Sarasota Orchestra needs to rethink plan to develop Payne Park

Editor & Publisher

When I heard of the plan for the Sarasota Orchestra to move to Payne Park, I wanted to shout out in joy. Instead, my heart ached. Instead, I realized yet another divisive and unfortunate community battle is already underway. There must be a better solution.

Let me start by saying we should all be supportive and proud of the Sarasota Orchestra. The level of creativity and inspiration it brings to our shores and generations of Sarasotans is unrivaled.

Simply put, the Sarasota Orchestra needs not only a new home, but a home fitting its stature and most importantly, best suited to meet the musical appetite of an ever-growing Sarasota. A new facility will solve acoustical, rehearsal and educational challenges, not to mention parking nightmares.

That said, let me explain the basis for objection to the Payne Park plan.


Schizophrenia in City Hall…

Parking and sea level rise are cited by the Orchestra as fundamental reasons to seek a new location. But the Payne Park idea, which seems to have traction on the City Commission, is yet one more manifestation of Sarasota’s schizophrenic approach to planning. Let’s explore the diagnosis.

We are on the cusp of committing as a community via the City Commission to redeveloping the 52 acres of prime city-owned property stretching from G-Wiz north past the boat ramp. That area was for decades the officially-designated cultural district for future redevelopment. The Players Theatre was to move there, the Van Wezel to rebuild and the Orchestra and others all planned to share a campus of sorts. That plan languished. Visions competed and the market changed.

Fast forward and over the past few years the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization took the initiative and working with the City, the community and eventually through the firm Sasaki, fashioned the Maser Plan we now call “The Bay.” But like the battle of Antietam, there have been some heavy losses.

First, the Players announced it was moving to Lakewood Ranch and selling its property for condo development.

Then, the next surprise: the Sarasota Orchestra announced last year it was opting out of The Bay project. They opted out after a design was created that showed their space — a prime and coveted place in the master plan — already designated.

Sasaki reworked the plan and the Orchestra went away. The organization said it was looking at other locations. Other than the usual behind-the scenes maneuvering between City staff, the Orchestra and the manager, we were all in the dark.

Fast forward, and a week ago the Orchestra announces its plan for Payne Park.


A most pedestrian problem

But that desire flies in the face of all of the City Planning and emphasis on a pedestrian-friendly community and waterfront.

The idea behind the Bay and the original Cultural district is that the thousands of residents living in the somewhat upscale condominiums such as the Ritz Carlton, The Vue, Watergate, 888, Beau Ciel, Renaissance, Alinari, Broadway Promenade, The Jewel and on and on all could walk to the future Bay project. Pedestrian walkways will be installed to cross over US-41, a bike path and green belt will link the entire acreage.

Additionally, the City is pushing forward with roundabouts at Fruitville and at the base of the bridge all to enhance connectivity and create a unified City and waterfront. We have had it told to us by every consultant and over and over by planning staff and the City itself — the mantra of connectivity and pedestrian friendly.

What irks me is the Orchestra opted out of this vision. The organization reportedly has or had board members or contributors more concerned about sea level rise — which can be factored into their redevelopment — than about the evolution of our city.

And if traffic and parking are concerns, I can guarantee every one of their patrons will live too far away to walk to Payne Park. Every performance will see 1,800 residents and visitors filter through the City from the Island and Keys and from the west side of Town to where they do not venture today except to go to the DMV. That is called traffic and trip generation, not pedestrian integration.

So the Orchestra, and by proxy the City, is ignoring the whole new urbanism precept it supposedly has struggled over the last two decades to implement.


In the face of development

Now, let’s talk about Payne Park

Like Tantalus, we all jerk our heads at low hanging fruit. And in this case, the aging and somewhat dilapidated tennis center — although extremely popular — is a simple scrape by the bulldozer away from becoming a cleared building site.

Offering the chit of new courts may offset some of the emotions. Maybe Hagen Brody can try and take credit for brokering a deal for a new tennis center. But if this is allowed, we have undermined the very soul of our community.

Having lived in New York, I can imagine the outcry if Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall or MOMA wished to build an annex by simply carving out a few acres of Central Park.

Just because the surrounding properties are not of the same luxury level, we should not for a second believe that allocating park acreage in the Downtown core is any less responsible.

We are a city growing at a dizzying pace. The somewhat inexpensive neighborhoods to the south and east of Payne Park deserve the same level of respect as those on Central Park West.

Our city will grow east as the waterfront is nearly filled with new construction. The demands on the parks and the tennis center and the future legacy trail need to be respected.

We should be spending money to enhance the walking paths, to invite the city youth and have recreational programs at the park. We should realize that well-kept public spaces and parks add to property values. They are the collectively owned assets of our community. Why don’t we lease out a piece of Payne Park to the Daiquiri Deck while we are at it?


The many spirits of ‘kindred’

Then there is the City Attorney and his myopic reading of the very deed that underlies Payne Park.

The land was given to the City with the following covenant: “This deed is given subject to the restriction that the tract hereinbefore described shall be used for park, playground and kindred uses and for no other use or purpose.”

Our City attorney and the Orchestra want to reimagine the word “kindred,” which means “similar in kind or of one’s family,” to mean an 1,800-seat symphony hall with walls of concrete.

“Kindred” does not mean “another compelling use.” It does not mean “a great idea in search of a home.” It does not mean “solves the problem for one organization at the expense of others.”

Kindred certainly is not some kind of word play that an attorney can sit on for a few months and hatch into “alternative meanings” that beg to be challenged by even a third-tier law school graduate.

Just as classical music is constrained by the intent and actual score of the composer, we should not play free-form jazz and fusion with the intent of those who made a gift to our city.



Music is in many ways the pinnacle of human achievement.

The carving up and rearranging of our audible landscape cannot be equaled. It is the height of form yet remains liquid and fluid. It arrives and disappears.

Music is the playground of the emotions, but it is not the playground of the body. That is the park. That is outdoor recreation. We are an aging, obese culture. We are an ever-growing City. Our homes are also obese often stretching from lot line to lot line. We need every acre of park and more to accommodate the thousands of residents moving in every year.

I want to be on board with the Orchestra. I want to support their future and will be a devoted attendee of their performances. But the better plan at this juncture is for the Orchestra to re-engage with the Bay project or go to their Plan B.

Plan B, I hear, is to construct a major and beautiful complex on the space of the parking lots in front of Robart Arena on Fruitville Road. That would transform an ugly parking lot into a Symphony Hall. That makes more sense. That is an Ode to Joy.

The final movement of Beethoven’s 9th brings unification after chaos, disassociation and false starts. It joins each of us in a mantle of musical beauty.

I wish this plan were an Ode to Joy. Unfortunately, the only similarity to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is the key of D minor.  The City and Orchestra deserve an equivalent grade when it comes to long-range planning and respect for the public park and public property of our community.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Longboat Key News

6 Responses for “Sarasota Orchestra needs to rethink plan to develop Payne Park”

  1. John Killen says:

    Excellent article, well-conceived and well presented. Need I point out that the Bay Renewal project is already IN the city? The Orchestra has spurned the city’s generous offer of space there, and wants to sacrifice the only green space in downtown in their hubristic pursuit of their “vision”. Have the city commissioners taken leave of their senses, or has another big-money special interest group managed to put the fix in?

  2. G McElroy says:

    Sooo well written & argued, Steve .
    Ts G

  3. Nancy Keness says:

    Is someone being paid off to promote this plan to use Payne Park for the Sarasota Orchestra?

  4. Bob says:

    The SO is a treasure and having it stay downtown is a benefit to everyone. Being at the edge of the park seems like a sane well thought out idea to me. We are fortunate to have them!

  5. Great perspective here. You bring up a ton of good points. The city would be making a big mistake letting the Orchestra take over that park, and people are naive to think that is not exactly what this would bring.

  6. jon swift says:

    I think that the city lets whomever has the most money doe as they please in the name of progress.
    its a good thing we have freedom of the press to help fight off these people with deep pockets and big check books . or we wont have any parks left. Just condos so old rich folks can look at the bay and drink scotch and roll around in beds made of green backs. it is a sickning thing to think that the city would entertain this idea in the, dark, sneeking around cloak and dagger, while the people who elected them have no clue. 51 years in sarasota born and raised.

Leave a Reply