Vice mayor continues to plead for preservation of former G.WIZ building
With Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch in the minority, the Sarasota City Commission voted 4-1 on Oct. 1 to approve an interim agreement with the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization (SBPO) to allow the nonprofit to raise funds and proceed with the design of the first phase in transforming 53 city-owned waterfront acres into a public park called The Bay.
As she had during a special commission meeting on Sept. 6, Ahearn-Koch again pleaded for inclusion of the former G.WIZ building in the master plan for the new facilities that a Boston-area design team, Sasaki, prepared after conducting what Commissioner Hagen Brody characterized as “exhaustive outreach to the public.”
City Manager Tom Barwin pointed out that that outreach took place over 18 months and encompassed about 50,000 contacts.
Nonetheless, Ahearn-Koch said, “I believe that the community has come together” in calling for a look at “potentially repurposing this building without holding up the entire project.” She added that she had received hundreds of emails from members of the public to that effect.
Brody reminded her that the action the board took on Sept. 6 made it clear that it endorsed the proposal for Phase I on the southernmost 10 acres of the bayfront land, “which does not include the G.WIZ building.’
“The vast majority of the public input was that that would be better served as open space, public space,” Brody continued. “[People] would like to see the water from that portion of the park.”
Moreover, Brody cautioned Ahearn-Koch, “If you get into this rehashing of every issue that we make decisions on, you are going to ruin [The Bay master plan], and that will rest on your shoulders, because I do believe this is fragile. This project depends on the full faith that the donors have in the City of Sarasota having the desire and the discipline to see this thing through.”
Cathy Layton, a member of the SBPO, stressed the importance of the land beneath the building, which was the original home of the Selby Public Library. That property is a key element, she said, in the funding structure for a 501(c)(3) conservancy, which the SBPO and the commissioners agreed on Sept. 6 would be established as a nonprofit to manage the park and raise funds for the amenities.
“There’s no city money coming in to fund the conservancy,” Layton pointed out. Referring to materials the SBPO and Sasaki provided to the commissioners in advance of the Sept. 6 special meeting, Layton added that if any use could be found for the G.WIZ building, it would have to supplement the income the master planning process had factored in from use of the space where the structure stands.
The master plan estimated that Phase I of The Bay could be operated for an expense of $1 million to $2 million per year, “with the exact amount a function of the nature and cost of programming, as well as the availability of sponsorship funding. Funding sources will need to come from a mix of baseline public support, income revenues from on-site amenities and events, philanthropic support, and community benefit revenues.”
The concept for Phase I includes two new piers, “food and beverage services, shade structures with recreational programming stretching eastward from the waterfront, and better connectivity northward across the bayou and better connectivity eastward across US 41 via a new pedestrian overpass,” the master plan says. “Most critically, Phase 1 will include programming to make the site active, fun, comfortable, safe and broadly attractive to diverse Sarasotans throughout the day and year.”
The cost of constructing Phase I is estimated between $15 million and $25 million, with completion possible in seven years, the master plan adds.
Overall, construction of The Bay — including a new performing arts hall, a recreational bridge and two other pedestrian walkways over U.S. 41 — has been put at several hundred million dollars. SBPO representatives were reluctant on Sept. 6 to put a firm price tag on all the work, given the fact that “it will probably require 10-20 years for the entire project’s completion,” as the master plan notes.
For Phase I, a table included in the master plan estimates food and beverage service revenues would be a minimum of $165,000 per year, up to $365,000. “Event Rentals” had a range of $65,000 to $175,000, with “Event Sponsorship” at a range of $150,000 to $400,000.
During the Oct. 1 discussion, Mayor Liz Alpert also pointed out to Ahearn-Koch that the motion Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie made to approve the interim agreement “is just the ability for the group to move forward. It doesn’t set any plans in stone.”
During the design process for Phase I, Alpert continued, the Sasaki team members can consider “whether there’s something sustainable, financially feasible and actually viable” for the former G.WIZ building. “This [agreement] does not preclude looking at that.”
The agreement itself
The document the commission approved on the 4-1 vote on Oct. 1 calls for the nonprofit Bay Conservancy to be in place within 100 days of Sept. 6, no later than March 31, 2019.
As Commissioners Freeland Eddie and Willie Shaw requested on Sept. 6, the document points out that the agreement with The Bay Conservancy “shall include specific terms related to diversity in the planning and implementation process, preference for local hiring, use of minority-owned businesses, continued open and transparent process and public engagement …”
At Freeland Eddie’s request on Oct. 1, the document also makes it clear that the agreement with the conservancy will include language regarding “funding, fundraising, and fiscal obligations of the parties.” She explained that since the board voted on Sept. 6 to allow planning for Phase I of The Bay to proceed, the additional language shows that “we recognize that it has to be paid for …”
City Manager Barwin pointed out that the SBPO had agreed to those changes in the document.
Pleas from the public and the SBPO
Of the four people who addressed the commission prior to its Oct. 1 vote, three implored the board to save the former G.WIZ building.
Lorrie Muldowney, president of the firm Creative Preservation LLC who served as a Sarasota County historic preservation specialist for 22 years, requested the City Commission call for “an impartial evaluation” of the structure before a final decision is made about its future. The SBPO had provided several documents to a group advocating for the building’s preservation, she noted, but she characterized the material as containing just “‘observations’ on the building’s condition.”
Muldowney added that she thought the design of the master plan for The Bay “may have been colored a little bit” by an intent to demolish the structure.
“We have often heard about the lack of occupancy as a reason” that the building is of no value, she continued. However, “there really hasn’t been an official process looking for a tenant for the building [since the G.WIZ science museum closed]. So I feel the city has to bear some responsibility for this situation.”
After City Manager Barwin sent a letter to G.WIZ in August 2013, indicating it was in default of its lease with the city, representatives of the science museum announced that they would be closing the facility for good.
Renowned Sarasota architect Carl Abbott, who pointed out to the commission on Oct. 1 that he has lived in the community for more than 50 years, said, “I’m very much in favor of saving this important building.”
He explained that constructing a building is easy, but “it’s not easy to do a significant building.”
Abbott also concurred with a point Muldowney had made: “Sasaki was told notto include this building [in the master plan].”
The city’s Historic Preservation Board has voted three times to call for the historical designation of the structure, Abbott further noted.
Finally, Ben Nathan, who said he works in real estate in the city, told the commissioners that buildings such as the former G.WIZ museum are part of the city’s history and heritage. He added that he felt The Bay master plan could give the structure new life.
During her remarks to her colleagues, Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch acknowledged that she was not certain that it would be financially feasible to save the building. Still, she added, she had understood from discussions with SBPO representatives that they would wait at least until Oct. 15 to see if preservationists can come up with a viable plan. “I would like to see the community’s input. … It’s not a minority of people at this point.”
Sarasota attorney Jennifer Compton, treasurer of the SBPO, told the board, “I think roughly 75% of Bill Waddill’s past 90 days have been spent solely on G.WIZ.” She was referring to the managing director of the SBPO, who was out of town and therefore unable to appear at the Oct. 1 meeting, City Manager Barwin explained.
During the almost two years of community outreach that led to the crafting of the master plan, Compton continued, 99% of the 50,000 contacts called for a park on the waterfront, “not a building on the water over there.”
Layton of the SBPO said the organization would not be able to raise funds for Phase I without assurances that the design of the master plan concept the board approved on Sept. 6 could go forward. “We cannot have a hitch on this first [phase],” she added. “It’s just not practical.”
Layton also pointed out of Waddill, “Bill doesn’t have a paycheck after the first of the year,” and the SBPO does not have any funding to even continue to use utilities after the end of this year. “I just urge you not to change what is before you today, because it really will change where we go.”