There’s nothing like a waterfront view, something every visitor, business owner and resident in Downtown Sarasota knows quite well. Sarasota Bay provides a picturesque view to diners at Marina Jack and families who take their children to play at Island Park. It turns a run across the Ringling Causeway Bridge from a slog in the unforgiving sun into a serene and majestic trek. Indeed, every planning effort in the last 80 years downtown has sought to make the most of this aquatic asset. Yet some of the most valuable waterfront property in all of Southwest Florida has remained under-used for decades, serving merely as a parking lot and a low-grade dock. And while the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall at least makes good use of the views during its evening events, the neighboring G.Wiz science center has closed down for good, only adding to the sense of lost potential in an area many believe could be turned into one of the greatest treasures for the community.

LEFT TO RIGHT: WATERFRONTS IN SINGAPORE, SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA AND CHATTANOOGA, TN.

 

The Bayfront was touted in 2007 as an area ready for a cultural paradise, back when the city had hundreds of thousands of dollars lying around to hire consultants to craft a master plan for such a vision. That particular effort was stifled, as so many bold efforts were around that time, by the crippling effects of The Great Recession. But that doesn’t entirely explain away the gulf of asphalt between such beloved community treasures as the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium and the natural attraction that is the Bay. Somehow, a mix of property disputes, economic factors, political pressures and competing dreams always gets in the way of bringing the Bayfront to life.

But that doesn’t stop Sarasotans from giving it another try. With the recession in the rearview and culture once again in the spotlight, leaders in Sarasota are charging ahead with a new visioning effort for the Bay. Renderings of performance halls, waterside parks and maybe the relocation of the Mote Aquarium once again spark communal conversation as a new planning effort charges ahead. And modern plans already offer the chance to dazzle and opportunity to dream of a completed Bayfront. But the question still remains; can the community pull together around a single vision and this time bring a plan to fruition?

 

STALLED VISIONS

It was more than a decade ago when Sarasota took steps to bringing a cultural district to life around the 40-plus acres of publicly owned land between the Tamiami Trail and the shore of Sarasota Bay located around the Van Wezel. Just a few short years after legendary urban planner Andres Duany, the mastermind behind the Downtown Sarasota 2020 Master Plan, demanded making better use of the Bayfront and giving visitors reason to head to cultural assets there, civic leaders in 2003 hired Cooper, Robertson and Partners to set upon creating a separate plan that addressed just that chunk of Sarasota between Boulevard of the Arts and Payne Terminal. The consultants quickly found that the Bayfront had been frustrated by the city as long as there had been a downtown.

“Sarasota started as a planned community. The John Nolan plan of 1927 established a street and block pattern with streets and open spaces leading to and ending on the water,” the Cooper Robertson plan noted. “At the Cultural Park today, Nolan’s vision has been lost. Open spaces are disconnected and the waterfront is not connected to upland neighborhoods.”But the new plan, ultimately approved by Sarasota City Commissioners in 2007, set to finally correct that. The plan noted a number of existing assets that would be the building blocks of a district. The Municipal Auditorium would be the centerpiece, with the Van Wezel standing as the great titan on the shore. The plan called for 430,000 new square feet of physical space for cultural venues (an amount equivalent to three more Van Wezels) and allow for dining, shops and cultural headquarters to move into new space.

The biggest chunk of waterfront was reserved for a massive plaza, a landscaped park with an art-walk for visitors to enjoy both the Bayfront views and any sort of temporary or permanent displays put up for public enjoyment.

But of course the costs–the consultants themselves a solid $400,000–were not where the expanse of bringing the plan to life would end. The document called for a 2,600-square-foot performing arts venue to be constructed, for headquarters for cultural organizations to be constructed and for an enormous amount of public infrastructure in terms of road realignments, sidewalk installation and park maintenance. The dreams were lofty even in the midst of the housing boom when visioning exercises were taking place. But the recession hit this region hard and tackled those institutions expected to pay for the Cultural District with particular viciousness. Government revenues dropped off, housing values nosedived. Fundraising efforts for cultural organizations took a hit as donors feared for their own retirement portfolios and foundations known for hefty grants turned attention toward preserving endowments. And even if seed funding for endeavors could be pieced together, banks were unlikely to finance putting any cranes in the air. The plan, while beloved by residents, businesses and nonprofit leaders alike, found a home on the shelf, gathering dust for the next seven years.

REVIVED INTEREST

It took the passing of two presidential elections and months of increases in home values, but time eventually heals all wounds, even the economic ones that make investors and banks fearful of bold planning. And in late 2013, the dream of a Cultural District on the Sarasota Bayfront once again found believers in the region.

Leaders with Visit Sarasota County, the tourism bureau for the greater Sarasota area, began rallying support among business leaders a year ago to take a fresh look at the possibility of a cultural district, something that would attract more outside visitors and encourage tourists to spend more money when they are here. In February, the group pulled together a proposal to bring to Sarasota City Commissioners, and though the city was reluctant to invest in a new visioning process themselves, commissioners did give a stamp of approval to any private interests that wanted to gather input on plans for the Bayfront. “At this point we need to come together as a community around this asset,” said Virgina Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County.

Everyone acknowledged that all of the items envisioned the prior decade in the Cooper Robertson plan might not be realistic today. More public-private partnerships were a must. The large performing arts venues may not be as realistic in terms of financing or modern demands. City Commissioner Susan Chapman, while defensive of the expensive plan already on the shelf, suggested that in a day of streaming video and online concert events, massive venues may not be cost-effective.

The since-formed Bayfront 20:20 group, led primarily by tourism leaders within the Visit Sarasota County network, has been working since on moving a plan forward for the area. Now the drive to bring the Bayfront to life has once again picked up in terms of enthusiasm, but the final results of what gets built there remain an open question. The 20:20 plan has moved forward with a City Hall-sanctioned visioning effort to master plan the area. Michael Klauber, chairman of Visit Sarasota County, has been a central force behind the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 plan. "The commission sees the community gathering around this," he says. "It's a grassroots effort to tune into what the community is looking for."

Since the city owns more than 40 acres of the Bayfront, their involvement is critical, Klauber said. In Klauber's eyes, the next step should be a community workshop on how major organizations should use the property, and such institutions as Mote Marine Aquarium and the Van Wezel Foundation are engaged in the effort as well.

But the city also worries about cutting a blank check when government revenues still haven’t approached pre-recession levels. City Commissioner Shannon Snyder, who routinely questions if the city can afford all the outside spending it engages in right now, said monetary support from the city on any visioning exercise has to remain at a minimum. Sarasota City Commissioners have approved allowing staff to provide support for any public visioning effort—a must considering the city is the primary landowner on the Bayfront. The effort was bolstered by the fact that City Manager Tom Barwin, the city’s top executive, would be the liaison from City Hall for the group.

“This is a complex but unique opportunity with a lot of associated costs,” says Barwin. “This is a lot to get our arms around.”But the 20:20 plan, in a sign both of the renewed interest in the Bayfront and a symptom of the community’s constant attraction toward conflict, is not the only party moving forward with a plan to remake the district.

WHY WAIT?

In July, the same week that Sarasota City Commissioners directed Barwin to become involved in the 20:20 effort, a group calling itself Bayfront Now hosted an event at The Francis to push a separate plan to "create, and fund, a world class bayfront promenade, amphitheatre, aquarium, and education and meeting center—along with the parking to support new arts and entertainment venues." Chris Cogan, of Seven Holdings, expressed frustration at a recent City Commission meeting that a version of the plan had been made public by being anonymously given to city commissioners, but regardless of how the plan became public, its supporters say it needs serious consideration.

Design professionals involved feel frustrated that a lengthy visioning process could leave the city in the same place it was after the Cooper Robertson plan was approved, with a grand vision but no reasonable timetable for bringing it to life. Just the name 20:20, while an allusion to perfect eyesight, irritates Bayfront Now supporters for implying nothing really would happen on the Bayfront until the year 2020. Meanwhile, the building blocks for a Bayfront are known now. Plans provided to SRQ by the group include a privately owned hotel, a centralized parking garage and waterfront locale for a relocated Mote Aquarium beside a public park. Most controversial, the plan includes a meeting center attached to the hotel and the aquarium.

"The proven way to make meeting/education/conference centers work is to have the connected hotel operator responsible for the operation," says Chris Gallagher, a partner at Hoyt Architects and part of the Bayfront Now effort. "When coupled with an operator such as Marriott Hotels, they have significant worldwide marketing and group business experience." A conference center, though, has been a challenging proposal to put before elected officials in recent years because most such centers in the United States have to be subsidized by public dollars. An effort to put a conference center on Palm Avenue atop the city parking garage fizzled in 2008 amid concerns that the city would end up absorbing the financial burdens.

The inclusion of a conference center in Bayfront Now’s original plans prompted City Commissioners in July to direct any groups who want a plan considered by the city to leave a conference center out. The vote was divided—City Commissioners Suzanne Atwell and Paul Caragiulo said all options should be on the table during the visioning process. "I don't want to draw a circle that small,” Caragiulo says. “I want to have a conversation about what the community wants to see. That's the whole purpose."

But groups responded quickly. The Bayfront Now group quickly retitled its center as an education center for Mote to use and said it would be entirely controlled by the attached hotel, not the city. Klauber meanwhile says any visioning can take city direction into complete account, including leaving a conference center out of any plans and providing public open space on the Bayfront.

 

WHAT NEXT?

It remains unclear right now whether the Bayfront Now group is the only one with eyes on the coast, but the plan is the only one to be made public. “It is hoped that people with ideas and dreams will be very active in the community engagement process,” says Norm Gollub, Downtown Sarasota economic development coordinator. “I have not been made aware of any proposals other than the one Bayfront Now recently presented.”But politics inevitably play a role. City Commissioners have asked that no plan come back for consideration for the city until at least December, after two new city commissioners are appointed to replace outgoing Commissioners Snyder and Caragiulo.

Klauber is confident that the visioning process with 20:20 will continue and is excited to have the city involved, even if they are giving hard guidance on the effort. "The direction we got was very positive and it keeps us going in the same direction we are already going,” he says. Although Klauber says he would eventually like to see a conference center on the Bayfront, and came back from a Chamber of Commerce-led intercity visit to Nashville this year amazed at how valuable the conference center there was to defining the city’s cultural identity, he said there is no rush to getting that opened or figured out on a financial level right now.

Everybody agrees outside factors will have to play a role in any vision that no one can now predict. The Quay property, Bayfront property where a commercial office and retail mall was torn down a decade ago in favor of a now defunct plan, has been in ownership flux for years, and until the property is sold to a new owner, it remains unclear what type of development will ever appear there. There remains anxiety that competing visions exist, and Chapman points out the 20:20 and Bayfront Now plans are in addition to the $400,000 Cooper Robertson plan.

"It's fascinating now that we could end up with three different Bayfront plans," she says. Atwell has encouraged the Bayfront Now group to work with 20:20 to incorporate their ideas with a broader community vision rather than trying to circumvent the process. “We need people working together, not against each other,” she says.

Of note, every plan for the Bayfront released thus far includes a relocation of the Mote Aquarium, a curious fact considering that while Mote officials have started exploring relocating the aquarium downtown, Mote spokesperson Nadine Smith says no specific plans have ever been discussed and the plans circulated now have never been formally endorsed by leaders at the aquatic research institution. Mote officials definitely do want to move the aquarium downtown, and have said so in visioning documents dating back to 2010. And Dan Bebak, Mote's vice president of Education, Aquarium and Public Outreach, said the Bayfront seems a choice place, in a general sense. No particular plot of land has been identified, and he said seeing plans circulate is a little like seeing plans for your new home drawn up before you ever telling someone what you’d like to see. As for what Mote does want, it needs the aquarium moved so researchers can expand into the existing City Island location, and wants a place with good foot traffic and frontage to draw in tourists and residents alike. “This is not something we are going to do in secret,” he stressed. “We want community input.” Mote has endorsed the 20:20 process, Bebak said, but that is it.

But for all the friction, there seems universal desire to see something at the Bayfront besides the Van Wezel parking lot. “We’re at an important crossroads,” Klauber says. “We need to be careful about our decisions. We are doing things that will affect the lives of our children and our grandchildren.” 

 

THE WORDS

Bayfront Technically any area overlooking Sarasota Bay, city officials typically use the term to refer to the Bayfront as the span of coast, some developed and some not, to the west of Downtown Sarasota.

Connectivity Creation of a more seamless connection between two geographic areas, such as between Downtown Sarasota andthe Sarasota Bayfront.

Cultural Park District 42 acres of city-owned area of property outlined in a 2003 master plan drafted by Cooper, Robertson and Partners for the City of Sarasota, as opposed to the broader areas including pubic property being looked at by the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 group and private developers.

Downtown CRA The Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area, set up in 1986, raised redevelopment revenue through special tax increment financing within a defined part of the city. The Downtown CRA sunsets in 2016.

Master Plan A formal plan for a region, usually commissioned through consultants by the city and drafted following a community visioning process, which lays out the way to ensure the greatest synergies from growth. Examples include Sarasota 2020 Downtown Master Plan and the Sarasota Cultural Park Master Plan.

Water Taxi Small ferries that can transport people across bodies of water. Being considered for Sarasota Bay by the city’s Urban Design Studio, Mote officials say a taxi could connect a downtown aquarium with visitors to St. Armands Circle.