Bids on demolition of G.WIZ building to be opened by City of Sarasota staff on Nov. 16

City Commission approved $200,000 expense of work during split vote on Oct. 15

The former G.WIZ science museum stands at 1001 Boulevard of the Arts in Sarasota. File photo

With the Sarasota City Commission again having approved the demolition of the former G.WIZ building on the city’s waterfront, bids are due on Nov. 16 for the actual work, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

The bid package was advertised on Oct. 16, city Communications Specialist Jason Bartolone told the News Leader. Responses are to be opened at 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 16, the package says.

The formal advertisement began the day after the commission voted 3-2 to approve an estimated expense of $200,000 for the demolition. With that action, the majority of the board also cleared the way for a Boston-area firm to continue refining the design of Phase I of The Bay. The entire master plan for The Bay has been planned to transform 53 acres of city-owned property into a park with a wide array of opportunities for recreational and educational activities, along with arts and cultural events.

After the bids have been opened and a firm has been selected, Bartolone added in an Oct. 18 email, a timeline for the demolition will be established.

During the regular City Commission meeting on Oct. 15, Vice Chair Jen Ahearn-Koch, again championed the preservation of the structure that originally was home to the Selby Public Library. The discussion — plus public comments — took about two hours and 15 minutes.

The most environmentally sustainable action the city could take, Ahearn-Koch pointed out, would be to repurpose the building, instead of tearing it down. It could function as a shade structure or a concession area or a center for kayak and canoe rentals, for examples, she told her colleagues.

If all but the load-bearing walls and roof were removed, she continued, “you could open up the views.”

“I find that far more fiscally responsible and environmentally sustainable” than demolition, Ahearn-Koch said.

Still, she conceded that she did not know how much it would cost to adapt the structure to other uses.

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch. News Leader photo

“I just want to see the evidence, the real data and evidence” that reusing the building would be too expensive, she added.

If the structural changes were made that Ahearn-Koch were proposing, Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie pointed out, “it no longer looks like the building that we’re trying to preserve. … We haven’t repurposed it; we’ve just torn out the first floor.”

Freeland Eddie added, “I think the community wants to see more than just open air, if they are truly interested in that building.”

When touring the structure with staff, Freeland Eddie told her colleagues, she saw water damage and other problems — a number that were signs of Hurricane Irma’s passage through the area in September 2017. Moreover, Freeland Eddie also talked of feeling unwell after spending time inside the building.

Ahearn-Koch disputed Freeland Eddie’s last assertion. “I have seen no evidence that it is a health hazard and unsafe.”

“I just know how I felt when I got out of it,” Freeland Eddie responded.

“I felt fine,” Ahearn-Koch told her, referring to her own time in the building.

In response to questions from Mayor Liz Alpert, Bill Waddill, managing director of the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization (SBPO), said that potential contributors to the construction of Phase I of The Bay have been hesitant to offer support since Ahearn-Koch renewed her pleas about preserving the G.WIZ structure during an Oct. 1 City Commission discussion.

“Quite frankly,” he told Alpert, “we believe the uncertainty about what’s going on has hindered the fundraising process.”

A graphic shows details about the Phase I concept. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In response to another question from Alpert, Waddill explained that if any part of the structure remained on the site, “You couldn’t see the bay.” Yet, Waddill stressed, during the approximately 18 months that the Boston-area design firm, Sasaki, and the SBPO conducted public meetings to garner ideas about how The Bay should look and what amenities the master plan should include, people focused on opening up access to, and views of, the water.

Additionally, Waddill pointed out, the financial plan the project team put together for the initial 3-acre segment of Phase I has estimated income of $380,000 to $1 million per year for rental of space for “mostly open-air events.”

Without a clear line of sight to the water and plenty of green space in Phase IA, Waddill added, he did not believe those estimates would hold.

Yet, he pointed out, that money will be critical to the ongoing operations of a planned conservancy. That 501(c)(3) organization will raise private funds for The Bay and manage operations on the city property, as outlined in an agreement the commission approved on Oct. 1 as the first step toward creating the conservancy. The SBPO will cease to exist after the end of the year, he reminded the commissioners, as the transition to the conservancy begins.

An airing of ideas

A still from the animation presented to the City Commission on Oct. 15 shows the G.WIZ structure within the concept of The Bay master plan. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

When the commissioners opened the floor for public comments on Oct. 15, a group of five advocates for preservation of the Selby/G.WIZ building provided an animated presentation to illustrate how it could be incorporated into The Bay master plan.

The first speaker, architect Selma Goker Wilson of Sarasota, pointed out, “Adaptive re-use is a very common thing to do in Europe. It is what keeps cities’ memories intact over the years.”

As the animation began, she explained that views of the bay would change depending upon a person’s transit through the G.WIZ building or around it.

Architect Dale Parks noted that the building “is robust; it is build like a bunker.”

As the only architect in the room who has worked on the structure, Parks continued, he is very familiar with its attributes.

However, during his remarks, Waddill disputed the group’s assertion that the building could serve in lieu of the shade structures Sasaki has proposed for the grounds. Waddill explained that the Sasaki design considered only 4,000 to 5,000 square feet of coverage. The G.WIZ building, he continued, “is dramatically oversized [for that purpose],” as he estimated it to have 15,000 to 20,000 square feet on the ground level. (Altogether, the structure encompasses 33,000 square feet, the bid package notes.)

This is an image of the G.WIZ building a local group created, in the context of The Bay’s Phase I design. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Based on public comments during the many meetings and discussions the SBPO and Sasaki conducted to create the master plan for The Bay, Waddill said, “Well over 90% of our community wants an open bayfront park.”

An expensive proposition

During his remarks to the commission, city Planning Director Steve Cover said a conservative estimate for repurposing the G.WIZ building would be $250 per square foot. The city has been paying about $40,000 a year to maintain it since it has been vacant, he pointed out. Just updating the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems in it, plus the plumbing and mechanical equipment, would cost about $300,000, he added.

(The city terminated the science museum’s lease in February 2014.)

Furthermore, the structure is one of the two most at-risk in the city because of sea level rise and threat of storm surge, Cover added, calling it an “extremely risky site.”

Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch asked Cover if he thought the structure could be repurposed. “Is that a possibility?”

“No, no,” he replied.

A city staff photo shows a boarded-up section of the G.WIZ building. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

On Oct. 12, Robert Schanley, the city’s assets/facilities manager, sent an Oct. 12 email to City Manager Tom Barwin, detailing ongoing expenses for the building, which Schanley had presented to the City Commission in July 2016, he noted:

  • Electric — $24,000.
  • Lawn and landscape maintenance — $10,480.
  • Building insurance — $9,402.95.
  • Pest control — $1,150.

The total, he added, was $45,032.95.

“The annual costs for GWIZ for this year (2018) are as follows,” he continued:

  • Electric — $6,981.67 (“this reduction is due to reducing the demand on the HVAC System and de-energizing any unneeded electric for the building by turning off breakers,” he noted).
  • Lawn and landscape maintenance — $6,895 (“which included a cleanup of the mangrove areas).”
  • Building insurance — $15,863.
  • Pest control — $1,025.

The total was $30,764.67, he wrote.

“These figures do not include any soft costs such as Facilities staff doing weekly inspections of the building and clean up around the building,” Schanley pointed out. “In addition we spent $3,402.83 to replace damaged boards from [H]urricane Irma …” Those boards cover the windows on the first floor,” he wrote, “to give added security to the building.”

In conclusion

This history of the Selby/G.WIZ building is included in the demolition bid package. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

After the public comments ended on Oct. 15, Ahearn-Koch called for a detailed facilities study, as community architects had recommended, to determine with certainty the condition of the building and its potential for other uses. “We just had a wonderful presentation with new ideas,” she pointed out, referring to the animation.

In response to another question from Mayor Alpert, Waddill explained that he had 31 years of experience in building things. (He retired as senior vice president of the consulting firm Kimley-Horn and Associates in January, before taking the SBPO position. He had been with the firm since 1986.)

Recently, he continued, he went back into the G.WIZ building for another tour. Accompanying him, he said, were two local, impartial architects who handle historic preservation projects, two contractors and a structural engineer, along with city staff. “Unanimously, that group said that building was designed in the ’70s,” he pointed out, before Hurricane Andrew’s devastation of parts of south Florida in 1992 led to much more stringent building codes in the state.

If it were adapted for new purposes, he added, its integrity during a hurricane would be questionable.

Architect Wilson, who had kicked off the animation presentation, told the board that her group had obtained the original construction documents. Based on those, she pointed out, the group believed the G.WIZ building could be strengthened — without the load-bearing walls but with the roof intact — to withstand a hurricane.

At the conclusion of the discussion, Ahearn-Koch made a motion to deny the city staff request for the $200,000 appropriation for the demolition, and Commissioner Willie Shaw seconded it. After that motion failed in a 2-3 vote, Commissioner Freeland Eddie made another motion, calling for approval of the funding to tear down the structure. Alpert and Commissioner Hagen Brody joined her in a 3-2 majority in that vote.