The Bay’s revised Phase 1 plans win unanimous City Commission approval

Next step is site review process, which will entail Planning Board and City Commission hearings

A graphic on the left shows the July plan for the Sunset Boardwalk feature of Phase 1 of The Bay. The graphic on the right shows the September version. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

With $11.5 million in cash and commitments from private individuals and philanthropic funds already secured for the approximately $20-million project, the Sarasota City Commission this week unanimously approved the latest version of plans for Phase 1 of The Bay on the city’s 53 waterfront acres.

Formally, the board members endorsed the implementation plan for the public park amenities on the southernmost 10 acres of the site, which is adjacent to the Quay Sarasota property and the three towers of Condo on the Bay.

It should take about six to seven months for leaders of the Bay Park Conservancy (BPC) to complete the process necessary to win commission approval of the site plan for Phase 1, BPC Chief Implementation Officer Bill Waddill told the board members during their regular meeting on Sept. 16. That process will include three community workshops, as well as public hearings before the city’s Planning Board and the commission, he added.

If all goes well, Waddill continued, the ribbon cutting for Phase 1 could take place in two to two-and-a-half years.

Gina Ford, co-founder and principal of the Boston-area design firm Sasaki — which has worked with the BPC and the BPC’s predecessor nonprofits on the planning for The Bay — reviewed for the commissioners the major refinements in the Phase 1 plans since July.

First, she said, the public opposed eliminating the median on Boulevard of the Arts on The Bay property. The project team learned of the existence of “pretty significant live oaks” in the median, she added, as well as  “line of stunning black olive trees.”

Graphics show the July and September versions of plans for Boulevard of the Arts on The Bay site. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Although the median will stay, she said, the new design will encompass more pedestrian crossings of the street — what she characterized as “bump-outs to slow traffic” — “and just a whole lot more shade.”

Second, Ford said that a nine-space parking lot on the eastern side of the site in the previous plan was envisioned as a means of providing “back-of-house [access] for set-up for events on the lawn,” as well as for people dropping off kayaks to use in exploring the mangrove inlet.

That lot will be expanded to 14 spaces, she said, and it will provide a much more clearly delineated space for dropping off people “with limited mobility.”

Additionally, Ford continued, a small “park-let” to the west of that parking area will have amphitheater-style seating, serving as “a flexible canvas” for a variety of “pop-up uses.”

As for general parking: Nearly 1,000 spaces will be within walking distance of Phase 1, Ford noted.

Later, A.G. Lafley, founding CEO of the BPC, said that, even walking slowly, someone could make it to Phase 1 from the northernmost part of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall parking lot in about 4 minutes.

Ford also pointed out that the Phase 1 plans put emphasis on multi-modal access.

Other changes have been incorporated into the design in regard to food and beverage service. Ford explained that, instead of constructing a restaurant, the focus will be on ready-to-eat choices that could be prepared off-site. The structures that will encompass that service, plus restrooms, “a janitor’s closet” and a maintenance equipment storage area will be flipped 90 degrees, she continued, and elevated 12 feet. The building will afford a clear view to the west, she added, so people can enjoy “the great sunsets, which you are so known for.”

This slide shows general ideas about the structures for food and beverage service, restrooms and storage. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Further, Ford said, the lawn configuration has shrunk because of the decision to maintain Boulevard of the Arts with the median. Instead of approximately 2 acres of space, she noted, it will have about 1 acre.

The fifth change, she continued, focused on the “resilient ecological shoreline” at the western end of Boulevard of the Arts, where mangroves and buttonwoods exist. Ford took the blame, she said, for not making sure she understood from city staff that the shoreline would not resemble a typical sandy beach. She added that it is “very rocky.”

Even though Sasaki “never intended it to be a swimming beach,” she added, the revised Phase 1 plans show it as a natural space, separated from the waterfront park.

Finally, she explained, because of new information about the effects the original pier design would have on mangroves and seagrass, the Sunset Boardwalk — as it has been dubbed — will feature “little metal kind of catwalks” over the most ecologically sensitive areas, “signaling to people they are passing over a special landscape.”

A graphic shows changes for parking and drop-off access on the eastern portion of Phase 1, as well as the 90-degree rotation of the food service/restroom building. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

One feature the BPC hopes to have completed by early next year, Implementation CEO Waddill noted, will be a trail that will cover an area of about half-a-mile through the mangroves.

Both Ford and Lafley emphasized that 83% of the 644 people surveyed on the revisions of the Phase 1 plans say they are likely or highly likely to visit the park after its completion. That rating was consistent over a broad range of ages and demographic groups, Lafley pointed out.

Questions and concerns

Following the presentation, Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch asked when the city commissioners would see a breakdown of the expenses for Phase 1.

The site plan, Lafley replied, would provide all of that information, including the estimated cost of the utilities infrastructure, for which the city is responsible. The Phase 1 estimate of $20 million to $25 million, he added, was based on the cost of materials in late 2018/early 2019.

After the BPC hires a construction manager at risk — a company that will oversee all facets of the construction, including keeping it on schedule and looking for efficiencies to reduce expenses — a revised estimate will be available, Waddill noted. That company, he added, will have employees familiar with “local market costs.”

In response to another question from Ahearn-Koch, Waddill said that a traffic circulation study, which is required by city staff, will be part of the site plan process, as well. The city hires an outside consultant to undertake such an analysis, he added, but the BPC will pay for the work.

Ahearn-Koch also asked about the future of the Van Wezel.

A rendering shows Phase 1 of The Bay, including the trail through the mangroves. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The Van Wezel Foundation and the management of the performing arts hall, as well as city staff, are working on that aspect of The Bay, Lafley explained, though the BPC is being included in the discussions.

“The Van Wezel is likely to be open at least five to seven years,” City Manager Tom Barwin pointed out.

Leaders of the Foundation and the management team have been working on plans — and fundraising — for a new performing arts venue that will be part of The Bay, Lafley and Waddill have pointed out in the past. Public surveys also have shown a strong desire for repurposing the Van Wezel as a park feature.

Ahearn-Koch and Commissioner Willie Shaw both asked questions about neighborhood connectivity to The Bay. The BPC project team members and city staff assured them that a number of initiatives are underway to make it easy for people to be able to bike and walk to the park.

Additionally, Waddill pointed out, “In a little over a year, we will have a roundabout” at the intersection of Fruitville Road and U.S. 41. “That’s going to have a dramaticimpact,” he said, on connections to the east and south.

Community support

By count of The Sarasota News Leader, 15 members of the public addressed the City Commission on Sept. 16, with the majority also indicating strong support for the revisions to the Phase 1 design.

However, several representatives of Condo on the Bay, which is immediately to the south of the Phase 1 site, continued to voice objections to facets of the project, as they had in July.

For example, Bob Finger, president of Tower 1, complained that the BPC has not been taking enough steps to limit damage to the environment.

This is a still from a video, taken by a drone, of the inlet between mangroves on the site of The Bay, facing east. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Bill Diehl talked of residents’ ongoing concerns that the popularity of the park will lead to traffic problems for residents, and he said the Sunset Boardwalk would diminish the waterfront view he and his neighbors enjoy.

Conversely, Nate Jacobs, founder and artistic director of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe (WBTT), told the commissioners, “I am for the park. I see it as a catalyst … to bridge the community, especially in the arts.”
For example, he said, the WBTT has an annual celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at its theater. However, he continued, he felt more members of the community would participate in that event if it were held at The Bay.

Referring to Sarasota, Jacobs added, “It seems to be a very separated community many times, even when it comes to the arts.”

Luz Corcuera, executive director of UnidosNow, expressed excitement about the project on behalf of the nonprofit. Referring to a comment from Lafley about the exceptionally high interest in The Bay voiced by people with families, she pointed out, “Family, as you know, is one of the most important values in the Latino community. We began imagining the possibilities that The Bay will afford to the hardworking families who contribute directly to this community.”

Representing the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Senior Vice President Jon Thaxton talked about the real estate term “highest and best use,” a concept that focuses on how to make the most of a piece of property. For example, he said, construction of condominiums on the city’s bayfront has made that area accessible to far more people than single-family homes would have.

(From left) Former Mayor Kelly Kirschner, who is chair of the UnidosNow board, Nate Jacobs of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and Luz Corcuera of UnidosNow listen to Jon Thaxton of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation on Sept. 16. News Leader image

Yet, he continued, many areas of the bayfront no longer are open to the public because of private property rights.

“The plan you are considering today is the highest and best use for this piece of real estate,” Thaxton pointed out, “especially for those who cannot gain access to the water through the private marketplace.”

Finally, Paul Orofino urged the commissioners to do all they could to hasten the completion of The Bay, not just Phase 1, by issuing bonds to cover the total expense. He noted BPC leaders’ comments that it could take up to 20 years to finish the project, with fundraising taking place over a long period to cover the estimated $300-million expense. “A lot of the seniors can’t wait that long to enjoy the park.”

After laughter erupted in the Commission Chambers, he added, “Seriously. … It’s ridiculous to me to wait 20 years. I won’t be around. I’ll be 98, or something like that.”

Waddill has said that the build-out timeline could be reduced to four or five years, Orofino added, if The Bay were able to pull all the necessary funds together. The City Commission should strive for that shorter timeline, Orofino stressed.