Barbara Campo and Jude Levy want the City Commission to return Pineapple Park to its former glory
In her crusade to save a strip of city-owned property bordering Pineapple Park in downtown Sarasota, Barbara Campo has amassed stacks of documents and maps.
According to one of those records, back on Jan. 13, 1972, the Seaboard Coastline Railroad Co., in a quitclaim action, “deeded it to the city to put it in trust for public benefit,” Campo said of the 30-foot-wide right of way.
Campo and fellow crusader Jude Levy, along with other members of Save our Sarasota, will be toting some of those documents with them to City Hall on Monday, Feb. 1. As part of a presentation and discussion scheduled during the 6 p.m. session of the meeting, the city commissioners are expected to decide the fate of the grassy strip of right of way, weighing whether to sell the property for development — which proponents say is in line with the city’s 2000 Downtown Master Plan — or preserve it as a possible extension of the park.
In an interview this week at Pineapple Park, located at the intersection of Lemon and Pineapple avenues, Campo and Levy told The Sarasota News Leader that if the city sells the land, that would mean giving up the opportunity to enhance one of only six downtown passive pocket parks.
Additionally, transferring the sliver of public property would mark yet another step in what Levy and Campo see as a recent trend by the city to relinquish control of its dwindling public space in the downtown core.
The pair points to the years-long reduction of public accessibility at places such as Little Five Points Park, which is mainly filled by tables and chairs that are available to restaurant patrons only, and Links Plaza, where the shade trees that once stood above the benches were removed last year to appease a nearby business owner who said they obscured the view of his establishment from Main Street.
“This is a battle for property the city owns, and for what is right,” Levy said.
“This is public property,” Campo adds.
Levy and Campo want the city to back away from plans to sell the land to Hembree & Associates of Sarasota — a commercial real estate firm — and two partners, but their crusade goes further. They want the city to approve a plan to incorporate the land into the park; begin immediate repair of what they characterize as the venerable fountain in the park; and approve a proposal to completely redesign the expanded facility, adding new plants, benches and canopy trees.
A fountain and construction cranes
The fountain at Pineapple Park was created by Nancy Goodheart Matthews; the park is also referred to as Goodheart Park on Google maps.
Just behind that mermaid fountain, a construction crane is visible on lower Ringling Boulevard — a sign of the times. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 new residents are expected soon to start moving into new condominium units downtown, and about 1,000 new hotel rooms are coming online, noted Campo, who is a member of the Downtown Sarasota Condo Association (DSCA).
Saving the city-owned land next to the park, she said, becomes an even more urgent issue when she thinks about the new residents, visitors and workers who will be walking downtown streets.
“Currently, there are no plans for more pocket parks in the downtown, while there are plans for more and more condos and hotels in the core,” Campo pointed out.
A redesigned and expanded park with beautiful plantings, shade trees and benches — and maybe even a lit and vegetated trellis — will be an asset amid a growing downtown, Campo and Levy say.
Matthews’ colorful mermaid fountain has been neglected, Levy also noted, despite a total of $27,500 in donations having been given to the city specifically to maintain it.
“That fountain is listed in the Smithsonian American Art Inventory,” Levy said. “And, for whatever reason, the whole park has not been maintained. It has been allowed to go fallow.”
Levy believes allowing Hembree & Associates to develop a restaurant, with adjacent outdoor seating, could result in a reduction of the current size of Pineapple Park, as she feels the plans outlining a patio area infringe on the park.
Along with Levy and Campo’s efforts, about 400 people have signed a petition to “Save Pineapple Park,” an initiative headed up by the Sarasota Farmer’s Market, which utilizes the right of way on Saturdays when the market is open.
A continued discussion
It is possible that Monday’s City Commission discussion will result in a split vote.
Hembree & Associates, which is developing a project next to the new State Street garage, has been negotiating with city staff regarding the purchase of the property near the park. Hembree & Associates and two business partners comprise State Street Partners (SRQ) LLC, according to those familiar with the proposal. State Street Partners is proposing to purchase the 30-foot-wide right of way for $260,000 from the city.
City Attorney Bob Fournier suggested at the City Commission meeting on Nov. 16 that the city commissioners vet the Hembree proposal in good faith — given the fact of earlier city discussions with the firm regarding its proposal — before formally entertaining the option of expanding the park.
Joe Hembree, president of Hembree & Associates, told the News Leader in a Jan. 25 interview that he hopes city officials will view the development team’s latest plans favorably. He added that he feels the project would be positive for the city. Hembree has two drafted footprint options prepared to show the commissioners.
“I think it is what the city has been asking to have done there for a long time,” Hembree said. “It is in their [Downtown Master] Plan.”
Three city commissioners appear to be amenable to exploring the sale of the parcel.
But during the November meeting, Mayor Willie Shaw and Commissioner Susan Chapman, both of whom are opposed to the sale, voted against tabling the discussion. Chapman had placed the item on the Nov. 16 agenda as a discussion about preserving the strip of land. She is proposing the formal dedication of the property as part of Pineapple Park.
Levy said Chapman is a firm supporter of the city’s limited downtown park space.
“She wouldn’t sell a blade of grass” in city-owned land used by the public, or park space, Levy added of the commissioner.
A return to its former glory
For Campo, Pineapple Park has already suffered enough. When the city extended Lemon Avenue through the park in 2002, green space suffered, she points out. Seven benches, seven sabal palms, four live oaks and 19 coontie were lost as the city made way for the roadway.
“It really was beautiful,” Campo said of the park before those changes.
Planting new trees and perhaps even vegetation along a lit trellis will help restore the park to its former glory, she added. “This is a part of our history.”