Leader of walking/biking advocacy group bemoans the loss of what he says was one of Sarasota’s best pedestrian areas
As a leader of the nonprofit Bicycle/Pedestrian Advocates in Sarasota County, Mike Lasche was distressed when he learned recently that the towering row of palm trees next to U.S. 41 just north of the Gulfstream Avenue intersection had disappeared.
As he pointed out in a Sept. 21 email to Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin, he previously had mentioned to Barwin “that one of the best pedestrian walkways in the whole City” was on the east side of the Ritz-Carlton. It featured a 12-foot sidewalk flanked by a 6-foot-wide greenway adjacent to the road and a 13.5-foot-wide landscaping area next to the hotel property. “Both of these strips were planted with stately palm trees which not only offered striking civic beauty but provided needed shade for Sarasota pedestrians,” he added in the email.
He was alerted by a nearby resident, he continued, “that the trees on the road side had been removed. I checked the next day and it is sadly true.” As Lasche put it: “[A] gateway location to Sarasota has lost much of its beauty, as well as pedestrian utility.”
What happened to those trees, Lasche asked.
This week, The Sarasota News Leader posed the same question to city staff. In response, City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw wrote in a Sept. 27 email that she had spoken with the manager of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) resurfacing project scheduled to begin this month from the vicinity of Bay Street, north to the general area where the 10th Street roundabout is planned.
“He let me know that the Ritz relocated the palm trees as requested by the FDOT” in preparation for the resurfacing project,” she added.
That state project includes the right turn lane modifications from U.S. 41 for traffic heading eastbound onto Fruitville Road, she noted.
When the News Leader contacted the Ritz about what became of the palms that were removed, spokeswoman Stacey Anderson apologized and said she could provide no answer or information other than “No comment.”
FDOT spokesman Robin Stublen explained to the News Leader that the trees had stood in what FDOT calls a “clear zone,” a secure area that allows traffic to get off the road in an emergency. “We’re actually doing curb and gutter work there,” Stublen added of the strip east of the Ritz.
An FDOT document says, “The clear zone is the relatively flat unobstructed area that is to be provided for safe use by errant vehicles.” The Federal Highway Administration explains, “The desired minimum width [of a clear zone] is dependent upon traffic volumes and speeds and on the roadside geometry.”
No trees will be replanted along U.S. 41 by the Ritz after the resurfacing project has been completed, Stublen pointed out.
Months ago, he said, FDOT employees met with representatives of the Ritz to explain the situation, and the hotel staff had no complaints.
Asked why FDOT had not asked for the removal of the trees at an earlier point, given that the palms were in the “clear zone,” Stublen replied, “Evidently, it wasn’t a problem until we needed to do the curb and gutter [work].” It could just have been a matter of extra inches needed for that undertaking, he said.
In an effort to learn how long the double rows of palms had flanked the sidewalk adjacent to U.S. 41, the News Leader contacted Tim Litchet, director of the Neighborhood and Development Services Department for the City of Sarasota. Litchet replied in an email: “To the best of my knowledge they were placed there when the Ritz Carlton hotel was constructed.”
The hotel opened in November 2001, News Leader research found.
During a Sept. 27 telephone interview, Lasche told the News Leader, “We can all understand the idea [of a clear zone].” However, he pointed out, through that area of downtown Sarasota, “speeds are slow,” and they will get slower after the city begins constructing its planned roundabouts.
FDOT also is looking into the potential of placing a roundabout at the nearby intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue.
“I think that clear zone would not apply in future years,” Lasche added. “If [vehicles] are moving at 20-25 mph, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
He believes that if city staff cared about the palms, it would have persuaded FDOT not to order their removal.
As he pointed out in his email to Barwin, he told the News Leader, “That was one of the best walkways in Sarasota,” with palms on both sides. Not only was there shade, he added, but the trees also created “that lush-type tropical look. … Now we’re just nibbling away at the dang thing.”
Lasche talked of being able to walk from Marina Jack complex on the waterfront to the downtown retail area and then back over to the proposed 42-acre Cultural District on which the Bayfront 20:20 group is working with the City of Sarasota. Add a walk across the Ringling Bridge to Bird Key, he said, and the public would have much to appreciate. “This could have been part of a beautiful walkway,” he reiterated of the missing palms.