City Commission authorizes staff to come up with a plan for ‘activating’ the park
Several passersby walked through or by Selby Five Points Park on the cooler but sunny morning of Dec. 8. Among them were a vacationing couple, a mom with a stroller and another child in tow, a doctor who has a downtown Sarasota office, and a woman on a break from work.
However, in the span of more than an hour, no one lingered or stopped to rest in the downtown Sarasota park. No one paused to read a book or drink coffee.
City leaders and downtown advocates hope that will change — that more of the public will utilize the facility — as the city explores a plan to reintroduce benches, or some other combination of seating accommodations, and “activate” Five Points Park.
During the Monday, Dec. 7, City Commission meeting, the board members voted unanimously to explore putting benches back in the park, more than four years after the seating accommodations were removed from the site in response to downtown condominium residents’ complaints that homeless individuals and other people those residents described as “vagrants” were dominating the public seating.
The commissioners on Monday discussed other changes in addition to bringing back the benches. They heard from the city manager about preliminary talks with representatives of the nearby Starbucks regarding a plan for the national corporation to set up a few tables and umbrellas in the park. They also discussed how more recreational activity would curb some of the undesirable activities observed in the past in the park — such as drug and alcohol use — and provide a greater sense of security to residents and visitors.
The board members also began to consider what the right balance of activity should be in the park.
Prior to Monday’s City Commission meeting, at least two city commissioners — Liz Alpert and Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell — voiced their willingness to put a discussion of the Five Points benches on an upcoming agenda. Alpert was the one who made the Dec. 7 motion to authorize the city manager and staff to explore the re-introduction of benches in the park and to implement a plan to “activate” the facility, with input and feedback from residents, businesses and visitors.
Atwell seconded the motion. “Putting benches, seating — whatever you want to call it — let’s just get the benches back,” the vice mayor said.
Atwell emphasized that returning the seating accommodations, however, will be only part of the enhancements the city will be working on over the next several months for the prominent downtown spot. “This is the activation of Five Points Park,” Atwell said. “I see it as a pretty fluid exercise.”
City Manager Tom Barwin explained that city staff members will need some flexibility as they experiment with the proper level and placement of seating, along with other changes, in an effort to achieve the most appropriate enhancement of the park. “We want to work it until we get it right,” Barwin said.
On the street
Dr. Ronald Wheeler, a urologist whose Main Street clinic treats patients with prostate cancer, was one of the passersby Tuesday morning. Wheeler said he believes Monday’s decision to bring the benches back was the correct call.
“We should have benches here,” he told The Sarasota News Leader as he pointed to the park’s expansive brick promenade facing Pineapple Avenue. “That’s what parks are for.”
“But we need to have it patrolled,” Wheeler added. “We shouldn’t have people sleeping here overnight. Then the public can’t or won’t want to use the benches.”
For Wheeler, who spends much time downtown, the broader need is for a shelter and the implementation of other plans to help the chronically homeless. “If there are people who need a place to sleep, we as a county should do something about that,” he said.
While he has not been discouraged from spending time downtown, he added that he understands how the presence of homeless individuals, who often panhandle near Five Points Park, can dissuade some tourists from visiting that part of the city.
Seeking the right balance of activity
As the city staff works on enhancing Five Points Park, the focus has been placed on the “appropriate” level of activation.
Commissioner Susan Chapman said she believes drawing more people into the park for organized activities will help prevent less desirable use of the facility and help make park-goers feel safer. That is not her only desire in regard to the facility’s future, though. “It’s not just about benches. It’s not just about seating. The real problem with our parks is there is no recreation program,” Chapman said. “There is no activation program.”
“Whenever there is an activity at Five Points Park, there is not a gathering of people misbehaving: I will just say it that way,” Chapman added.
Unwelcome behavior observed in the park — people drinking, loitering or using drugs — has not been associated just with homeless individuals, she noted. “They are not necessarily people without homes,” Chapman continued. “There are some people without homes, but not everyone.”
Alpert stressed the need for police patrols of the park.
“I don’t know if you can have activation seven days a week in the parks, but I am certainly for the activation in parks as well, and putting benches and putting seating back in the park, so people can actually use them,” Alpert said. “The other issues are enforcement issues, with behaviors and activities that shouldn’t be going on.”
Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie said she did not want to see the opportunity for peace and tranquility in the green space of Selby Five Points Park overshadowed by “over-activation.” Some folks, she pointed out, just want a place to take a break from their busy days or a tranquil spot to read.
“Some people don’t need programing and noise,” Freeland Eddie noted. “They just need quiet and peace and green and air. I would hope this would be part of the equation,” she added. “There has to be a balance.”
Freeland Eddie said she wants to hear more details about the plans for the return of the benches and the activation. For example, she asked, what timeline does staff have in mind? Will the project be phased in? And what kind of law enforcement initiatives will be in place so residents can feel safe, coming out to walk their dogs in the park in the evening?
“We are contemplating rather light activation,” City Manager Barwin told her.
City staff will be working to gauge what improvements and changes will work best in the park, he added.
Earlier in the year, city staff experimented with adding tables and chairs to the park through an agreement with a vendor; that arrangement, Barwin noted, is no longer in place.
Barwin told the commissioners he has talked with representatives of the nearby Starbucks, located at 1401 First St., about the possibility of the coffee shop extending its seating into the park. “They have expressed some interest in doing that and placing some tables and chairs and umbrellas in the park,” Barwin said. “Those are very preliminary conversations.”
“We would experiment and try to make sure we’re coordinating with the community and the neighborhood and the downtown business district,” Barwin added. “We want to make sure we can do this in harmony and calibrate it carefully.”
Mayor Willie Shaw agreed that experimentation and flexibility will be necessary, because that is how the city achieved the right mix of enhancements for Payne Park.
Doug Jeffcoat, the city’s director of public works, said, “Maybe we are not talking about benches. Maybe we are talking about seating.”
‘Put the benches back’
In April 2011, the city commissioners initially directed staff to reduce the number of benches, which were seen as being “massed together” around and in the park, according to City of Sarasota documents. One month later, the board members directed staff to remove the three remaining benches from the park. At that time, the Downtown Sarasota Alliance Residents Committee and the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association supported the decision.
Downtown residents said they hoped the temporary removal would resolve some of the problems in the park associated with homeless individuals.
But even though city workers removed the benches, homeless people continued to gather in Five Points Park. Advocates for the homeless have criticized the commissioners for taking away the seating to prevent loitering.
In the meantime, the urgency of addressing chronic homelessness in the community has grown, as the city and county commissioners have grappled with the best means of helping those individuals who have no place to live.
Peter Fanning, representing the residents’ committee of the Downtown Sarasota Alliance and the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, was the only public speaker to broach the topic Monday evening.
“Four years since that date [of removing the benches], here we are,” Fanning told the commissioners. “The reality being that removing benches does not stop those who are not compliant from frequenting the park. They just lie around now instead of sitting down,” said Fanning. “Put the benches back in the park.”
Fanning also called for more police patrols of the facility.
“Another reality,” he continued, “is it is obvious [that] when there is a visible police office in or near … the park, there are far fewer uncivil and uncomfortable behaviors foisted on visitors and residents.”
He added, “It is time to re-assert the rights of those taxpaying citizens who expect to have a park that can be used for more than dog walking.”