Desire for more details about maintenance expenses among issues leading to City Commission continuance of discussion about St. Armands public restrooms

Commissioner Shaw questions whether the new parking garage will have enough restrooms, and Commissioner Brody calls for restrooms in the middle of the Circle

Jonathan Parks Architects has created this design for the public restrooms on St. Armands. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

It took almost exactly 49 minutes, with multiple failed motions, before the Sarasota City Commission this week unanimously voted to continue until a future meeting a discussion about taking on the expense of maintaining new restrooms proposed on two medians on St. Armands Circle.

The board’s July 16 agenda item was scheduled as a follow-up to its April 16 review of plans for public restrooms on the Circle. However, Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie was the first board member this week to raise new questions about the estimated expenses for topnotch maintenance of the facilities. Among her concerns was the lack of a decision about the hours the restrooms would be open and whether it would be more cost-effective for the city to hire employees to handle the upkeep instead of contracting with a company for “day porter” services and nighttime janitorial work.

Commissioner Willie Shaw also expressed dismay when he learned on July 16 that only two restrooms will be in the new St. Armands parking garage, which the city hopes to open in December.

City Manager Tom Barwin pointed out that the 520-space garage will add about 350 parking spaces to St. Armands.

Even with three stalls each in the two proposed new public restrooms, Shaw said, the capacity seemed insufficient to support the extra parking spaces — and resulting patrons.

However, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown cautioned that any change in the design of the garage at this point would raise the $15 million expense of that facility, for which the city issued bonds.

And Commissioner Hagen Brody said four times during the discussion this week that he would prefer to see restrooms built in the park area in the middle of the Circle. “That seems like the most logical space,” he said, though he added, “I understand that that space is used for events.”

An aerial view shows St. Armands. Image from Google Maps

Diana Corrigan, executive director of the St. Armands Circle Association — which represents merchants — told Brody that she has been handling events in that park area for the past 19 years. She characterized the space as “a retention pond.” A rain event — even without a heavy downpour — will flood the area along the South Boulevard of the Presidents, Corrigan pointed out. “I’ve actually had ducks swimming out there.”

Brown explained that the area is not a stormwater pond, but it is low; therefore, it would have to be built up, if it were to be the site of any structure.

Both Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and Freeland Eddie expressed dismay with Brody’s suggestion. Freeland Eddie called the park an “essential element to the core of the Circle,” with that area serving as the site for arts and crafts shows, car shows and even the annual Christmas tree. “There’s statues that are out there!” she said. “I just don’t think it’s feasible [for a restroom structure to be placed in that park].”

“I would hate to see that open space taken up by a solid structure,” Ahearn-Koch added.

Ahearn-Koch presided during the afternoon session of the July 16 meeting. Mayor Liz Alpert participated in the evening session by telephone.

A long-sought need

A graphic shows the Jonathan Parks Architects design of a public restroom on St. Armands. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

As they had explained to the city commissioners on April 16, Gavin Meshad, chair of the St. Armands Business Improvement District (BID), and Corrigan of the merchants group reiterated the importance of public restrooms on St. Armands.

The lack of such facilities, Corrigan stressed, “is the No. 1 complaint we received from customers on a monthly basis.” Her organization receives phone calls and emails, she said, along with “people actually storming into my office, upset.”

Over the past six years, St. Armands Circle consistently has won 4.5 out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor, Corrigan pointed out. In fact, she told the commissioners, this year, St. Armands Circle was inducted into TripAdvisor’s Hall of Fame in recognition of the Circle’s continued standard of excellence.

The Circle is the No. 1 tourist attraction in the county, Visit Sarasota County research has shown.

With the garage open and public restrooms available, “There’s no doubt in my mind,” Corrigan said, “that St. Armands will have that 5-star rating.”

Ultimately, Corrigan added, the public restrooms will be an economic benefit not only for the merchants but also for the city. “People will stay on the Circle longer,” spending more money. “If they spend more money, that’s more sales tax revenue [for the city].”

When the master plan for St. Armands Circle was created in 2005, Corrigan continued, the No. 1 priority was public restrooms. During a recent meeting of her board, she said, one member reported having undertaken “an unofficial count” of people who were not customers but who had asked to use the merchant’s restrooms during the course of a day. “There were 400 people,” she said, “and that was not in season.” She added that she believed the count was taken in mid-May.

Moreover, Corrigan told the commissioners, “We didn’t want a restroom that looked like it was sitting on a state highway.” The goal, she continued, was more of a boutique design “that would fit in with our architecture, fit in with the image of St. Armands Circle.”

Meshad pointed out that Sarasota architect Jonathan Parks already had submitted his design of the facilities for a competition sponsored by the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of theAmerican Institute of Architects, and Parks had won an Award of Merit for Architecture for Unbuilt Work.

The award was presented on June 5, according to documentation Meshad provided the commissioners.

Meshad also reminded the board members that the BID had agreed to fund the design and construction of the public restrooms in the two medians. The design expense is $103,000, he noted, while the overall construction expense will be about $466,000.

The BID board members, he said, still were hopeful that the city would pay for the ongoing upkeep, noting that the facilities would not be open until well after the 2019 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

A memo from the BID included in the July 16 agenda packet says the completion of the restrooms has been estimated in “Winter 2019.”

How much?

A chart included with the July 16 agenda provides these estimates. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

When Freeland Eddie voiced her initial question about the maintenance expense, Susan Dodd, the city’s redevelopment manager, explained that the proposal staff gave the board calls for the city to contract with a firm to provide a day porter and then have the firm undertake a thorough cleaning of the restrooms each evening before locking them.

The expense of a day porter from noon to 5 p.m., seven days a week, would be $28,616.64 per year; the nightly janitorial service would cost $20,966.40. Adding in the expense of cleansers and paper products, water and sewer, and electricity, the total projected cost would be $73,103.04, according to a document provided in the agenda packet.

“Restroom maintenance has been an extremely challenging situation for our Parks Division,” City Manager Barwin noted. “When those restrooms are not well-maintained … we will hear about it.” Without a high standard of upkeep, Barwin added, he fears the TripAdvisor rating for St. Armands would fall.

The restroom maintenance situation at Lido Pavilion “was really, truly an eye-opening experience for us as to why you need cleaning more than once a day,” Deputy City Manager Brown said.

The day porter/evening janitorial services are used at Payne Park, Bayfront Park and the Lido Pavilion, Jerry Fogle, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department director, noted.

Referring to the estimate provided to the board, Freeland Eddie said, “I think this is a way, way low-ball figure.”

Freeland Eddie added that she was skeptical that a noon-to-5 p.m. daily schedule would work for the St. Armands facilities. People are out early, she pointed out.

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie. File photo

Given the investment the BID and the city would be making in the restrooms, Freeland Eddie said, “I’m going to be pretty upset if I go, and it’s not a peak time, and the restrooms are closed. I think it sends the wrong message.”

She added, “I think we’re underrepresenting the use of the facilities.”

Fogle noted that if the city contracted for upkeep from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day, the estimate would rise to $98,000 a year.

When she suggested that it would be better to hire city employees instead of contracting for maintenance, Brown responded that, to be able to accommodate occasional employee sickness and other issues, the city realistically would need to hire three people for the St. Armands restrooms.

Then Commissioner Brody broached his idea of a restroom facility in the park on the Circle.

Regarding the restrooms, Corrigan of the merchants association responded, “All of this has been thought out very, very, very extensively for a long period of time.”

Then Commissioner Shaw raised his question about the number of stalls in the restrooms in the parking garage. After Parks, the architect, initially described the layout of those restrooms, Shaw asked again about the number.

Parks replied, “Each bathroom will have one sink and one toilet.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear!” Shaw replied.

Continuing conflict of views

A graphic shows details about the floor plans for the St. Armands parking garage

At that point, Shaw began asking whether the Circle would have a sufficient number of restrooms, even with three toilets and sinks in each of the two structures on Circle medians that are city property.

When Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch pointed out that it was 5:25 p.m. and the board members needed a break before their 6 p.m. session started, Shaw suggested the discussion be continued.

Brody again reprised his interest in a public restroom facility within the park and finally won assurance from City Manager Barwin that staff would research the potential.

Shaw finally made a motion to continue the discussion until staff could refine the maintenance expenses for the restrooms the BID had proposed, adding that he wanted the discussion to include the matter of just two restrooms in the garage.

That died for lack of a second.

Brody then made a motion calling for staff to explore the feasibility of constructing a restroom pavilion in the park.

Shaw said he would second it if Brody would include direction for an analysis of the overall expense of the maintenance, plus analysis of the garage restroom plans.

This graphic shows the proposed locations of the public restrooms on the Circle. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Brody rescinded his motion.

Freeland Eddie next made a motion to direct staff to refine the maintenance expense estimates with regard to longer hours and the potential of city employees handling the work, along with an examination of whether a sufficient number of restrooms have been included in the BID design.

It died for lack of a second.

Then Brody made a motion to continue the discussion of the issues until the next meeting, which is scheduled for Aug. 20.

Shaw seconded it.

Ahearn-Koch asked that it include an analysis of the potential for use of solar panels on the BID restrooms, to save on the electricity expense. She also adjusted the timeline for the issues to come back to the board, saying the discussions the board members engaged in that day would be on a future agenda.

That motion passed unanimously.