Future of School Avenue through Sarasota High campus to be primary focus of joint May 8 meeting of Sarasota City Commission and School Board

Alta Vista neighborhood residents already on record in opposition to proposed street vacation

A gate on School Avenue prevents motor vehicle traffic from entering the Sarasota High School campus during school hours. Rachel Hackney photo

Almost exactly five weeks after the deaths of 17 people in the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the Sarasota County School Board approved a motion calling for the scheduling of a joint meeting with the Sarasota City Commission “as soon as possible.”

The subject, board member Shirley Brown said in making the motion on March 22, would be a revision of the interlocal agreement between the School Board and the city regarding the closing of part of School Avenue to “all users” when Sarasota High School is open on regular school days. As it stands, the interlocal agreement prohibits vehicular traffic only; pedestrians and bicyclists legally can traverse the street.

School Avenue “runs right through [the] Sarasota High [campus],” Brown pointed out.

The ultimate goal, Brown continued, would be to seek a permanent vacation of that segment of School Avenue, which runs between Hatton Street and Tami Sola Street. “That’ll take some time,” she noted, “but I don’t think we can wait for that now.”

After School Board member Caroline Zucker seconded the motion, Chair Bridget Ziegler asked whether any member of the public attending the meeting wished to speak on the topic.

Sarasota High Principal David Jones hurried to the podium. “I express to you an unconditional gratitude,” Jones told the board members.

He had been fighting for the closing of School Avenue to all persons during school days since he became the Sarasota High principal two years ago, he said. “Thank you for that motion. When it comes to student safety, I don’t think that’s when the compromises are made.”

“This is the first step [in a process],” Brown said. Seeking the road vacation would necessitate not only discussions with the City Commission, she pointed out, but also with members of the neighborhood associations in the vicinity of the high school.

Although the sign indicates the segment of School Avenue is closed starting at 7 a.m. on school days, the current agreement between the School Board and the City of Sarasota closes the street at 6:30 a.m. Rachel Hackney photo

“I am very pleased … that we are taking this first step,” Ziegler added.

At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 8, the School Board members will sit down with the city commissioners to begin that process set in motion on March 22. The session is scheduled to last until 8 p.m. in the Commission Chambers at City Hall, located at 1565 First St. in downtown Sarasota.

Even before that takes place, as Brown indicated in March, the city commissioners’ views will not be the only factor with which the School Board will have to contend.

On April 2, during remarks at the beginning of the regular City Commission meeting that day, Pearlee Freiberg, a Wood Street resident, fired the first salvo, it might be said, for the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association.

School Avenue, she pointed out, is one of only two north-south thoroughfares available to Alta Vista residents; the other is Shade Avenue.

She proceeded to show the commissioners photos of the Sarasota High campus and School Avenue, arguing that more fencing to protect school property would be preferable to permanently cutting off residents’ access to part of the street. She also pointed to the locations of two gates the school district utilizes to keep motor vehicle traffic from entering the street segment during school hours.

In an April 5 telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader, Stan Zimmerman, former president of the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association, explained that members of the organization already had unanimously voiced opposition to any effort seeking a permanent vacation of School Avenue between Hatton Street and Tami Sola Street. “Nobody there was in favor of helping out the School Board,” he said, describing action at the neighborhood association’s March 29 meeting.

Larry Silvermintz, president of the association, had notified district and city leaders that the topic would be on the agenda for that meeting. The association’s current position on the issue, he wrote in a March 19 email, is “The block of School Ave between Hatton and Tami Sola Streets must be open to pedestrians at all times[his emphasis].”

“They have always had the desire to close School Avenue,” Zimmerman told the News Leader, referring to School Board members. “Alta Vista has regularly and historically opposed [a vacation].”

He added that the neighborhood association grudgingly had accepted the closure during school hours.

Zimmerman said he suggested during that March 29 Alta Vista Neighborhood Association meeting that the best option for the School Board would be to ban all males from the Sarasota High campus. “Every school shooter in America has been a male,” he pointed out.

As far as he was concerned, Zimmerman told the News Leader, such a ban would be “just as crazy” as a permanent street vacation on School Avenue.

The May 8 meeting

The main entrance of Sarasota High School faces Bahia Vista Street. Rachel Hackney photo

The interlocal agreement between the School Board and the City of Sarasota dates to 1997. In an April 18 letter to Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie, Ziegler — the School Board chair — pointed out, “Regretfully, the environment in which our children attend school has changed dramatically since the last adoption of this agreement.”

A proposed new interlocal agreement calls for exactly what School Board member Brown noted in her March 22 motion: the closure of School Avenue from Hatton Street to Tami Sola Street “to all transportation modes and users — motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists,” as noted in an April 26 memo from school district Planning Director Kathie Ebaugh and Ryan Chapdelain, general manager of the city’s Planning Department.

Additionally, the new interlocal seeks to extend the hours of closure — 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The request calls for the new hours to be 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The school district would be responsible for installing the necessary new signage.

Finally, the proposed interlocal agreement “acknowledges that, as a second phase, the District will apply for the permanent vacation of School Avenue through the City’s development review process.”

As a result of the May 8 discussions, backup agenda material says, both the School Board and the City Commission will be asked to commit to public hearings on the proposed new agreement at each of their next regularly scheduled meetings.

The traffic analysis

A graphic in the Kimley-Horn report shows the segment of School Avenue proposed for the vacation. Image courtesy Sarasota County School Board

As city staff had requested, the district already has completed a roadway vacation analysis of School Avenue. The district hired the Sarasota consulting firm Kimley-Horn and Associates to undertake the work.

After looking at the preliminary findings, Ebaugh — the district planning director — sent an email on Feb. 15 to Superintendent Todd Bowden and other district staff members. “The data shows pretty much [what] we expected it to show — there are not a lot of trips through [the campus] section [of School Avenue] and there are more pm than am trips,” she wrote.

Kimley-Horn staff members collected traffic data at several intersections and on specific road segments in the affected area during morning and afternoon peak travel hours and during Saturday peak travel times, the firm’s report says.

Kimley-Horn cites the results of its analysis as the basis for approval of the proposed School Avenue vacation. Among its findings are sufficient “roadway capacity” on Shade Avenue and existing bicycle lanes on Bahia Vista Street.

A graphic in the Kimley-Horn report shows anticipated increases in traffic on other streets if the segment of School Avenue is vacated. Image courtesy Sarasota County School Board

The report does recommend the following: that the traffic signal timing may need to be adjusted at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Bahia Vista Street; addition of sharrows along Shade Avenue “to promote the use as an alternative bicycle route”; and as needed, that the sidewalks along Hatton Street and Tami Sola Street be repaired or replaced between South School Avenue and Shade Avenue.

Sharrows are signs painted on the pavement that remind drivers they must share the road with bicyclists.

The report does note that the segments of Bahia Vista Street that the firm studied — between U.S. 41 and South School Avenue, and between South School Avenue and Shade Avenue — operate “over capacity during the p.m. peak hour.” However, the report adds that the “assumed re-distribution [of motor vehicles as a result of the street vacation] is not anticipated to add additional traffic along this roadway segment. This roadway segment is considered to be an existing deficiency in the roadway network.”