‘Communicating staircase’ feature of new County Administration Center prompts discussion during update on timeline for county workers to leave downtown Sarasota

‘Bumped-out’ set of stairs to be on side of new building that has northern exposure

Almost exactly three weeks after they voted unanimously to approve the issuance of $28 million in bonds to help pay for the $75,105,000 expense of the facility, the Sarasota County commissioners received an update on the plans for the new county Administration Center to be located at 6700 Fruitville Road.

On Feb. 22, Carolyn Eastwood, director of the county’s Capital Projects Department, provided renderings and a timeline for the board members, noting that he design and permitting process should begin in the fall. Staff hopes to be back in front of the commissioners in the spring with the initial Guaranteed Maximum Price package for the project, she added.

“Basically,” she pointed out, “we have two years to get [the building and the relocation of staff] done.”

The county is paying Benderson Development Co. $1 million a year to lease the structure standing at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota, following the commission’s approval of the 2021 sale to that company of the site — plus two nearby parcels used for parking. Benderson paid $25 million for the property.

The lease expires at the end of 2025. Eastwood reminded the commissioners on Feb. 22.

The feature of the new building that generated the most discussion during her remarks was what she called a “communicating staircase,” which would be “bumped out” on the side facing the Celery Fields. (To see images that Eastwood presented, visit the News Leader‘s Facebook page.)

Explaining that staff members who work in the downtown Sarasota building do not interact, Eastwood said the goal in creating the stairway is to encourage such interaction — as well as provide employees the opportunity to get more exercise.

“It’s a brighter environment,” she noted, comparing the staircase to the enclosed stairwell in the building located at 1660 Ringling Blvd., “and it’s more inviting.”

However, Commissioner Michael Moran called it “a little rub,” adding, “It really stuck out to a point that I really wasn’t comfortable with.”

He initially asked Eastwood about the potential of adjusting the design so the staircase “doesn’t penetrate outside the building so much.”

Nonetheless, Moran acknowledged, “I’m a fish out of water here. I’m not a construction guy.”

One of the early designs for the new Administration Center included three staircases for fire evacuation purposes, Eastwood responded. One of them, she added, “just didn’t seem to work where it was placed. … It was kind of excess space.”

Then staff came up with the idea of the open stairway, she said, which would replace the third set of fire-rated stairs.

At this stage of the design work, Eastwood told Moran, it would add to the cost of the project if staff were to adjust the plans for the communicating staircase.

“That’s an exterior stairwell, right?” Moran asked.

“Yes, it’s bumped out,” Eastwood replied.

“In July,” Moran told her, “you’re opening up a door to the outside, walking outside.” Could it be relocated inside, with windows, he asked.

“It will be air-conditioned,” Eastwood pointed out, and, because it will be on the northern side of the structure, it will not get as much sun exposure.

“Maybe I don’t understand this,” Moran responded. “It is completely encased?”

“It’s an air-conditioned space,” Eastwood responded. However, a person could use an emergency exit to go outside.

“OK,” Moran said. “I get it.”
Nonetheless, he inquired about the feature once more before the presentation ended, explaining he was “triple confirming” her remarks. “That is no exposed space?”

She affirmed that that was correct.

“Got it. Thank you,” Moran told her.

“I have no problem with the staircase,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said, though she added, “I don’t like to call it a ‘conversational stairway,’ ’cause I like everybody to keep moving … but that staircase would mostly be used by staff because the population [in the county] is not interested in coming to a meeting and taking stairs in general …”

Detert added, “For staff, it could be a health benefit to have that staircase. You will have some heat from the sun … It shouldn’t be too horrible.”

What she was most interested in, Detert continued, was the number of seats in the new Commission Chambers.

She also talked about the restrooms on the ground floor, near the Chambers in the building in downtown Sarasota. They were “one of the first things I noticed here,” she continued, referring to the start of her service as a commissioner after her initial election in November 2016. “The bathrooms are so nicely located and open to the public, [and] easy to find.”

In showing the board members a plan for the first floor, Eastwood pointed out that members of the public entering the building would see a Welcome Center, in front of which they would turn to head to the Commission Chambers. A vestibule will be constructed, as in the 1660 Ringling Blvd. facility, so people can pick up agendas and sign cards if they wish to address the board members. Restrooms will be built near the Chambers, Eastwood noted.

When Detert asked how many seats the Chambers would have, Eastwood responded that she was uncertain, but she would find out.

Later, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis passed along the answer to the board. The new building will have 56 more seats than the 180 in the Ringling Boulevard structure, he said.

Additionally, because of the meeting rooms planned on the first floor, the overflow arrangements for members of the public when the board Chambers is full could be as many as 150 seats, he noted, compared to the 40 in the downtown Sarasota structure.

One other point Detert made during her comments was that the design of the Administration Center on Fruitville Road appears similar to a new structure underway on the Sarasota Memorial Hospital campus in Sarasota.

Detert described the look as “a lot of glass, a lot of steel. It looks clean and nice.”

Less space needed in new structure

During her presentation, Eastwood reminded the commissioners that the new Administration Center will be smaller than the one standing on Ringling Boulevard. While the existing facility comprises approximately 180,000 square feet, she said, the new one will have about 124,000 square feet.

The extra space provided downtown will not be needed, she noted, as the Planning and Development Services staff will be moving to a new “One Stop” center on the county’s Northwest Quad parcel near the Celery Fields, while the Enterprise Information Technology staff members will have their own new structure on the Southwest Quad; that will include an employee health center.

The Quads are near the site of the new Administration Center.

Additionally, she continued, the Emergency Services Department will be relocated to a new structure next to the county’s Emergency Operations Center on Porter Way.

Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources staff members will have their own administrative center at Twin Lakes Park on Clark Road, Eastwood added.

Finally, she said, the Libraries and Historical Resources Department’s library sorting function will be moving to Selby Library in downtown Sarasota.

Among other details of the new Administration Center, Eastwood noted that the Think Tank, where the board members routinely hold budget workshops and meetings with members of other elected boards, for examples, will be moved to the first floor; it is on the third floor of the downtown Sarasota building.

It will have a “flexible seating arrangement,” she pointed out.

The press room will be on the first floor, as well, along with a canteen with vending machines “for staff use and the commission use, of course.”

Chair Ron Cutsinger joked with Eastwood about the press room, saying, “We really don’t need that. Could we make that a Starbucks little lounge there?”