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Up & Down the Trail

Sarasota news

by Stan Zimmerman

Plot your spot, your parking spot
The City of Sarasota is rushing madly to build a new downtown parking garage on its State Street surface parking lot. The planning board, the development review committee and soon the city commission will all check the appropriate bureaucratic boxes because the building is contracted to be finished in mid-February.

That’s not a misprint. Yes the city will build a five-story parking structure downtown in nine months. Senior Planner Steve Stancel is managing the project, and hopes to start building in May. The site now has 139 spaces, but those will disappear immediately when construction starts. Eventually the building will house 399 spaces for a net gain of 260 spaces for an estimated $12 million, making each space among the most expensive in the United States.

Parking is completely free to drivers in Sarasota. When meters were tried, a few people showed up with bags over their heads in protest, and city commissioners yanked the meters immediately. As a consequence there is no income to offset the expense of cleaning and maintaining parking garages. The parking department runs an annual $500,000 deficit, which is covered by property taxes.

”Diverging diamond” proposed for bottleneck
The latest traffic SNAFU to rise to the attention of politicians is the University Parkway and I-75 interchange. A gigantic new mall is scheduled to open there, and already traffic is a nightmare at certain hours. In other words, it’s only going to get worse.

So the FDOT is proposing a new kind of interchange – new to Florida – called the “diverging diamond.” Words fail to describe it, except to say it looks like a knot diagram from the Scout’s Handbook. At one point traffic is driving on the left side of the road, just like Merry Ole England.

A multiplicity of players further complicates the issue. University Parkway is roughly the county line between Sarasota and Manatee. Developers on both sides of the line are obligated to provide infrastructure improvements, both through impact fees as well as development agreements. In other words, “who’s not going to pay for what” is the strategy de jour.

Construction could begin within a year if the politicians agree. Completion could take two years or more, putting a “clot in the bloodstream” for the 2017 World Rowing Championships next door.

Ride a new bus on the “diverging diamond”
Sarasota County transportation planners are scrapping bus routes to make a new one for University Parkway from the airport to the new mall, then to Lakewood Ranch and out to the State College of Florida. County Commission Chairman Charles Hines said, “The University route is needed. It is a no-brainer with what is going on there.”

The new route will be Number 30, and a new bus for the route will cost $446,773 to be paid with sales tax revenue. An existing bus will join it on the new route. While the new route runs along the county line with Manatee, a transportation planner said Manatee wasn’t interested.

That didn’t set well with Hines. “A large portion of the users will be from Manatee, and Sarasota County will be subsidizing that route,” he said.

The county will eliminate five limited-stop express busses from North Port and one non-express evening bus from Sarasota to North Port. Bus Route 40 serving Webber St. will be cut back to 45 minutes from every 30 minutes.

The biggest change will be elimination of all bus service after 10 p.m. No word on when all these changes will go into effect.

Cultural plan put back on the shelf
Plans for a 42-acre “cultural district” on Sarasota’s waterfront were shelved in 2007 when the real estate economy floundered. This spring a group of cultural and business leaders began endorsing the plan to create a mixed-use complex in what is now the parking lot for the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

But when the rescued plan hit city hall, backers were told to put it back on the shelf for at least four months. Two major pieces of property adjacent to the site – the Quay property immediately south and the so-called Proscenium property across U.S. 41 – are both in flux.

The two large parcels could be players in laying out a cultural district, so City Commissioners ordered staff to take no action on the plan for four months and wait for developments.

A third city-owned property is also in limbo. The G-WIZ science museum on the bayfront south of the Van Wezel has been abandoned, and was about to be the subject of an “invitation to negotiate” request. City commissioners lumped that into the cultural district footprint, and put it under the same four-month ban.

Grappling with growth
County commissioners are in the midst of considering changes to their “2050 Plan” created about a decade ago as a strategic vision of how the county will look in the future. A key concept was creation of “villages” east of the interstate, and restrictions on commercial activity.

 Although developers were integral to the development of 2050, the subsequent collapse of the housing market caused them to say the plan was not friendly to their interests. Since then they have lobbied hard to change it. Meanwhile residents are fighting against what they see as sprawl. “Unrestrained growth is the ideology of a cancer cell,” says Wade Matthews, conservation chairman of the Sarasota Audubon Society.

County commissioner Christine Robinson says the 2050 comprehensive plan is a “living, breathing document” and must adapt to changing times. Commission Chairman Charles Hines countered that by saying he’d hate to see the east-west roads in the county resemble the endless strip malls of U.S. 41.

 In March the commission approved 17 changes to the 2050, including allowing storm water ponds to be counted as “green space” for zoning calculations. Any and all changes must go through a public hearing process and state review.

Sound turned down
The county has a new noise ordinance, cutting maximum sound levels by five decibels, or about 25 percent. And it uses zoning categories to determine how loud noise can be, and for how long.

The revised ordinance follows a months-long battle between Bob’s Boathouse, a bar on South Tamiami Trail, and its neighbors across Phillippi Creek. They complained of nighttime noise day after day from bands at the bar.

The new ordinance falls in line with the restrictions of other southwest Florida counties, topping out at 60 dB. The sheriff’s office is responsible for enforcement. One bar owner at the public hearing before adoption said the ordinance is not the perfect solution. “The outlaws aren’t going to pay attention to what they’re supposed to do,” he said. “It’s naive to think so.”

Eide museum approved
Sarasota is home to many unique characters, but few as bold and learned as Elling Eide. He was a world-renowned scholar of Chinese literature with a passion for local politics. He lived on a 100-acre swatch of bayfront property west of the Sarasota Square Mall, and once ran for the county commission as an environmentalist with a bumper sticker “Clams for Eide.”

He battled with county commissioners in the 1980s to rezone part of his land across from the mall to commercial. He wanted to use the proceeds from either renting or sale of the land to create a charitable foundation to create a library for his collection of 100,000 volumes of Chinese literature.

His rezone battle failed, as did his court challenge of the county’s denial. Eide died two years ago, but in March his dream was fulfilled when the county rezoned 58 bayfront acres to create a site for scholars visiting a 14,000-square-foot library already under construction.

The Elling O. EIde Charitable Foundation will create a compound of seven residential units, an observation tower and a cafe. EIde achieved his dream even after his death.

Ballet commissioned
Sarasota is a community of creation. Symphonies are written here, and books and plays, popular music and histories and more. Some of it is world-class. The Sarasota Ballet is commissioning a new work based on the children’s book, “The Secret Garden.”

They hope it will be a children- and family-friendly ballet with a narrator. It will be designed as a tool for arts education. The work ties in nicely with Sarasota’s participation in the Kennedy Center’s “Any Given Child Initiative” for arts education of children. Sarasota is one of 14 cities in the United States participating.

The ballet hopes to debut the work in August, before the start of theater season in town, so children can be bussed to see the performance in the Asolo. Once the season begins, bussing becomes impossible. “The Secret Garden” will also be the opening performance of the regular 2014-2015 ballet season.

The book is a classic of children’s’ literature in English, first printed in 1911. It is a complex story of despair and triumph over adversity. It is set at a mansion in a deserted Yorkshire moor where two children learn common sense is superior to conventional wisdom, promoting what we would now call “positive thinking.” The book is now in the public domain.

A stage musical version of the book opened on Broadway in 1991 and was nominated for seven Tony awards. Last year an opera based on the book premiered in San Francisco’s

Zellerbach Hall.