Unity Monument plans for Bayfront Park win go-ahead from City Commission

Artwork proposed to be focal point for public gatherings

An aerial map shows sites A and B in Bayfront Park, either of which would be appropriate for the Unity Monument, the City Commission has decided. The titles in yellow reference other examples of public art in the park. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

On March 4, former Sarasota Vice Mayor Ken Shelin appeared before the City Commission to discuss a project he has been working on for more than a year: the creation of “an iconic and highly visible downtown monument” that would celebrate the city’s “commitment to acceptance, tolerance and inclusiveness,” as he noted in his presentation.

The City of Sarasota, he pointed out to the commissioners, “is a beacon of tolerance and acceptance in Southwest Florida.”

In 2003, for example, the city adopted a non-discrimination ordinance that included sexual orientation, he noted. About three years ago, the City Commission added gender identity and expression to that law, he said.

A number of community leaders have been working with Shelin on the project, as noted in a slide he showed the board that day. Among them are Susan McLeod of the International Sculpture Center in New York City, who is past chair of the city’s Season of Sculpture displays on the bayfront; Kate Alexander, associate director at large for Florida Studio Theatre; Sarah Wertheimer, executive director of Embracing Our Differences; and Chief Judge Charles E. Williams of the 12th Judicial Circuit Court.

These are the community leaders who have worked on the Unity Monument project. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Their proposed location for the artwork, Shelin told the commissioners, is Bayfront Park. “We see this, hopefully, as a gathering place for the public,” he added of the site where the artwork would stand. His committee would like to see the City Commission facilitate that, he said. He always had felt the city needed such a gathering place, he continued, similar to the squares in European cities where people assemble.

The estimated cost of the artwork is between $250,000 and $500,000, he continued. “We don’t think we’re going to have any trouble raising [the money].”

The plan is to donate the monument to the city, Shelin said, so it would be part of the city’s public art collection.

“We hope [the artwork] becomes important to the public, and they want to see it,” he added.

During the March 4 discussion, Mayor Liz Alpert raised concern about how much of a footprint the monument would have.

Cliff Smith Jr., senior planner for the city, explained that it would be about the size of the sculpture in the Orange Avenue roundabout in downtown Sarasota — approximately 20 feet high and 5 feet wide, though likely not as tall.

Bravo! is the title of the Jorge Blanco sculpture in the roundabout at the intersection of Orange Avenue and Ringling Boulevard. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota

“I think it’s a great idea,” Commissioner Hagen Brody said. However, Brody continued, “I do think it’s important that we maintain our open spaces.”

Smith explained that the intent of the committee is for the artwork to be not only very visible to the public but also for the monument to stand in an area that is easily accessible.

After further discussion, the commissioners asked Shelin and Smith to put more time into investigating possible locations in Bayfront Park.

On May 6, the men appeared again before the board, having narrowed the proposal to two potential sites in the park. This time, they won City Commission approval to proceed with the planning, with the commissioners agreeing that the design of the Unity Monument ultimately will be the deciding factor regarding where it will stand.

Ideas for consideration

Smith pointed out on May 6 that he and Shelin had walked the two proposed sites three times, and other city staff members — including City Manager Tom Barwin, City Planner Steve Cover and Parks and Recreation Director Jerry Fogle — also had visited the locations, along with Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch.

Shelin showed the commissioners a map with the two proposed sites identified as “A” and “B.”

The area of open space that board members had voiced the most concern about preserving during the March discussion would be northwest of A, Shelin explained. “[It] is completely preserved.”

“Site A allows for the maximum area for public viewing,” he continued. “It has excellentvisibility,” from within the park and from Sarasota Bay, he added.

A photo shows billboards that have been part of an Embracing Our Differences exhibit. Image from the Embracing Our Differences website

Moreover, Shelin noted, “It doesn’t interfere with the Embracing Our Differences [annual exhibit].” In fact, he said, he and his committee members believe the Unity Monument will create synergy with the artwork of Embracing Our Differences.

He then noted that Site B is closer to the public restrooms and O’Leary’s restaurant in the park, “and the noise that all of that generates.” Further, he said, “Visibility is not as great as with Site A.”

Nonetheless, Shelin told the commissioners, “Either site would work.”

Shelin asked the board members to be flexible about the final site decision, as that should be dependent upon the design of the Unity Monument. “We can see how it will look in each of these locations.”

The Dolphin Fountain is one of the better known pieces of public art in Bayfront Park. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In response to questions from Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch, Senior Planner Smith said money in the city’s Public Art Fund could pay for the foundation for the monument, which likely would cost less than $20,000. Unlike the foundations for the sculptures in the city roundabouts, he explained, the base for the monument would need to rise only about 6 inches above the ground. To protect the roundabout sculptures from potential traffic crashes, he noted, their foundations stand about 24 to 30 inches tall.

When Ahearn-Koch then said that the monument should be durable, given the fact that it will be on the waterfront, Shelin replied, “Absolutely.”

The goal, Shelin said, is for the artwork “to be of high quality.”

Ahearn-Koch made a motion for either Site A or B to be the location of the Unity Monument, depending upon where it will work best. She also asked that its design comply with the criteria laid out for public art in the city.

Commissioner Brody seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously.

After the vote, Shelin recognized Norman Schimmel, past chair of the city’s Public Art Committee. “Norm was kind of the one who pushed me into doing this,” Shelin added. “Thank God for people like him.”

(From left) Susan McLeod and Ken Shelin listen as Norman Schimmel addresses the City Commission on May 6. News Leader image

Addressing the commissioners, Schimmel said that, having photographed so many features of the city through the years, he felt the Unity Monument would be a good addition to the landscape.

He also acknowledged that, with Bayfront Park, the first concept is “Don’t ruin what we have.”

If the project proceeds as Shelin has described it, Schimmel continued, the monument on either Site A or Site B “will add to the pleasure of this city and not deduct from it.”

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