County staff to add 22 parking spots on north end of Village and work on Siesta Drive/Higel intersection and Ocean Boulevard site, where traffic crashes have been common
At some point this month, Sarasota County Public Works Department staff hopes to begin construction of 22 public parking spaces on the northern end of Siesta Village, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.
The staff also has targeted this month for the beginning of safety improvements in the almost 90-degree curve at the intersection of Siesta Drive and Higel Avenue.
Yet a third project is in the works for another curve — this one on Ocean Boulevard — where numerous accidents have taken place over the years, County Engineer Spencer Anderson has reported to the News Leader.
Each week, county Capital Projects Department staff issues a document titled, Construction — One Week Look Ahead, which provides details about ongoing and upcoming initiatives countywide. The most recent report, for the period of Aug. 30 to Sept. 5, does not include any mention of the Siesta projects, the News Leader found.
When the News Leader this week asked whether any timeline updates were available for the Siesta initiatives, Anderson told county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant that he did not have more specific dates to offer, thanks to the need to procure the necessary materials. He added that he would keep Grant posted as more information becomes available, so she can pass that along to the News Leader.
The Siesta Village parking project
On Nov. 17, 2020, the County Commission voted unanimously to approve the parking space project, after staff undertook research into the proposal at the board’s request.
Eighteen of the new spaces will be angled on the west side of Ocean Boulevard, in front of the Whispering Sands condominium complex. On Oct. 6, 2020, Siesta Key architect Mark Smith, a long-time leader of island organizations, showed the commissioners a schematic he had created that would make use of that landscaped area for those spaces.
The other four spots would be placed on the east side of the road in front of the former Lofino Building, which stands at 5011 Ocean Blvd.
The idea for the extra parking originated about five years earlier, Smith noted in October. He and Chair Alan Maio had discussed options, Smith said, for providing more public parking in the Village.
Prior to the board vote in November 2020, Maio acknowledged, “I was outed” by Smith for the fact that the county did not follow through on the parking proposal in 2015. “I should have pushed it,” Maio said, “but, at that time, we were doing a lot of stuff.”
The expense of the project has been estimated at $250,000.
On Aug. 18, in response to a News Leader request for an update on the timeline for the construction to get underway, County Engineer Anderson reported, “A September start is more likely. We are finalizing plans and coordination with adjacent stakeholders.”
Among those adjacent stakeholders, Whispering Sands residents have remained adamantly opposed to the undertaking. One of them, Bernie Hoyt, has addressed the commissioners and members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) about her concerns that drivers will end up having accidents as they try to maneuver out of the spaces.
Catherine Luckner, the SKA president, has talked, too, about the fact that people tend to speed into the Village from the north, failing to slow from 35 mph to the 20 mph limit until they are in the vicinity of the Circle K store, which is just west of the Avenida Milano intersection.
During a July 27 telephone interview with the News Leader, Luckner said of the parking proposal, “That is the worst design for that specific location … I have stood there and watched people fly into the Village. … They’re going 40 to 45 mph in the Village.”
“It is really bad,” she added. “It’s going to affect pedestrians, bikers and everybody,” she added of the plans for the new parking spots.
Luckner also pointed out, “This is a residential area,” referring to Whispering Sands.
Angled parking poses safety challenges in general, as noted in a study undertaken several years ago by the Tindale Oliver consulting firm in Tampa for the Sarasota Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Among the areas on which the initiative focused was downtown Sarasota, including areas of Main Street where drivers have to back out of angled spaces amid the traffic flow.
In the resulting May 2018 report, which covered the period from 2010 to 2016, Tindale Oliver said that it had studied Main Street from Bayfront Drive to U.S. 301.
The report noted 30 crashes linked to angled parking, comprising 10.4% of the total for that corridor during the period the data covered.
One graphic showed the site of a severe injury to a pedestrian in conjunction with an angled parking incident.
The News Leader made a public records request of the Sarasota Police Department for data related to angled parking crashes on Main Street between Orange Avenue and Five Points from January 2018 through May of this year. The report found a total of 66, which resulted in 10 injuries but no fatalities.
Twenty-three of the crashes — slightly more than one-third — occurred in the 1400 block of Main Street, which is just east of Five Points, the Police Department report shows.
Although Siesta residents are worried about the new Village spaces, business owners have commended the commission’s action.
“Any public parking in the business district is always needed,” Mason Tush, then chair of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, told the News Leader after the November 2020 board vote.
When architect Smith appeared before the commission in October 2020, he pointed out, “Parking is a premium on Siesta Key.”
In fact, during the Aug. 19 Planning Commission hearing on the first of four hotel projects proposed for the island, attorney William Merrill III of the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota noted that the project team had reserved 36 spaces for the public out of the 223 designed in the three-level parking garage that would stand beneath the five hotel floors.
The updated application materials that the Calle Miramar project team submitted to county Planning Division staff in May described that facet thus: “[I]n an effort to mitigate existing vehicle parking concerns, the Applicant is providing an additional 36 parking spaces within the parking garage area of the hotel which may be utilized by the public.”
The applicants made the inclusion of those public spots one of four extra proffers to the Planning Commission, although county staff warned against the board’s approving them, as staff could not enforce them.
Nonetheless, county Planner Kirk Crane, who handled the staff presentation during the hearing, told the planning commissioners, “Certainly, more parking on Siesta Key is … a good thing.”
Two other developers have proposed public parking in conjunction with their hotel projects. One of them, Siesta chiropractor and businessman Dr. Gary Kompothecras, is seeking county approval for a five-story parking garage that would be constructed between Stickney Point Road and Old Stickney Point Road. Of the approximately 203 spaces planned in that 54-foot-tall facility, about 103 would be for the general public, the formal application says.
That document, submitted to county staff in November 2020, notes, “Significantly, the parking structure will also provide much-needed parking spaces for use by the general public.”
The third applicant offering public parking spaces is Dave Balot, who hopes to build a 100-room boutique hotel on property located at 5810 Midnight Pass Road, where a Wells Fargo bank operated for many years.
That application, submitted to the county in the spring, calls for a total of 394 spaces, with 97 designated for “beach parking/overflow …”
The Siesta Drive/Higel Avenue plans
For years, traffic accidents have been common in the nearly 90-degree curve at the intersection of Higel Avenue and Siesta Drive, as motorists head on and off the Key.
As part of a years-long road swap process with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), County Engineer Anderson and his staff worked with state officials on plans for FDOT to assist with safety measures in that curve.
In October 2019, Anderson told the county commissioners that FDOT had agreed to pay $359,138 for a project.
Graphics provided to the board members in advance of their Oct. 8, 2019 meeting showed plans for replacement of the existing signage and guardrails with 108 feet of new guardrails on both the north and south approaches to the curve.
Additionally, a 225-foot traffic separator would be installed through the curve, and sod would replace 50 square yards of asphalt in the northwest quadrant of the intersection. The latter feature essentially would help smooth out the curve, based on the graphic’s details.
In his Aug. 18 update for the News Leader, Anderson wrote about the timeline for that undertaking:
“This project should be started in September as well. We are currently procuring materials and finalizing maintenance of traffic plans. [Those plans involve measures to maintain traffic flow in the area during construction.] The work will be completed at night, closing Higel [Avenue] at the curve and detouring traffic around,” Anderson added. Coordination and information will be provided with/to affected residents. The night work is expected to last 1 week.”
The Ocean Boulevard curve
Although a committee of the Bay Island Siesta Association — Make Siesta Drive Safer — collected data showing the multitude of accidents over a period of years in the Higel/Siesta Drive curve, another curve on the Key has been the scene of crashes for decades, as nearby residents have attested to the News Leader.
The site is in the area of 4420 Ocean Blvd., just north of Gleason Avenue.
County staff repeatedly has had to replace a railing adjacent to the sidewalk along that curve; the railing was installed in an effort to prevent pedestrians and bicyclists from accidentally ending up in the adjacent stormwater ditch.
Moreover, the owner of a home in that curve has taken many steps through the years to try to protect the property, including installing boulders.
Among recent incidents at the site, on the morning of Aug. 11, nearby residents told the News Leader that it appeared a vehicle had crashed into the boulders, which prevented it from hitting the privacy wall that the owners also had erected. However, the railing was knocked out of place; it was left on the sidewalk, about 75 feet to the north of the accident, based on a report filed with the county’s SeeClickFix program.
Another incident occurred this week, the News Leader learned.
Most of the time, residents have reported, drivers leave the scene after accidents.
The News Leader also asked Anderson about the potential of staff’s undertaking a safety project in that location.
“We are working on a subsequent plan to install traffic signage and road marking improvements at this location, similar in nature to the upcoming improvements on Higel Ave.,” Anderson wrote in the Aug. 18 email.
He did not offer any details about those plans.