The board approves the option that enables the developer to build a 4,310-square-foot footprint on the city-owned property
In a 3-1 vote Monday, Feb. 1, the Sarasota City Commission approved the sale of a strip of right of way adjacent to Pineapple Park in downtown Sarasota. The vote came despite the pleas of dozens of speakers opposed to it, who saw the parcel as an opportunity to enhance one of only six downtown passive pocket parks.
In an email response to The Sarasota News Leader following the meeting, Barbara Campo, a downtown resident and member of Save our Sarasota, said she was disappointed by the vote.
“This was the last chance for the City Commissioners to make sure they protected our needs for a quality public space,” Campo wrote. “What we had hoped for was to have the public greenspace adjoining the park actually attached to the park. With the greenspace attached, we, the people who live in this tightly packed area, could have had a larger park, a beautiful, freshly redesigned public park that would have been activated by the soon to be hired [city] Parks Director.”
Meanwhile, proponents of the plan to sell the land to a development partnership say the deal’s approval was in line with the city’s 2000 Downtown Master Plan. They saw the developers’ proposal for a two-story restaurant as one of the last elements necessary to completing the transformation of that downtown area into a vibrant urban environment. They also viewed the plans as a means of combating the lingering of homeless people and situations some merchants have described in which people openly conduct drug sales within Pineapple Park.
The $260,000 sale allows Hembree & Associates and two business partners — comprising State Street Partners (SRQ) LLC — to develop a restaurant, with adjacent outdoor seating on the right of way next to Pineapple Park, which is also referred to as Goodheart Park on Google maps.
Commissioners approved the first of two options that gave the developer a 4,310-square-foot footprint; this alternate was larger than Option B, which allowed for a 3,560-square-foot footprint at a lower price of $214,739.
During the public comments, Melanie Denicort, owner of Indigo West, which is across Pineapple Avenue from the park, said she has asked a waiter from a nearby restaurant to escort her to the State Street parking garage at night because of the drug activity and loitering in the park. Denicort also told the commissioners she believes people choose not to attend the First Friday events in downtown Sarasota because of the lack of lighting and security concerns.
“I look at their plans, and I just think it would be a wonderful thing,” Denicort said of the proposal presented by State Street Partners’ architect during the meeting Monday evening.
Doreen Birdsell of Get Loose Tea & Art, also across the street from the park, said a group of homeless individuals are in the park at all hours and open drug dealing makes the area unsafe.
“I see it as progress and a safer, cleaner environment for a park that is … overrun,” Birdsell added of the developers’ plan.
However, Barbara May told the board that while she initially liked the idea of a dining area on the parcel, she soon became an advocate for keeping the property in city ownership. “When I first heard about a restaurant going in, I was excited, because I love to go out and have coffee or glass of wine,” May said. But she realized, she added, that some of the other pocket parks in the downtown area already have restricted public use because of arrangements that allow private entities to use the space. Among those is Little Five Points Park.
May showed the commissioners a photo of the right of way on Lemon Avenue, with people gathered there during the Saturday Farmer’s Market. “Now that looks like a park. As much as I would like a new restaurant, I really want to keep the park.”
‘A tough decision’
Commissioner Liz Alpert made the motion to approve the sale. “It will benefit all of downtown,” Alpert said.
A downtown resident herself for the past 14 years, Alpert said she believes the park sees insufficient public activity. “It is not utilized as a park other than during the Farmer’s Market, and during the week, it is utilized by the homeless. This isn’t going to get rid of the homeless,” she added of the sale, “but it is going to stop the drug deal and that sort of thing. But the bigger issue is, this is going to enhance this park. It will draw people down Main Street to head down [Lemon Avenue]. They don’t do that now.”
Commissioner Susan Chapman cast the lone vote against the sale. “I don’t think it is what the public wants,” Chapman said.
“We’re giving up space that is owned by the city for a price that is really, really low.”
Earlier in the meeting, Chapman also drew attention to the fact that the developer was not being required to fund any improvements to Pineapple Park; thus, she pointed out, the city’s proposed upgrades would be paid for out of the $260,000 the city will get from the sale.
“The public has come out repeatedly and petitioned for keeping this space public and upgrading this space as open [park] space,” Chapman said.
As reported previously by the News Leader, on Jan. 13, 1972, the Seaboard Coastline Railroad Co., in a quitclaim action, deeded the land to the city to put it in trust for public benefit.
Shelli Freeland Eddie agreed with Chapman that the price “is low.”
Freeland Eddie, who ultimately voted in support of the sale, said she had several concerns and called the vote “a tough decision.”
The project could improve safety, but it was disconcerting that the city had not already taken care of maintenance, lighting and reports to police previously [involving the area around the park],” Freeland Eddie added. “We are having a conversation that makes it seem like this development will take care of issues that should have already been addressed.”
Freeland Eddie said she was displeased with the lack of specific details in the plans submitted by Hembree and its partners. She also questioned whether a restaurant would add value to that part of downtown.
Mayor Willie Shaw was absent at Monday’s meeting because of illness.
Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell, who had visited with some of the store owners in the vicinity of the right of way, called the development team’s project “visionary.”
“I am voting [for the sale] because I believe my vote will save Pineapple Park,” Atwell said. “I agree this will not solve the homeless problem, but it will change the dynamic.”