Editor & Publisher
The future St. Armands Circle may soon resemble Bryant Park in New York City — sunny from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. when the sun slices between the buildings.
Walk the Circle today and look at the height of the buildings. Then, imagine heights of up to 56 feet.
Next, ponder life on Lido and Longboat Key and in Downtown Sarasota in general. Think of the traffic, the growth and the strain on our infrastructure.
Maybe I am crazy, but the thought that does not come to mind is: “I wish hundreds and hundreds of hotel rooms would be permitted on St. Armands Circle ASAP.”
And certainly the next thought is not: “I wish I could help pay for some of the hotel parking and subsidize the venture on behalf of a handful of underlying commercial property owners.”
But that is exactly where the City of Sarasota and the St. Armands Business Improvement District is heading.
As they say in tennis, “Play your game, not the opponants.”
And this is exactly the game of the Sarasota City Commission — to plan nothing proactively and wait for the next bad idea to pounce upon.
The City over decades showed no planning at the Bayfront near the Van Wezel— that had to be taken over by a community group.
The City completely bungled the Lido Pavilion Lease.
The City lost the Mote Aquarium.
The City lost the Players Theatre.
The City did not work proactively with the Symphony and now its destination is unknown.
The only planning evident by the city is the widening of sidewalks, the ripping out of Australian Pines and a fascination with roundabouts.
So fast forward to the past month and the City is now embracing the craziest of notions: the idea of allowing up to 150 hotel units per acre on St. Armands Circle and increasing heights to absurd proportions.
The Master Builder…
To compound the issue is a request by Gavin Meshad and his development partners to purchase the publically-owned Fillmore Parking that sprawls behind Alvin’s Island to build a hotel and market.
City Commissioners Hagen Brody and Liz Alpert are so enamored by the idea they are in some strange excited state attempting to railroad through in less than 90 days proposals for the sale of this prime public asset.
It is the greatest bad idea the City has entertained in years.
The art of the steal
Sarasota City Attorney Robert Fournier finally took the time to examine the proposal last month and all of a sudden he discovered something was reeking. Some deals between government and the private sector fail the sniff test. Others are simply born from a dung pile.
He wrote in a memo that he discovered the City, in the proposal by Gavin Meshad and those seeking to develop the Fillmore property, could be on the hook for up to more than $8 million in a credit for the buyer converting the surface parking into garage parking according to the proposal.
So the City Attorney opined that the Commission might want to look at the fact that under this proposal the public could very likely end up owing the developer more than the City receives for the land. In other words taxpayers would pay to sell their own property.
I know the bar is low, but is this really not a cry for help?
Realize this City Commission is not caring about your neighborhood or the residents of Lido Key.
I do not remember Liz or Hagen campaigning on a “Let’s sell off public land” platform.
They are caring about the Bendersons, The Meshads and adding value to the development envelope of the underlying property owners at St. Armands Circle.
Many of the people with leases and end-users will eventually be forced out. There is nothing in this for them.
There’s nothing in this for residents except the alluring sales pitch of a Morton’s Market, which is alluded to in Meshad’s master plan.
Who does not want Cava, Manchego cheese and fresh pastries?
But we could have a fabulous gourmet deli, bakery and wine shop without adding hotels and without adding more than 20 feet to the height of buildings.
This is public property and the City has an obligation to take the time and make the effort to work with the residents of Lido Key, St. Armands, Bird Key, Longboat Key and Downtown Sarasota. These are their constituents and one can only believe they do not want some fast-track fire sale of their very own real estate.
Building upper floors with tourism units will turn St. Armands Circle and its ambiance into a caricature — a Disneyfied Epcot version of what was once charm, elegance and soul.
And the nuttiness of selling off the two acres is underscored by the City Attorney’s memo.
Can you image our City moving foreword on a proposal that could cost taxpayers to sell its own prime real estate on St. Armands Circle?
If anything, there should be no sale of public property without a referendum.
Can we really consider the present commission responsible stewards of public property?
Think of the Lido Pavilion fiasco.
If we were to sell this land or wish to lease it for a purpose— which we should not — then it is incumbent the City do so at arms length through a broker and seek the greatest return.
Stick with fixing potholes…
The City needs to go back to doing its job — keeping potholes fixed, public landscaping spiffy and our parks and public spaces in order.
St. Armands Circle is not Mayor Hagen Brody’s Monopoly Board — we are not yet selling Hagenopoly at Sarasota’s Walmart.
But if he has his way, the game will be for sale soon in a hotel lobby near you.
After all, City Commissioners are narrowly elected for a fleeting moment by a numb and hopeful populace usually facing a choice between two clowns.
Sadly, less is more when it comes to government decision-making.
Let the oak trees stretching across Main Street cast the shade on our community.
Better that than the dealings of a City Commission with an urge to sell prime public property in a hurry.