North Palm Avenue streetscape project expected to get underway in late July

Initiative designed to solve stormwater issues, too

A graphic shows flooding problems in front of North Palm Avenue businesses. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

About six years after the project originally was proposed, the City of Sarasota has received City Commission approval for a North Palm Avenue streetscape/stormwater project for which $329,927.39 has been budgeted.

“One of the real issues there is potential flooding to all the businesses,” as water flows toward the storefronts after heavy rains, City Manager Tom Barwin pointed out to the board members during their regular meeting on June 18.

Before the city commissioners approved the project with a unanimous vote, staff had to assuage concerns of Commissioner Willie Shaw that the work would not exacerbate flooding problems earlier initiatives had addressed. They also had to assure Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie that they feel they have built enough contingencies into the contract to avoid any change orders that would increase the overall expense.

The work is scheduled to begin in late July, city Communications Specialist Jason Bartolone told The Sarasota News Leaderin a June 25 email, responding to a question about the timeline.

The goal, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown said on June 18, is to complete the project “before [tourist] season starts” again.

The original holdup, Brown explained, came as a result of concerns raised by Jono Miller, retired director of the Environmental Studies Program at New College.

Members of the Downtown Improvement District (DID) wanted to improve drainage on the west side of North Palm Avenue that long had been the focus of business owners’ complaints. A simple summer thunderstorm could put people on the sidewalk ankle-deep in water, DID members said. However, the plan the DID focused on called for pulling out 25 trees. Miller described them as “historic cabbage palms,” Brown told the commissioners on June 18.

A graphic shows the existing storefronts in the project area, with some of the palms. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Miller told DID members that some of the trees were 90 years old in 2014. Others were relocated to the site, he said, when the nearby Bay Plaza condominium complex was built in the late 1950s. “These may be the oldest deliberately planted landscape trees in the city,” Miller stressed during the Aug. 4, 2014 DID meeting.

Last year, the city issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a revised streetscape project on North Palm, Richard Winder of the city’s Public Works Department told the commissioners on June 18. However, all three quotes the city received were higher than the $202,334.39 the city had earmarked for the project.

As a result, Winder continued, staff turned to firms on the city’s continuing service contracts list to find a company that could take on the project.

When city staff sought bids from firms on the city’s Small Public Works & Utilities Projects Construction Services list, C-Squared Certified General Contractors Inc. of Sarasota bid $299,093.35; Stage Door II Inc. of Apopka bid $484,326, and Spectrum Underground Inc. of Sarasota bid $429,059.91, the staff memo noted.

Then staff worked on a proposal to add $81,940 remaining from the completed First Street Streetscape Project, along with $45,653 left over from the roundabout project at the intersection of Main Street and Orange Avenue, to the North Palm project budget.

On June 18, staff sought the commission’s formal approval of the transfer of that total — $127,593. With the extra money allocated, Winder said, “we can get moving on [the project].”

An aerial map shows the area of North Palm Avenue and adjacent streets. Image from Google Maps

The board approval was unanimous.

The contractor will be C-Squared Certified, according to the staff memo.

When Commissioner Hagen Brody asked whether the project would entail re-grading, Winder said that it would. “We’re changing the grading to try to get everything to slope toward that [stormwater] system,” which ties into the inlet across the street at the new Art Ovation hotel, he added. The system also will tie into the piping that covers the area of Café Epicure, he noted.

Brody then asked whether the extra public space created by the project would be “leasable to the storefronts.”

“The concept does allow the opportunity for a sidewalk café,” if a business owner was interested in that, Deputy City Manager Brown told him.

Have we not been here before?

Bay Plaza faces the Palm Avenue parking garage on one side. Photo by Jeff Brooks via Google Maps

At that point, Commissioner Shaw posed questions about earlier stormwater projects the commissioners had approved, both west and east of the North Palm initiative.

One of those focused on Bay Plaza, Winder replied, as water runs down the driveway at that complex and turns the corner to flow onto North Palm.

That stormwater system is separate from the one on North Palm, Brown added.

Shaw noted the stormwater project staff undertook that was designed to eliminate flooding in front of Florida Studio Theatre (FST), which is in the same general area.

That initiative dealt more with flooding in the Palm Avenue/Banana Place area, Brown responded. “That project is not contributing to what is happening here.”

When Shaw asked whether the flooding issues had been eliminated at FST, Brown told him, “I’m not going to promise because I don’t control Mother Nature …”

Will staff be back before the board in another year or so for yet another new project “because of something else here?” Shaw asked.

“Obviously, all these systems are interconnected,” Brown said, with the stormwater flowing toward Gulfstream Avenue. That is the primary reason, Brown indicated, that the city, Sarasota County and the Florida Department of Transportation are “doing a major study” in the effort to mitigate flooding at the Gulfstream and Fruitville Road intersections with U.S. 41.

Shaw noted that the city and FDOT undertook work last year in the area of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue — including cleaning out a stormwater drain — to lessen flooding problems.

A graphic shows aspects of the streetscape project. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“Until we get a major, major downpour,” Brown told him, “we would not know how effective that cleanup has been.”

Flooding in that area still occurs during high tide, City Manager Barwin added. Eventually, Barwin said, city and county staff may have to work on a pump-out system to alleviate the problems.

Then Freeland Eddie asked whether staff tried to impose a Guaranteed Maximum Price on C-Squared for the North Palm initiative.

Extra money has been included in the budget to deal with any unforeseen situations, Winder of the Public Works Department told her.

Referencing Shaw’s earlier remarks, she added, “We’ve been here before, up the street, down the street, across the street. … I don’t want to keep seeing change orders on this project,” with the end result being a higher expense than the board was being asked to approve that day.

A rendering shows how part of the completed streetscape is expected to look. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“There’s always things that are going to be in there that we’re not aware of,” Winder said of unexpected situations with construction initiatives.

“I get that,” Freeland Eddie replied. Still, she told him, staff should have a “pretty good understanding” of the issues in the North Palm project area, given those earlier undertakings to deal with stormwater flooding. She also was concerned, she added, about the prospect of businesses losing revenue — or even having to close — if unforeseen problems arose and contributed to a longer work schedule.

“They’ve done all the surveys” and necessary subterranean investigations, Brown told her. “This is the price guaranteed to you.”

Winder added that he has not had to seek change orders thus far with any of the streetscape work he has managed for the city.