Business owners had lamented prospect of more construction during tourist season
After the City Commission heard merchants’ pleas during its Oct. 1 meeting — and the Downtown Improvement District board (DID) addressed the same concerns the following day — City of Sarasota staff has decided that no road or sidewalk closures for the Lemon Avenue Streetscape Project will begin until after Mother’s Day (May 12) of 2019.
That was the news city Communications Specialist Jason Bartolone announced on Oct. 5. “The Lemon Avenue Streetscape project construction is planned for May through November,” Bartolone pointed out in an email. “Prior to this time, there will be some work done at Paul Thorpe Jr. Park this fall to prepare oak trees for relocation this winter.”
The streetscape and park improvements are part of one project.
“Extremely happy” is how Ron Soto, chair of the DID, summed up the news when The Sarasota News Leaderspoke with him on Oct. 8. He added that he wanted to express his thanks to city staff members for their consideration of the concerns.
Reached early in the afternoon by telephone at his Main Street shop, Soto’s Optical Boutique, Soto added, “It was the right decision.”
He pointed out with a laugh that after he had lunch that day at Boca on Lemon Avenue, the staff told him, “It’s on us!” as thanks for the DID’s support of business owners seeking the project’s delay.
During their regular meeting on Sept. 4, the city commissioners voted unanimously to award a design/build contract to Jon F. Swift Inc. of Sarasota for the South Lemon Avenue Streetscape and Paul Thorpe Jr. Park Project at a cost of $306,276. Swift was one of three companies that had responded to a city Request for Proposals for the work, according to documents provided to the board in advance of the meeting.
“Once design services have been completed,” the agenda material said, “an agreement for construction of the project will be brought back before the City Commission for approval.”
A May 10 document provided to the City Commission in advance of a workshop on the city’s Capital Improvement Plan for the 2019 fiscal year estimated the cost of the streetscape improvements at $3.2 million.
The first part of the project, according to the Sept. 4 City Commission agenda materials, was to encompass the removal of the existing sidewalk, curbing and asphalt paving on Lemon Avenue from Main Street to Pineapple Avenue, with brick laid as a replacement. “The Project work will also include, but not be limited to, drainage improvements, decorative brick pavers at intersections, lighting, landscaping and other incidental work,” the contract with Swift said.
The second phase was to encompass work in the park itself: expansion on the Pineapple Avenue side to allow for additional landscaping, transplanting of the oaks from the park to a neighboring area, and the installation of upgraded furnishings, lighting and plants, the contract added.
During the Citizens Comments period at the opening of the Oct. 1 City Commission meeting, Chip Beeman, owner of Pastry Art, located at 1490 Main St., was the first downtown business owner to address the timing of the construction of the streetscape part of the project.
Just a week ago, Beeman said, downtown merchants became aware of the fact that the work was going to begin in early 2019 and take about four months. He acknowledged that he more recently had heard that the start of the project could be pushed back.
If the work were not delayed, Beeman pointed out, “My experience is that this will be very detrimental to the businesses of the downtown area. The merchants of Main Street are very construction-weary.”
When the city constructed the roundabout at the intersection of Orange Avenue and Main Street about two years ago, he continued, his business lost about 25% of its normal sales. It took about 18 months, Beeman added, for those sales to return to the pre-construction level.
Then the construction of the roundabout at the intersection of Orange Avenue and Ringling Boulevard during season this year led to what he characterized as “road rage” among drivers who had to resort to Main Street as a detour. His sales dropped 10% during that construction, he pointed out. “I would like to think that a city leader would try to time [another project] better.”
He implored the commissioners to allow downtown merchants to “build up savings [during the forthcoming season] and wait for the next offseason” to begin the South Lemon Avenue Streetscape Project.
His suggestion was to wait until after Mother’s Day in 2019.
Then Larry Siegel, owner of the Gator Club on Main Street, told the commissioners, “I’m very excited about the streetscape that’s going to begin,” but he also asked that the project wait until after Mother’s Day of next year.
“I’m just looking for a little break where, hey, could we just not do construction in the middle of the season?” Siegel said. “It just doesn’t make much sense to me.”
Siegel noted that the timing of the South Lemon Avenue project was being coordinated with the construction of The Mark in the same general area. He called the new condominium and retail project “a great addition” to the city. Nonetheless, Siegel said, “I need to make a living.”
The third speaker, Maggie Dietsch, identified herself as the director of Sarasota Suncoast Tours. The latter, she explained, has had a presence in downtown Sarasota for the past four years. Four of her walking tours, she continued, “will be directly impacted if Lemon Avenue is closed during season.”
She also concurred that the Lemon Avenue Streetscape improvements will be “a great project,” but she joined Beeman and Siegel in asking the commissioners to delay it until after Mother’s Day in 2019.
Finally, Chip Allard, general manager and managing partner of Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse, located at 35 S. Lemon Ave., pointed out that Lemon Avenue is the only way for his customers to reach his business.
The first four months of the year, he continued, “[are] when we make our money.”
He already had talked with corporate staff in Cleveland, Ohio, Allard said, about the prospect of making “our alleyway look nice” as a means of access for customers, if they could not use Lemon Avenue.
He joined the previous speakers in requesting a post-Mother’s Day start of the project.
DID meeting speakers emphasize worries
On the morning of Oct. 2 — the day after the commission meeting — the board members of the Downtown Improvement District (DID) listened as Phil Smith, a landscape architect with David W. Johnston Associates in Sarasota, talked about the plans for the South Lemon Avenue and Paul Thorpe Jr. Park upgrades.
He would be working with the Jon Swift firm on the project, he explained.
The design, which is at the 30% level, had been submitted to the city’s Development Review Commission for comments, Smith continued.
From Main Street to South Lemon, he said, the roadbed would be elevated 6 inches to create a plaza “all the way to Pineapple Avenue.” The curbing would be removed, and the sidewalks would be widened, he pointed out. The plaza would be on the same level as the one on Lemon Avenue in the vicinity of Mattison’s restaurant, he said.
The parking spaces along South Lemon Avenue also will be removed, Smith pointed out, as well as the left-turn lane for southbound traffic approaching Pineapple Avenue.
After Smith’s presentation concluded, Soto — the DID chair — suggested getting to the “big questions.” When he asked Jason Swift, president of Jon F. Swift, about the total estimated time frame for the project, Swift replied that it would take seven to eight months. The team members would be meeting later that week with staff of the City Manager’s Office, Swift added, to discuss the timeline. “We don’t have a firm date of scheduling,” he said, except for the work to transplant the trees from the park. That is to start in January, Swift pointed out.
“We definitely are aware of the issues with the businesses,” Swift acknowledged.
The DID board then listened to comments from Siegel of the Gator Club, Beeman of Pastry Art and Steven Warren, general manager of Brick’s Smokehouse, which is located at 1528 State St.
Afterward, Jason Swift told the DID board that one primary concern with the streetscape project is to coordinate the work with streetscape improvements associated with The Mark, so Swift’s team members “don’t have to come in and rip [those] out.”
He also noted his prior understanding that city staff wanted to limit construction in downtown Sarasota to the period between May and November, and he reminded the DID board that a meeting was planned later that week with city staff to discuss the streetscape project’s timeline.
“I know all those people are unhappy,” Swift added of the merchants. “We’re committed to do whatever we can [to ameliorate the concerns],” he added. “We take direction from the city.”