City Commission eyes the demolition of the G.WIZ building, citing the $50,000 annual expense to maintain it

Use of the property can be decided after the board votes on whether to proceed with razing the structure, vice mayor says

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

With the City of Sarasota paying close to $50,000 a year just to maintain the former home of the Gulf Coast Wonder and Imagination Zone (G.WIZ), the city commissioners voted unanimously this week to have staff explore the expense of demolishing it.

Rough estimates that Rob Schanley Jr., the city’s real estate and asset manager, provided the board during its regular meeting on July 18 ranged from $130,000 to $225,000. However, the primary unknown factor, he noted, is whether asbestos was used during construction of the facility at 1001 Boulevard of the Arts on the city’s bayfront. If so, that would elevate the cost, he said.

The structure has continued to deteriorate since the city terminated the science museum’s lease in February 2014, Schanley told the board. To bring it up to standards — including replacing the heating and air conditioning system and repairing the roof — would cost about $300,000, he added.

Moreover, because the structure is in a floodplain, it is likely the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s “50-percent rule” would apply, Schanley explained. That would make prevent the city from spending more than 50 percent of the value of the structure in renovating it unless the city elevated the building to comply with current flood zone restrictions.

“We believe this building is not listed as a significant historical structure,” he added, though City Manager Tom Barwin told the commission staff would continue to research that point while it works to obtain demolition estimates.

“It would seem to make sense to just tear down the building and leave that as open space for now,” Commissioner Liz Alpert said. After the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 group has completed its planning for the 42 acres of city property on the downtown waterfront, a decision can be made about the best use of the property, Alpert added. (See the related story in this issue.)

An aerial view shows the Renaissance condominiums and their proximity to the bayfront. Image from Google Maps
An aerial view shows the Renaissance condominiums and their proximity to the bayfront. Image from Google Maps

Schanley also pointed out that the Renaissance condominium complex on U.S. 41 has a view easement with the city — dating to 1997, based on his research — that would limit the height of any new structure on the property to 45 feet. However, Schanley continued, because of recent litigation pursued by residents of the nearby Beau Ciel condominium complex, it might be possible for the city to get the Renaissance to allow a new structure on the G.WIZ site to stand as tall as 90 feet. That process would have to entail negotiations between the Renaissance and the Florida West Coast Symphony, dba the Sarasota Orchestra, thanks to a stipulation in the view easement agreement.

Arriving at the cost estimate

Schanley explained that he had spoken with “some significant people” in the demolition business, and he had researched the expense of the city’s razing of the Sarasota Police Department headquarters on Ringling Boulevard in 2012. The latter followed completion of the department’s new building on Adams Lane. The city paid “roughly $150,000” for that work, he noted.

The $130,000 estimate for demolishing the G.WIZ building, he said, would represent a finding of “everything was perfect”; in other words, a contractor would not have to deal with asbestos or the relocation of any major utility equipment.

One contractor he spoke with, Schanley continued, doubted that asbestos would be an issue with the G.WIZ structure. It was built in 1976 as the original Selby Library, Schanley pointed out. During the 1999-2000 time frame, it was remodeled for transformation into the science museum. More renovations ensued in 2007 and 2010, he said. As part of the later work, Schanley added, asbestos abatement was necessary.

As for utility concerns: “There is a huge transformer” on the exterior on the eastern side of the facility, Schanley said. The city had to pay Florida Power & Light about $22,000 to remove an interior transformer at the old Police Department, he noted.

Furthermore, all the electrical wiring used for the lighting in the parking lot at the former G.WIZ is “hooked into the building, so that would have to be relocated.”
When Mayor Willie Shaw asked whether the wiring is underground, Schanley replied that he assumed it is.

Now and the future

A walkway with signage wraps around the G.WIZ property. File photo
A walkway with scientific facts written on it wraps around the G.WIZ property. File photo

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown emphasized to the commissioners on July 18 that the city is putting about $50,000 a year into basic maintenance for the G.WIZ building. Yet, it could be four or five years before the Bayfront 20:20 group is ready to proceed with plans for the site in association with the 42 acres of downtown city-owned property it has proposed for a cultural district and community green space.

Commissioner Susan Chapman pointed out that in reading through other material for the July 18 board meeting, she learned that in 1996, the city transferred the property into a “Bayfront Baywalk” project that was supposed to connect Selby Library with the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. “That walkway still exists, and those mangroves still exist,” she said.

Until the Bayfront 20:20 plan has been finalized, she continued, perhaps the city could use the G.WIZ site as an ecological park, with perhaps a kayak launch in the mangroves.

When Chapman then suggested that perhaps the Hyatt Regency Sarasota could help the city maintain the parking lot adjacent to the building in return for use of the spaces, Schanley explained that part of the lot always was associated with the G.WIZ structure while the remainder was considered to be available for the general public. Van Wezel patrons often use the spaces, he added, because they can walk over the nearby bridge to reach the performing arts hall.

The former playground and picnic area of G.WIZ were adjacent to the parking lot. File photo
The former playground and picnic area of G.WIZ were adjacent to the parking lot. File photo

While people attending functions at the Hyatt do use the lot, he continued, they did not do so in the past except after the science museum closed for the day.

“Many of us use that parking lot,” Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie pointed out, as the Hyatt often hosts community events.

She added that she felt the City Commission first should focus on getting an estimate for the demolition of the former G.WIZ building and then consider what to do with the property.

Schanley explained that it would cost about $1,000 for an asbestos survey and an extra $20 per sample. “We felt that the high end would be $2,500.”

After the asbestos question had been answered, city staff would advertise a formal bid for the demolition, Schanley continued. “We really wouldn’t have a price until we went that far.”

“We’ve got to know,” Freeland Eddie responded.

“Unfortunately, I think this is becoming a white elephant in the community,” Commissioner Suzanne Atwell said of the building. “It’s really quite sad.”

A bridge leads from the G.WIZ site to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. File photo
A bridge leads from the G.WIZ site to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. File photo

Nonetheless, she added, “these costs [to maintain it] are absolutely ridiculous.”

As for Chapman’s idea about utilizing the space as a park, Atwell told her colleagues, “I don’t want to rule anything out.” She said she especially did not want to make a decision that might impede the Bayfront 20:20 planning process.

Barwin pointed out that legal constraints attached to the property necessitate that it be used for a marina or for another public purpose.

“It’s always been a public property,” Shaw said, noting that it originally was the site of the city boat ramp. “We can’t just take it and put it on a five-year hiatus.”

Freeland Eddie then explained that the demolition was a separate issue from interim and future uses of the property. “I think we do one thing first … and then we can have that secondary conversation.”

“I agree with Commissioner Eddie,” Alpert said.

Chapman made the motion, which directed staff to research the expense of razing the structure and report back to the board. It passed unanimously.