On 4-1 vote, Sarasota City commissioners approve $36.9-million contract with architect to design new performing arts hall

City’s governmental affairs general manager stresses that agreement has several steps after which work can be paused and expenses held in check

Editor’s note: This article was updated early in the morning of May 24 to correct a News Leader misunderstanding of a couple of demographic comments that city resident David Lough, president of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, made to the commission.

This rendering of a new performing arts hall on the city’s bayfront is included in the HR&A economic development report recently released about the venue. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

It took about an hour and 14 minutes on May 20, but the Sarasota City Commission ended up voting 4-1 to approve an agreement with the architectural firm hired to oversee the design and potential construction of a new Sarasota Performing Arts Center (SPAC).

The full expense of that contract is $36.9 million. That figure was based on a percentage of the estimated $185-million cost of the new venue, which was included in the Request for Proposals that the city advertised for an architectural firm for the project, Jennifer Jorgensen, general manager of governmental affairs for the city, told the commissioners.

Last year, the Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation hired Renzo Piano Building Workshop, which is based in Italy, to serve as the architect. Recently, Renzo Piano announced that it had chosen Sweet Sparkman of Sarasota as “the architect of record” for the undertaking.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles is a Renzo Piano project. Image from the company’s website

She reminded the commissioners, as well, that while the contract is just between Renzo Piano and the city, the Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation is a third party to the agreement. Thus, she said, representatives of the Foundation have the right to interact with Renzo Piano as it pursues its work.

The timeline covered by the contract is approximately 60 months, Jorgensen noted; that includes having the architectural firm proceed with oversight through the construction phase. Renzo Piano would be responsible for hiring all of the various subcontractors needed to handle the undertaking, she added.

However, Jorgensen pointed out that the contract could be terminated after specific steps, though the firm would have to be paid for its work up to termination. Further, a 10% termination fee would have to be paid to Renzo Piano, unless the termination were a factor of the firm’s failure to perform in accord with the contract.

In response to a question posed by Commissioner Debbie Trice, Jorgensen said that if the contract were terminated after Renzo Piano completed the design concept phase, the termination expense plus the fees for the firm at that point would total about $3.7 million. The city would have to pay half of that, City Manager Marlon Brown added.

“I did not understand that the city was going to be on the  hook for any of that,” Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch said.

These are the fees set out in the agreement with Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

When Ahearn-Koch asked later what would happen if the City Commission ultimately chose not to allow the new venue to be constructed (the total expense has been cited in the past as the key factor in that decision), Brown told her, “This body can make any decision.” Nothing brought to the board members, he added, “is necessarily approved.”

Although the Foundation committed recently to paying for the architectural services, that expense would be counted toward its 50% share of the overall cost of the new venue, Jorgensen also explained.

Further, she said that if the project cost goes up or down by more than 10%, “We can actively renegotiate the cost for Renzo Piano, as well.”

Formally, the agreement that the City Commission approved this week lays out the steps for Renzo Piano to pursue that will lead initially to a refined estimate for the expense of a new structure on the city’s waterfront. That estimate has been cited as a key factor in the “Implementation Agreement” for the SPAC that the Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation will have ready for city review no later than Nov. 30, Jorgensen told the commissioners this week.

Last year, the commissioners agreed to allow the Foundation more time to come back with that Implementation Agreement, as the process for selecting an architect had taken longer than initially anticipated. Foundation leaders said they had far more responses to the Request for Proposals than they had anticipated.

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch cast the “No” vote on May 20, indicating lingering concerns over the overall expense of the proposed project within The Bay Park in downtown Sarasota and lack of sufficient details in the agreement.

A call to stop ‘hemming and hawing’

This is the image of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on the Florida’s 11 to Save list for 2023. Image courtesy Trust for Historic Preservation

Prior to the vote, both Mayor Liz Alpert and Commissioner Kyle Battie stressed the inadequacy of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall to serve the community in coming decades, even if the building could be retrofitted for continued use.

At various times during the May 20 discussion, commissioners alluded to the work of the Purple Ribbon Committee they appointed last year to take an extensive look at the future of the Van Wezel. As part of its work thus far, the committee has commissioned a new engineering study of the structure.

Referencing public remarks made that afternoon by Drayton Saunders, president of Michael Saunders & Co., Alpert noted that the vision of The Bay Park originated about 11 years ago, “and we’re at a critical point now.”

The Van Wezel, she continued, “is inadequate; it can’t be made adequate.”

The building is vulnerable to sea level rise, Alpert added.

Moreover, citing figures in an economic development study that the Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation recently had released, Alpert stressed that not proceeding with plans for a new venue “would be … fiscally irresponsible …”

The study, completed by the HR&A consulting firm, says, with emphasis, “A new Sarasota Performing Arts Center will inject over $150 [million] in economic activity into Sarasota’s economy each year, 30% greater than the current economic impact of the Van Wezel, plus substantial one-time construction-related and ongoing neighborhood impacts.”

Constructing the new facility would lead to 1,200 permanent jobs, $52 million in annual wages and $163 million in taxes over 30 years, the report adds.

This is a section of the HR&A economic development study regarding the SPAC. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Moreover, Alpert stressed to her commission colleagues — just as she did to her two County Commission colleagues on the appointed Bay Park Improvement Board — that “a new performing arts center was always part of that vision [for the park]. Always.”

Commissioner Battie pointed out, “We’ve lost a few arts institutions in the city.” (Among them, after the City Commission in 2019 denied a request of the Sarasota Orchestra to build a new venue in Payne Park, the leaders of that organization purchased property on Fruitville Road, east of the city, and is proceeding with plans for a new structure on that site.)

Battie added on May 20, “If we keep hemming and hawing about this situation, make no mistake about it, we’ll lose another one …” He said that he could foresee an entity — potentially even Sarasota County Government — coming up with plans for a new performing arts venue outside the city.

Further, Battie talked about conditions at the Van Wezel. “It’s literally, like, duct-taped. … It smells old and moldy.”

Performers who travel the world “hear how great Sarasota is; most importantly, how strong we are when it comes to our arts and culture,” he continued. Then they arrive at the Van Wezel for performances, Battie said, “and it is not what they expected. Trust me.”

Commissioner Erik Arroyo added that individuals in the community “are fearful of change and the unknown.”

Commissioner Trice ended up making the motion to authorize Mayor Alpert and City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs to execute the contract with Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Battie seconded the motion.

Only a “climate denier,” Trice said during the discussion, would think that the Van Wezel is not “going to get hit by a major storm, and we don’t know what would happen to it at that point.” She added that she was looking forward to seeing the SPAC completed.

Of the 11 members of the public who addressed the commissioners during the agenda item — including Saunders of the real estate firm — all but two of them expressed support for approval of the agreement.

David Lough, president of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association (DSCA), said, “We should view the new arts center as a need and not a want.” It will be one of the keys to bringing more people to the city, he added.

Lough reported data showing that for every 2.4 deaths, only one birth has been occurring in the county. If not for the fact that people continue to move to the community, he said, the population would have fallen by 12,000 in the past three years instead of growing by 30,000.

Further, Lough noted that development plans will result in 3,000 dwelling units within a 15-minute walk of the new performing arts venue in eight to 10 years.

This is an aerial view of Phase 1 of The Bay Park on U.S. 41 in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Another speaker was Bill Waddill, formerly the chief operating officer of the nonprofit Bay Park Conservancy, which manages the 53-acre site of The Bay Park and raises private funds for the amenities.

He reminded the commissioners that the city’s 2018 Climate Adaptation Planidentified the Van Wezel as the city’s most endangered asset. The SPAC will be on higher ground, he pointed out, and it will be built “with the goal of adaptable function.”