Updated master plan for The Bay Park wins Sarasota City Commission approval on 4-1 vote

Ahearn-Koch cites concerns about inability of commissioners to have final say on design features

This graphic shows The Bay Park Master Plan approved in 2021 and the one approved on Nov. 20. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Concerns about parking, sufficient community involvement in the planning, and the elimination of the requirement for final Sarasota City Commission approval were among the top issues as the city commissioners on Nov. 20 addressed the latest proposed changes to the master plan for 53-acre Bay Park on the city’s waterfront.

The focus that day was on Phase 3, which will encompass the construction of at least three restaurants comprising 4,000 to 5,000 square feet and expansion of access at the Centennial Park Boat Ramp.

After close to 80 minutes of discussion, the commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the updated master plan. The “No” vote came from Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch, who had stressed multiple times that she found that the slides presented by representatives of the Bay Park Conservancy — which manages the park and raises private funding for it — were too vague.

She acknowledged the need for flexibility in the planning process, as Bill Waddill, the nonprofit’s chief operating officer, had discussed the fact that it likely will be eight or nine years before Phase 3 is completed.

Nonetheless, Ahearn-Koch pointed out, she was the lone opponent on the commission in April when the board majority approved a change in a city policy to allow staff to approve proposed structures containing 5,000 or fewer square feet. That process is known as “administrative review.”

While she expressed respect for and trust of the Conservancy and its work, Ahearn-Koch said that the commission’s original commitment to community residents was that the City Commission would have final say on changes to the previous version of the Master Plan, which the board members seated in March 2021 approved.

She told Waddill on Nov. 20 that she would prefer that the City Commission be able to review the design plans at the 30%, 60% and 90% marks.

He responded that the Bay Park Conservancy Board of Directors does undertake reviews of the plans at those stages, “in very tight detail,”  and its meetings are open to the public.

However, Ahearn-Koch emphasized that the commissioners’ constituents expect them to ensure that their tax dollars are used appropriately. Being unable to vote on the final plans is a problem, she added. “I love the park; I just have no details.”

Yet, City Manager Marlon Brown told her, “You have vested a level of authority in the Bay Park Conservancy to make decisions. A lot of these decisions are going to be made by the [city] Planning Board, as well,” and — he noted — the City Commission appointed the Planning Board members.

Moreover, Brown pointed out, “Anyone can appeal the Planning Board’s decision [to the City Commission].”

‘More park, faster’

At the outset of the Nov. 20 discussion, Philip DiMaria, a planner with the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota who has been working with the Conservancy, reminded the commissioners that members of the public had made it clear, during community meetings that the Conservancy leaders had conducted, that they want the Conservancy to have “additional flexibility … to build more park, faster.”

This is the long-term version of the Canal District design. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The restaurants will be a primary facet of the Canal District, Conservancy leaders have pointed out, as the Conservancy plans to work out agreements with the operators so the nonprofit retains a certain percent of the restaurant revenue. That money will be used to maintain the park, Chief Operating Officer Waddill has told both the City Commission and the Sarasota County Commission.

During the Nov. 20 meeting, Susannah Ross, a landscape architect who is a director of Agency Landscape + Planning in Cambridge, Mass., explained that the six attendees of what she called the Conservancy’s Food and Beverage Working Group — people whom she referred to as a “small sort of curated group of experts who we consult with” — had made it clear that, in terms of restaurant size, “The sort of sweet spot is around 3,500 to 5,000 square feet.”

Valet parking will be provided, for the restaurants, she noted, along with a water taxi stop.

A second recommendation of the Working Group, she said, was that one of the dining establishments should have a second-floor event space.

Later, Waddill talked of the Conservancy’s commitment to local restaurateurs. Having dining establishments ranging from 3,000 square feet to 5,000 square feet, he said, would “allow multiple kinds of concessionaires.” The Conservancy leadership would use a Request for Proposals process, advertised through the city, to seek applicants, Waddill added.

When Commissioner Erik Arroyo asked about the decision to go with larger dining establishments, Waddill explained that, while a larger number of smaller restaurants would fit in the designated space, the Conservancy’s meetings with its Food and Beverage Working Group had resulted in the decision that fewer, large restaurants most likely would be full on a regular basis, which would lead to their success.

“There’s so much demand for waterfront dining in Sarasota,” Waddill pointed out. Yet, the goal also is to provide dining options for people who will not be interested in going to a restaurant, he said.

This is the existing site of the Centennial Park boat ramp. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Landscape architect Ross noted that a Food Village will provide a variety of cheaper options for the public; it will be set up under a shade structure.

Since the Canal District also will encompass the city’s boat ramp at Centennial Park, located at 1059 N. Tamiami Trail, Ross noted, “Everyone really fell in love with the idea that this could be boat to table …”

And while the Conservancy initially had planned to shift the boat ramp to the north, she continued, “We discovered that that doesn’t make sense, given a lot of feasibility issues and environmental resources.” She said that members of a boaters group that the Conservancy had convened for meetings “couldn’t have been happier” with that news, “since they were nervous about that potential site adjustment.”
The new goals focus partly on expanding the boat ramp area, including the provision of a separate access for smaller vessels, Ross added.

Waddill reminded the commissioners that, in March, when he and members of the team originally proposed the administrative review process to the commissioners, about 20 or 30 boaters and captains were in attendance, with a number of them emphasizing the importance of the boat ramp.

With plans to keep the ramp in its current position, Ross continued, the Conservancy is proposing continuous pedestrian access through The Bay Park via a bridge over the canal. That bridge must allow for 17.5 feet of clearance for vessels, a graphic showed, in accord with Florida Department of Transportation regulations. The maximum trailered boat height is 13.5 feet, the graphic said.

A retail kiosk and public restrooms also are part of the Canal District plans, along with 20 to 25 public day docks.

Ross further pointed to the “seawall that’s pretty much falling apart,” which will be replaced. The Conservancy has obtained the necessary permit to construct a new one, she added; that work will be done “within the next couple of years.”

Finally, Ross told the commissioners, the long-term vision is for additional parking on approximately 1 acre to the north of the Canal District, which is owned by Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL).

In response to a question that Ahearn-Koch posed, Waddill said that, during a meeting that he and DiMaria had about a month ago with an FPL representative who handles real estate matters, “They said, ‘Let’s do it,’ ” referring to finalizing such a parking agreement with the Conservancy.

With the City Commission already having approved the $65-million plans for Phase 2, he further explained, and Phase 3 under consideration that day, the only section of the park whose future is not set is the middle one, containing about 20 acres. That is the area where the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center (SPAC) has been proposed by what used to be the Van Wezel Foundation. The Foundation wants it to host the Broadway on Tour productions and the other types of shows that have been featured at the Van Wezel.

The parking considerations

Adequate parking for patrons of The Bay Park does remain a concern, as Commissioner Arroyo indicated with a number of questions early on during the discussion.

Waddill explained that, before the first phase of the park was created, 1,400 parking spaces were available. With Phase 1 having been completed and opened to the public in October 2022, approximately 1,300 remain, Waddill added.

This graphic shows the tentative design of the bridge to the Canal District. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Two parking studies were undertaken, he pointed out, with the city having hired the Tindale-Oliver firm of Tampa to conduct one of them. Both studies showed a need for 700 to 800 spaces on the site and/or within a 5- to 10-minute walk of the park, Waddill added. About 150 spaces remain in the Cultural District planned along U.S. 41, he continued. The FPL site could be divided into 75 spaces, for another example, Waddill said, with approximately 300 vehicle spaces available at the boat ramp, much of which is used for trailer parking in the daytime.

He explained that boaters typically head out on the bay early in the morning and then return by midday or mid-afternoon. Thus, the boat ramp spaces would be available in the evenings for members of the public to attend performances at the new SPAC or to dine in the restaurants.

Thus, Waddill noted, the spaces would turn over “multiple times a day. That’s what cities do, and that’s what we would do.”

Plans also call for used a dockmaster to help facilitate parking for the restaurants, he said.

Later, when Ahearn-Koch asked whether the Conservancy’s leaders had taken into account the number of parking spaces needed for the restaurants along with the other amenities at full build-out, Waddill assured her that that had been done. That calculation included the new performing arts venue and, potentially, a repurposed Van Wezel, he noted.

Moreover, he explained, the Conservancy has hosted four different events — including the 2022 grand opening of Phase 1 — when concerts with 3,500 attendees were taking place at the same time, along with people just coming to the park in general. When he walked around the site on those occasions, he continued, he observed more than 100 unused spaces, even with the 5,000 to 6,000 people present.

Waddill pointed out that parking experts take into account the fact that people carpool, walk or use services such as Uber to reach their destinations when they know that finding a parking space might be a problem.

When Ahearn-Koch asked Waddill about the potential that an afternoon performance at the park could take place while plenty of boaters’ vehicles still were taking up space at the boat ramp, Waddill talked of other options that the Conservancy is considering. Among then, he told her that discussions had been taking place with members of the family that owns the property that used to be home to The Players Theatre, on U.S. 41. The potential exists, he indicated, for shared public parking to be included in a deck for future development on that site, with an overpass across U.S. 41 possible in the years to come, to facilitate access to the park.

The lone speaker to address the master plan updates was Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck, who called the description of the agenda item “grossly deceptive.” The information did not begin to address what was involved in the discussion, he stressed, including what he characterized as the creation of “a parking nightmare by having … these huge restaurants compete with a shrunk parking lot for the boat ramp.”
Further, Lobeck told the commissioners, “This is your one shot at the master plan. This is a complete replacement master plan.” When comparing the original, 2018 master plan with the one the Conservancy was providing for the Nov. 20 discussion, he said, “There are dramatic differences from north to south to east to the west, and you’re being told it’s just this handful of things.”