Conflict on the menu at Selby Gardens

Editor & Publisher

Every issue is Vietnam in Sarasota: The Lido Pavilion, The Sarasota Orchestra moving to Payne Park, roundabouts, the Epoch condominium, The Bay.

We are a community of feisty residents and well-loved and supported institutions often at odds. Today, the redevelopment of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is in that crucible of community debate known as City Hall.

Ideally, these battles between opposites bring about a better result: sometimes a compromise, sometimes a total reimaging of the project. The worst case is when either the project or plan or vision dies, or the residents simply lose out.


Nuance needed…

In this case, in the case of the Selby Gardens, we have to be far more nuanced and thoughtful than either side has articulated if we want to reach the best outcome for Sarasota.

As presented, Selby wants to accomplish several major enhancements and improvements to their property. The least contentious is the eradication of surface parking, the expansion of walkable garden space, the construction of hurricane and flood-proof repositories for its world-class collection of plant specimens and an overall enhancement of the walkability and connectivity of the site. The organization is seeking to ensure its ongoing financial health through this expansion, which includes the development of a restaurant that will be leased to a private operator.


Conflict on the menu

It is the restaurant that presents the greatest departure from the mission of Selby Gardens and creates the most potential conflict with neighbors and the community. But again, we have to be nuanced. The plan could usher in potential conflict, but not necessarily. We must digress.

Not-for-profits and nonprofits face many challenges when it comes to financing operations. So do local governments and schools. Unfortunately, this leads to some of the very issues we should seek to avoid at Selby.

Take Mote Marine Laboratory. A few years ago, Mote unveiled a plan to build a new aquarium at the site of the 10th street boat ramp. It said it needed a hotel to be approved in tandem with the project and that the City should approve the venture to jump-start the development of the publicly owned acreage.

That plan by Mote was abysmal. First, the City wisely deferred to the community organization that was planning the 53 acres that is now called “The Bay.” Secondly, the idea of a hotel and aquarium was perhaps financially viable for Mote and Seven Holdings, but it was wrong for the City, wrong for the community and ultimately would have cheapened Mote’s image. It represented shortsighted planning.


Violation of Mission

More recently, we had the disaster of the City trying to lease the Lido Pavilion to the Daiquiri Deck owners. Yes, it would fix the restrooms and get the pool maintained. But the cost to the community in leasing one of its most precious assets — the beach and pavilion — to a restaurant was at cross-purposes with the community.

As the City grows, a quiet and unimpeded beach experience must take priority over the City Manager’s desire to not maintain parks and simply lease away problems. We escaped a bullet.

Another example is the Sarasota Orchestra. While the Orchestra needs to stay in the City and all efforts should be made by the organization and City staff to facilitate this goal, it cannot and should not come at the cost of a precious community park and open space in an era of rapid growth and development.

The parks and our beaches will only become more intrinsically necessary to enhance our lives and property values by maintaining and preserving them rather than offering them up as development solutions.

Another sad loss will be the move of the Players Theatre. That land that the Players is on was a gift to perpetuate community theater in Sarasota. Its sale — due to its proximity to the water and value as a condominium site— violates the very mission a Sarasota community theatre ought be predicated upon.

It does not constitute operational success and smart not-for-profit planning by simply selling or leasing away assets and bastardizing the core mission of the very same organization. That brings us back to Selby Gardens.


Forked intentions

Unlike some of the above examples, the Selby Gardens plan is responsible, protects its future and creates a path to longevity for the organization. But the restaurant is the only element that is still at odds with the mission of the organization and the community. That is because it has been presented as an additional commercial use that is not demonstrably integral to the underlying mission of Selby Gardens, except as a financial generator.

Most botanical gardens in the country — in fact the top gardens — have restaurants and cafes. But the majority require an admission pass to the gardens or a membership to dine at their eateries. Most are open during the same hours of their gardens.

The restaurant Selby Gardens has been presented so far is a means to “diversify the revenue stream.”

And while Selby will own the restaurant site and lease the operation, it has not been presented as integrated and integral with the Selby Gardens experience.

If the entrance to the restaurant was part of the garden exhibit and the Selby experience was part and parcel and completely integrated into the restaurant, that would be one thing. It could then be argued that it is a continuation or extension of Selby Gardens.

Unfortunately, it comes off as simply a great destination dining experience with a great view. I am sure it would be nice, but for now the restaurant plan is simply lease space to shore up a necessary revenue stream.


Serving our City…

That leaves the Commission with a philosophical and planning conundrum. Should the comprehensive plan and zoning allow a separate and seemingly disparate commercial use on the site?

Again, if the restaurant served Selby visitors and was open during Selby Gardens hours it would be part of the Selby experience. If the restaurant was designed as part of Selby Gardens as an interactive and imaginative eating space that was integrated with the Gardens experience — then that would make sense. But it is not yet there on either count.

I hope the City can find a way to approve this plan and the necessary changes, but only if the restaurant can be integrated into the operation and experience of the Gardens. And the City Commission should not simply relying on the words of Selby, “We own it, so we can define it.”

What needs to be in place are controls in the zoning and approval that integrates the restaurant as part of the overall Selby Gardens experience and museum, or as a dining spot simply for guests and members of Selby during operating hours. One or the other or both.

To allow a restaurant to simply be leased and open late into the evening is simply cramming a commercial operation that has little to do with Selby other than serving as financial fuel.

So let’s be clear: the overall plan is wonderful. The plan deserves to be accomplished and approved. But the restaurant and how it operates needs to be completely examined and revisioned.

If it can be compelled and agreed upon and codified that it serves as an integrated part of the Selby Garden experience, then it should be a “yes.” If it is scaled back to serve Selby Gardens guests or members, then “Yes.”

But right now, the City Commission should hone in on the use and operation of that part of the plan.

It is not about the traffic, the noise and the parking. It is all about the right of the community and City to plan, define its future and what activities go on in our city and neighborhoods. The restaurant needs to be a part of Selby Gardens; not the other way around.

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3 Responses for “Conflict on the menu at Selby Gardens”

  1. Scott Ashby says:

    Hey Steve . . . just getting to your article and it is so compelling and spot-on . . . very well written . . . I couldn’t agree more . . . thanks, Scott

  2. Ty Hall says:





    Ty Hall

  3. Thomas O'Shea says:

    An article on which developments someone named Steve likes and does not like. Please vote for him as emperor of SRQ.

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