Both supporters and opponents weigh in on the design that city planners and consultants say would finally accomplish the goal of making the thoroughfare more pedestrian-friendly
As Steve Stancel, chief planner for the City of Sarasota, spoke at the front of a packed City Commission Chambers during a workshop on Tuesday, March 1, he described the current conditions on Fruitville Road in downtown Sarasota.
Those conditions do not favor pedestrians walking along the road or trying to cross it, he pointed out. Stancel talked of how he recently watched a mom try to push a baby carriage along the narrow, 4-foot-wide sidewalk, past a bus stop bench. “She had to go up on two wheels,” Stancel said. “This is unacceptable.”
For years, city leaders have talked about the need to remake the four-lane highway into a more pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare that also does a better job connecting downtown Sarasota to Gillespie Park, the Rosemary District and other neighborhoods north of the main business district. On Tuesday, residents had their first look at a design city planners and consultants say would finally accomplish the long-standing goal of transforming the east-west roadway so it is safer for residents and vacationers to cross, without impeding traffic flow.
City planners and consultants are promoting the idea of making the section of Fruitville Road through downtown Sarasota a two-lane thoroughfare with 16-foot-wide sidewalks and three roundabouts — at Lemon, Central and Cocoanut avenues.
Residents who spoke during the meeting voiced a mix of support and concern for the concept that would revamp the roadway many of them drive to reach downtown, the community’s beaches and their places of work.
Supporters say this project finally could help connect the two halves of downtown, which are divided by Fruitville Road. Opponents, meanwhile, are worried it will create bottlenecks on an important thoroughfare and possibly result in a different type of traffic problem.
Lynn Robbins, a Tahiti Park resident, said she believes the construction of the roundabouts could lead to drivers cutting though downtown neighborhoods in an effort to avoid the circles. “A lot of those neighborhoods will get a lot more traffic if we’re not careful what we do,” Robbins pointed out.
Lois A. Levin, who recently moved to Sarasota from Boston, said she felt the data Stancel and the consultants presented demonstrated why roundabouts would be safer for pedestrians while not impacting traffic flow.
Among the consultants who spoke Tuesday was Michael Wallwork, a roundabout expert who hails from Melbourne, Australia. With about 4,800 roundabouts, Melbourne can be considered the capital of such traffic structures. He helped design the proposal for Fruitville Road.
“This is going to make a wonderful improvement in the city,” Levin told the crowd. “I am 74, and I hope to live long enough to see this project [built].”
City officials have not made any final decisions, Stancel explained. The meeting Tuesday was held to gather people’s viewpoints on two options:
- Alternative One would deviate less from the current roadway design, but it would result in wider sidewalks and a narrower median.
- Alternative Two, which planners said they believe is the better option, calls for two-block stretch of two lanes with the three roundabouts.
The city has set aside $2.3 million in Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) funding for the project. Alternative Two would probably cost about “three times” that much, Stancel said, with the difference to be made up in funding from such potential sources as impact fees and state grants, Stancel said.
“This is the first opportunity for feedback on the two options,” Stancel pointed out. “There will be an additional one to two public meetings, and then it will go to the City Commission for approval of one of the two options, or another alternative, as we move forward.”
Only one of the options, though, will make the area safer for those on foot, enhance the aesthetics of the roadway and allow for 16-foot-wide sidewalks, said Wallwork, the roundabout consultant and former traffic engineer.
“We went through a whole bunch of options before we came up with [Alternative Two],” Wallwork told the audience.
He talked of how it would slow the procession of cars, with no need to stop for red lights. “The vehicle speeds are lower, typically 15 mph,” Wallwork said, referring to the roundabouts. “It is very hard to run into [a pedestrian] at 15 mph. … [Alternative Two] is deliberately designed for a low-speed environment,” Wallwork added. “Maybe if you want to be a racecar driver, you can go 20, 25 mph.”
Wallwork showed the audience a rendering of a roundabout at Fruitville Road and Cocoanut Avenue. “You can see,” he said, “that is a lot prettier than a signal.”
The roundabouts on Fruitville, the presentation made clear, would be slightly larger than the recently constructed structure at Main Street and Orange Avenue in downtown Sarasota.
Wallwork also pointed to the roundabout at Clearwater Beach as an example of how such a high-volume structure works: “In 17 years, there have been no pedestrian crashes there; yet, it is the busiest pedestrian and bicycle roundabout in the U.S.”
When it came to planning improvements for Fruitville Road, among the priorities city planners heard named during early meetings with stakeholders were increasing pedestrian walkability and the use of roundabouts, Stancel noted.
“Fruitville Road is an impediment to pedestrian connectivity between the downtown and neighborhoods to the north,” Stancel pointed out. “This is directly [quoted] from the Downtown Master Plan 2020.”
As the planning process continues, it will address unresolved questions about evacuation and emergency-vehicle access if the roundabout scenario were chosen. City staffers are discussing those issues with city and county emergency officials, Stancel said.
Both Fruitville alternatives also would remove some bike lanes while adding them at Second Street and/or Fourth Street as part of an updated city pedestrian/bike plan. That has raised concerns from some bicycle advocates. Stancel said internal staff discussions have focused on those worries, with the potential being considered of converting a proposed emergency-travel lane in Alternative Two to a bicycle lane.
A busy road, a contentious discussion
The meeting took on an unruly atmosphere at times.
At one point early on, some audience members chuckled when city staff said traffic data show that no significant differences will be seen between travel times with four lanes and those with two lanes and roundabouts. “Oh, come on,” someone from the audience yelled out.
And during another period, Dan Lobeck, an advocate for keeping the roadway at four lanes, continued to interrupt Stancel about the procedural structure of the meeting. Later, a resident addressed the interruptions by Lobeck, saying she had not witnessed such an example of incivility at other public meetings she had attended outside Sarasota.
Lobeck is a local attorney and co-founder and president of Control Growth Now.
In a statement sent to the news media on Feb. 26 — titled Stop the insanity — Lobeck described the city’s roundabout plan as a means of making downtown traffic conditions worse.
“Sarasota City staff wants to reduce what is already a highly congested segment of Fruitville Road from four lanes to two lanes, creating an intolerable bottleneck for traffic, to encourage people to walk and bike instead of driving cars,” Lobeck wrote. “Yet they would also eliminate the bike lanes. Yes, this is for real. It’s not yet April 1.”
Those who support the roundabouts say they think the city’s plan would be an improvement.
Paul Jost of Gillespie Park said he believes slowing traffic to a steady flow would help make the area safer for people on foot, many whom have invested in downtown property because they want to be able to walk, instead of drive.
“How many people have to die, so you can get there a minute faster?” he asked.
L.B. Park pointed out that she moved to Sarasota because it was a walkable community. She added that she worries that roundabouts will not solve the problems on Fruitville because motorists will still race to U.S. 41 to try to beat the light. “It is like a racetrack,” Park said of the road.
Two owners of businesses on Fruitville Road said they were concerned about the impacts of the changes, both long-term and during construction. Alan Loring, co-owner of Cove Cleaners, noted that when other roundabouts were being built downtown, some businesses had to close and others suffered significant declines in sales.
Brenda Moore, another business owner, also wanted to know what steps would be taken to limit impacts during construction if the City Commission agrees to pursue changes to the thoroughfare.
Loring also noted that he has not been impressed with the function of the roundabout at Five Points. “When traffic is heavy on Main Street, it is difficult to get across the roundabout,” he added.
Loring asked the planners to consider a simpler alternative: installing “No Right Turn” signs on Fruitville to make it safer for pedestrians, instead of putting in roundabouts and narrowing the roadway.