St. Armands public restroom project gets go-ahead from City Commission on 4-1 vote

Decision to be made later about how to handle the maintenance

This is a rendering of one of the public restrooms planned for St. Armands. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

With Commissioner Hagen Brody still expressing reservations about the proposed locations and architecture, the city commissioners voted 4-1 this week to give the St. Armands Business Improvement District approval to proceed with construction of two public restroom facilities on public rights of way of the Circle.

One is planned on John Ringling Boulevard; the other, on South Boulevard of the Presidents.

As Gavin Meshad, chair of the Business Improvement District (BID), pointed out during the board’s regular meeting on Sept. 4, the organization will pay an estimated $582,580 for the design, engineering and construction of the project.

The earliest the facilities are expected to be completed is mid-May, Diana Corrigan, executive director of the St. Armands Circle Association, told the board members.

The motion by Commissioner Willie Shaw did call for city staff to continue to work with St. Armands representatives on potential savings in the anticipated maintenance expenses of the restrooms. Susan Dodd, a city redevelopment manager, explained to the board that the estimate for a contractor already handling city park restroom maintenance to add on the St. Armands restrooms is $106,400 a year. If the city used employees for the maintenance, she added, the annual expense would be about $158,900.

The operating hours proposed for the St. Armands facilities are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Dodd pointed out, “based on the unique open and close hours of 131 Circle businesses.”

Because the restrooms will not be completed until well after the 2019 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, Meshad told the board members, they would expect to pay probably no more than $35,000 in the first year for the contracted janitorial service.

Although the BID members originally had hoped the city would cover the cost of constructing the public restrooms, he added, the BID agreed to take on that expense. Therefore, he said, he was hopeful the City Commission would agree to cover the annual maintenance costs.

This graphic shows the proposed locations of the public restrooms on the Circle. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“This is a sizable contribution that the BID is making,” Corrigan said of the construction of the restrooms. About 96% to 97% of the owners of the businesses on St. Armands pay the annual ad valorem assessment that funds BID’s projects, such as this one, Corrigan added. The new restrooms, she pointed out, are “a much-needed amenity.”

“These restrooms are going to have to be maintained to very high standards,” City Manager Tom Barwin said. “St. Armands is a national destination. It’s known for its quality.”

“If we have to take on an additional expense for a good cause,” Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie pointed out, “I’d rather employ more city workers.”

She added that she does not feel a porter — an employee of an outside contractor — “is the right way” to maintain the new restrooms. “Do we really have to decide this now?” Perhaps the city could issue an Invitation to Negotiate to solicit bids from other contractors, she suggested.

Meshad stressed, “You understand that we have nothing out there now.”

“I got it,” Freeland Eddie replied.

“Adding to nothing is a positive, in my mind,” Meshad told her.

“I just don’t think that the idea of having a full-time bathroom attendant … is … a common practice,” Commissioner Brody said, adding that he could not recall seeing such a situation in other cities he had visited.

Then he repeated criticism he had offered in past discussions about the restrooms: He does not think that the modern design fits in well with the other architecture on the Circle.

Finally, Brody reasserted the position he stated during the July 16 discussion: that a restroom should be constructed in the center of the Circle, equidistant from all parts of the shopping destination.

Debating the upkeep

A chart provides details about the maintenance estimates. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

During previous discussions about the St. Armands restrooms,

Jerry Fogle, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, and City Manager Barwin explained to the board members that the firm the city contracts with for maintenance of restrooms at other city facilities — such as Bayfront Park — provides an attendant known as a porter to make sure those facilities remain in the best possible condition.

“It’s going to be a test for all of us” to figure out what will work best in regard to the hours and upkeep of the St. Armands restrooms, Corrigan of the St. Armands Circle Association told the commissioners.

“There’s probably some seasonality [factor in there],” Meshad said of the proposed operating hours. Having them open eight hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, he pointed out, “is, in my mind, a worst-case scenario.”

At one point during the discussion, Meshad agreed with Freeland Eddie about the projected expense’s seeming “a little excessive,” but he had relied on an estimate the Parks and Recreation Department staff had provided.

“I just think … the city can bid [the upkeep] out to other vendors,” Meshad added.

If the city hires workers to handle the maintenance, Meshad noted, it has to account for sick days and “people not showing up,” which is why the city’s expense would be higher than that of a contractor.

Corrigan pointed out that revenue from the parking meters on St. Armands might help cover some of the cost. The ordinance governing use of that revenue says the money first has to go toward paying off the debt on the new parking garage. Any leftover funds have to stay within the district, Corrigan noted.

The meters will become operational after the St. Armands parking garage has been finished, city staff has explained. That is expected in December.

A graphic shows the design of a public restroom on St. Armands. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Freeland Eddie expressed concern again this week — as she had in July — that many people who walk or run along the Ringling Bridge early in the morning would be inclined to want to use the new public restrooms on St. Armands.

However, Meshad told her that people who come to the Circle early in the morning most likely would be stopping at Starbucks or eating breakfast in one of the restaurants; they could use restrooms in those businesses.

Corrigan also reminded the commissioners that the garage will have two restrooms. She said business owners expect people who come out to the Circle earlier and those who stay later than the hours the other public restrooms will be open would use the facilities in the garage.

Corrigan added that the garage will be open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

No solar panels, after all

In response to a request that Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch made in July, city staff did check into the potential of using solar panels on the public restrooms to defray the cost of electricity, Redevelopment Manager Dodd also explained on Sept. 4.

However, Dodd said, the only way the panels would be able to work well would be if “the medians were denuded enough.” In that event, Dodd noted, the solar power system could reduce the monthly bill by about half. Still, she said, it would take 25 years to get a return on the city’s investment, and warranties for solar panels do not last that long.

“Thank you for all the work you’ve put into that,” Ahearn-Koch responded. It was preferable not to cut trees, she added.