Sarasota blesses ‘The Bay’ plan for 53 city owned acres

Editor & Publisher

The City of Sarasota unanimously said ‘Yes’ to a major redevelopment of 53 publicly owned acres along the downtown Bayfront.

The proposal, which is referred to as ‘The Bay,’ will be developed in stages, primarily paid for through private and philanthropic funds and eventually include a new performing arts hall to replace the Van Wezel.

The approval did not come quickly and did not come easily and followed three hours of debate, City Commission inquiry and a couple dozen public speakers – both for and against the proposal, before the final approval on April 15.

City Commissioner Hagen Brody made the motion to approve the plan that will start with Phase I, which consists of developing about 10 acres on the southern portion of the property.

The first phase is expected to cost between $14 million and $30 million with about 10 percent being contributed by the City.

The Bayfront Park Conservancy (BPC) is the organization that is shepherding and managing the project. The BPC grew out of the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization, which engaged Boston Design Firm, Sasaki, to engage with the community and develop the final Master Plan. A.G. Lafley, who serves as the CEO of the BPC, predicts the first phase to take three years to finish and will include a recreational pier, pedestrian bridge at U.S. 41 and Blvd. of the Arts, as well as food and beverage services and a nature walk. Lafley said the BPC will have to raise between $20 million and $25 million before undertaking the first phase. That comment underscores an important point in the approval the City granted.

One of the concerns raised by the City Commission was fear of any scenario in which the BPC started a phase and did not have enough funding to finish the work. In essence, the City Commission was loathe to be in a situation where taxpayers could get stuck with unforeseen major capital expenses.

To protect against this, the agreement between the BPC and the City mandates that the City will retain the right to approve an implementation plan prior to the commencement of any phase of the project. Additionally, the BPC representatives said no work will be undertaken on any phase unless the funding for that phase is completely raised and available.

The agreement states that the City will be responsible to provide infrastructure including streets, sidewalks, water and sewer services throughout the site. Additionally, trash pickup, utilities landscape maintenance and litter control will be financed by the City.

The BPC will be responsible for funding all of the park amenities and attractions including the recreational pier, the proposed kayak launch, and any artistic embellishments.

The plan to develop the large expanse of property that extends from Blvd. of the Arts north past the 10th Street Boat Ramp and beyond has been in an-again, off-again undertaking by the city for decades. For years, City Planners and Consultants have decried. The ocean of asphalt surrounding the Van Wezel and in the early 2000s, the land was slated to become cultural arts district. For years, the various boards of the symphony, Van Wezel, Players Theatre and other organizations held formal and informal talks about developing the site and how to accommodate parking and perhaps share a garage.

About four years ago, Mote Marine Laboratory proposed a plan to the City showing an aquarium and a hotel built at the southern side of the boat ramp entrance. At that time, the community was in the middle of a grassroots planning process that was spearheaded in part by Michael Klauber and many others.

The City Commission deferred to that process and refused Mote its request. That community process of grass roots planning eventually formalized into the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization, which after the Sasaki Master Plan was adopted sunsetted and The Bay Conservancy was formed.

The ultimate goal and final build out will provide pedestrian connectivity to downtown and unfettered public access to the largest contiguous waterfront parcel the city owns.

Ultimately, the G-Whiz building is slated for demolition, a new Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall will be built and the existing Van Wezel will be repurposed. A waterfront restaurant as well as other less formal dining options are part of the plan. The Sarasota Orchestra, which is currently located within the 53-acre site, announced last year that it would not be part of the plan although land was initially allocated for a new symphony hall. The organization announced last month that it is seeking for City approval to develop slightly more than four acres at Payne Park on the West side of the city for a new hall. The Symphony said sea level rise is a major consideration and wants to use the land the Payne Park Public Tennis Center is on.

The iconic Sarasota Municipal Auditorium will remain and undergo restoration as part of the Bay project. The entire project could cost about $500 million with the price for a future Van Wezel performing arts hall as the largest financial variable.

CEO Lafley said the entire build out of the Bay project and all of its phases will likely take between 15 and 20 years.

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