Traffic, tourism, condos drive Downtown Sarasota’s future

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Record tourism, dozens of new condominium projects and their precipitated traffic, all converge in downtown Sarasota.

This fact is forever challenging state transportation officials and Sarasota City commissioners to meet to often mutually exclusive goals.

First, the city for years has wanted a pedestrian-friendly city that connects its waterfront and its downtown core. It also wishes to develop a cultural and arts district on the west side of U.S. 41. These interests have recently been pitted against Longboat Key, Lido Key and St. Armands Merchant’s interests who wish to see immediate improvement to traffic congestion that plagues the Ringling Bridge and U.S. 41 during the busy season.

Added into this mix is the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) which traditionally attempts to manage these opposing interests through what are often seen by each group as nothing short of compromises.


A sharp turn in direction

The issue of traffic at Gulfstream Ave. and U.S. 41 came to a head last week when the Sarasota City Commission changed direction and voted 5-0 in favor of a plan to add a third northbound lane on U.S. 41 and a third left-turn lane at the base of the Ringling Bridge on Gulfstream Ave. for traffic heading north on U.S. 41. These changes were proposed by FDOT at a meeting last Monday with FDOT officials stating that the added lanes would simply move more cars through that corridor.

FDOT District One Secretary L.K. Nandam said the changes, which also include a crosswalk at First Street and U.S. 41, should be in place by 2018.

Nandam said that the changes are simply temporary to help improve the situation until the state installs a roundabout at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Ave. in 2019. At that time additional pedestrian and sidewalk changes will take place.


Brakes put on Barwin

The unanimous vote by the Sarasota City Commission supporting the FDOT plan marks a departure from the outspoken initiatives proposed by Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin over the past year. Barwin had argued that adding a sixth lane would not relieve traffic and would undermine pedestrian safety and damage the evolution of the city as an enticing waterfront destination.

But Longboat, Lido and Bird Key residents flooded the commission meeting and urged the Sarasota City Commissioners to stop supporting Barwin and to move forward with the FDOT proposal.

Barwin’s initiatives, which were rebuffed by the vote, had evolved out of years of planning that started with a study more than 10 years ago by new urbanism advocate Andres Duany, who said that Sarasota was self-limiting in its planning and evolution due to U.S. 41 traffic and its planning methodologies. A series of planning code changes in the city integrated many of Duany’s ideas and central to all of his ideas is the stated need to make the downtown and waterfront and areas north of Fruitville Road, far more pedestrian-friendly and integrated by design.

In many ways, the battle will continue as a major component toward the City’s evolution are the proposed roundabouts.

Already, assumptions on their efficacy of their ability to move traffic have started and engineering reports have been questioned. From Longboat’s perspective, most anything that impedes exiting or accessing the island is simply a negative.


Tourism, development approvals

At odds with improving traffic, are the increasing number of condominium approvals and tourists in the immediate vicinity.

Sarasota County had a record number of tourists from April to June, with more than 356,000 visitors, up more than 4 percent from the previous year.

Downtown, director in front of the traffic-ensnarled corridor, the Westin Inn wil soon open. Additionally, a 162-room art ovation hotel, will open by year’s end as well as a 180-room Hilton and an 89-room hotel in the Rosemary District.

In addition, the Zota Beach Resort on Longboat also opened this summer and doubled in size.

On Longbat Key the Key Club Islandside has the right to build a sizeable hotel on New Pass and at some future date the Colony will be rebuilt with likely no less than 237- rooms.

Added to these numbers are hundreds of listings in online booking sites, such as VRBO and AirBNB where private residences are offered to tourists.

Lastly, downtown Sarasota has been hundreds of new condominium under development over the past two years and going forward.

All of these conflicting interests have both professional and laymen engineers attempting to keep the intrinsic elements that make Sarasota and its islands so desirable in place.

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1 Response for “Traffic, tourism, condos drive Downtown Sarasota’s future”

  1. cheryl nelson says:

    I own a condo on Longboat Key. Longboat Key and the Sarasota are a very special area and if it becomes overdeveloped with more resulting traffic issues , it will become just another winter reatreat like the East Coast and Naples. Money is talking and approvals for development seem to pass. When all the developers are finished , we will be left with lower property values and a less beautiful place to live. What can be done to stop this from happening? Who is watching? And even though I am a property owner but not a full time resident , I unfortunately have no say .

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