The long anticipated, $2.24 million project is bringing updated utilities and a more walkable streetspace to the thoroughfare north of Main Street
When The Ritz-Carlton Sarasota opened about 12 years ago, JP Knagg, owner of The Bijou Café, thought the city would update First Street, since it was the most direct route from the Ritz to downtown. But those improvements did not come.
Then in 2012, First Street business owners watched as the city wrapped up projects to upgrade the appearance of both Main Street and Palm Avenue.
At last, this August, two blocks of their street garnered some attention as crews began work on the city’s $2.24-million First Street improvement project.
“I am just very thankful it is finally a reality,” Knagg told The Sarasota News Leader this week. “It has been a long time coming, but I am very excited about the project.”
The two-block facelift is scheduled to be completed at the end of January, just in time for the start of the full season of the Sarasota Opera, whose distinctive home is located at the intersection of First Street and Pineapple Avenue — 61 N. Pineapple Ave.
The goal of the project is to tie improvements on First Street to the recent ones on Main and Palm and make First Street a more vibrant downtown thoroughfare that will draw pedestrians.
“We are trying to bring the downtown to this street,” said Richard Winder, coordinator of capital improvement projects for the city. “We are narrowing the street and widening the sidewalks to make it a more enjoyable, walkable street.”
The pavement itself and utilities — including water pipes under the street — are also getting a much-needed upgrade.
“This is an old street that needed a lot of work,” Winder added.
Most of the utilities under the street were showing signs of age. “Not much had been done there for 50 years,” Winder told the News Leader.
Also included in the project: new lush landscaping, ornamental street lamps, and brick paver accents for 15 on-street parking spaces and crosswalks.
Although First Street does not get as much foot traffic as either Main Street or Palm Avenue, the stretch that will gain wider sidewalks and better landscaping is home to Florida Studio Theatre as well as the Opera House. As Knagg pointed out, it also serves as a direct route from the Ritz-Carlton to downtown.
The temporary construction noise, dust and limited customer access are worth it for Knagg.
“Most of the streets in downtown are beautifully landscaped, have some brick features and up-to-date lighting and are aesthetically pleasing,” he said. “First Street will now be just as nice, if not better.”
Crews also are constructing a “bump out” in front of The Bijou Café, which will allow the restaurant to increase its outdoor seating area.
Knagg believes the less traversed but centrally located street will become livelier after the improvements are completed. “With Florida Studio Theatre and several restaurants on this stretch of First Street, it will join Palm and Main in being the center of activity in downtown,” he told the News Leader.
The streetscape project is part of the city’s recent focus on aesthetic and functional updates to enhance the look of downtown Sarasota.
“First Street is a gateway into the downtown core from U.S. 41, and this project will be a major improvement for the area,” City Manager Tom Barwin said in a press release when construction commenced in August. “By creating a more pedestrian-friendly area along the First Street corridor, we anticipate motorists will slow down and people will feel more comfortable with their surroundings and will want to get out of their cars and stroll around downtown.”
Additionally, starting in the spring or summer of 2016, the city will turn its focus to improving the streetscape on the west side of North Palm Avenue, Winder said. The facets of that project will match those on the east side of the street, which has already been upgraded.
The improvements on First Street, stretching from U.S. 41 to Pineapple Avenue, began Aug. 24. Among the funding sources were the downtown Tax Increment Financing, the penny infrastructure tax, and money from the city’s Utilities Department for the water line replacement.
As part of the project, the narrow sidewalks are being widened to about seven or eight feet.
Old water pipes are being replaced not just in an effort to avoid breaks but also to accommodate future growth.
New crosswalks will have brick paver surfaces, except for the intersection of First Street and Cocoanut Avenue, where construction of a hotel next to the Palm Avenue garage will necessitate the street being torn up.
In addition, the crosswalks at the intersection of First and Pineapple Avenue are being shortened so pedestrians will have less asphalt to traverse.
Starting at U.S. 41, the contractor, Jon F. Swift Construction of Sarasota, has worked in phases, heading east to Pineapple Avenue.
City officials and the contractor have worked with the area’s merchants to assist customer access to their businesses during construction, Winder said.
Someone with the city has always been available whenever he called regarding the project, Knagg said.
“It is probably never easy to tell a business that you’re going to tear up their street and limit access to their customers, [but] they definitely are sympathetic to our needs and have listened to our concerns,” Knagg added. “Their communication with us has been excellent.”