fruitville Road, “which are major entrances to the area.”

“I am so tired of us being mediocre when we make these kinds of decisions at the City Commission,” Shelin said. Referring to the concept the DID had proposed, he concluded his remarks, “We couldn’t ask for a more splendid way to say, ‘Here we are and welcome to our busy downtown.’”

Diving into more of the details

“Why doesn’t staff support the DID’s recommendation?” Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie asked at one point.

One primary concern, Redevelopment Manager Dodd replied, was the implication that downtown had one primary entrance.

In early 2017, she continued, the DID members considered three locations for the gateway signage: the intersection of U.S. 301 and Main Street; the intersection of U.S. 41 and Main Street; and the intersection of Lemon Avenue and Fruitville Road. Then the decision was made to propose a single gateway, Dodd added, which would fall along the southwestern boundary of the Downtown Improvement District.

These are examples of gateway signs the DID considered for the intersections of U.S. 301/Main Street and Lemon Avenue/Fruitville Road. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown expanded on that answer, telling the commissioners that in 2017, discussion centered on “Really, where is the true entrance to downtown?” Commissioner Brody raised that issue, Brown noted.

Staff subsequently considered types of signage that could be installed in other areas to mark them as entries to downtown, as well, Brown added.

On St. Armands, for example, Brown continued, the city had installed gateway signs that were “smaller, more appropriate” than the concept the DID had proposed.

“This is the DID’s project,” he emphasized. Nonetheless, Brown said, staff’s “preferred option” would be an approach more like that on St. Armands, instead of an arch over the road.

Commissioner Shaw concurred with the concern about marking one area as the gateway to downtown when other gateways exist.

The commissioners also debated wayfinding signage compared to the type of welcoming signage the DID was proposing. “This is a destinationsign,” Brown emphasized. “Wayfinding is a little bit more than that.”

Commissioner Brody said at one point that he had recommended to the DID members that they work on an artistic Main Street sign that could be placed at the side of the road or a design that could be incorporated into the regular street signs.

This map shows the Downtown Improvement District outlined in red. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

After making her motion, Commissioner Alpert stressed that property owners within the Downtown Improvement District pay a tax whose revenue goes toward enhancements of that district. “This is something that they want to see,” she added of the arch.

“I think they’ve come up with a good conceptual design for it that reflects the Sarasota School of Architecture,” she said of the DID members, referring to an architectural movement in the mid-20th century for Sarasota became known.

Alpert also pointed out that installing the arch would not preclude erection of other signage denoting the boundaries of downtown Sarasota.

Nonetheless, her motion failed 2-3.