Forty-two acres: More than twice the size of St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. Half the size of Battery Park in New York City. Two-and-a-half times the size of President Donald Trump’s beachside Mar-A-Lago estate in West Palm Beach and roughly six times the size of the Kennedy Compound in Cape Cod on the Nantucket Sound. The area known as the Sarasota Bayfront, though many other pieces of land in Sarasota or Longboat Key could be described with the same terminology, serves today as a central focus of debate in the cultural future of an entire community. This publicly owned property—all the land west of US 41 from Boulevard of the Arts north past 10th Street—spans a greater space on Earth than many of the most grand public and private paradises known to man. Yet, at the moment it houses a parking lot, an aging performance hall and an abandoned science center. An adjoining commercial lot that once held a waterfront mall has stood vacant for a decade. The Downtown Master Plan that called for a cultural district here is nearing the end of its lifespan while almost nothing has changed as far as how the property itself looks. But then, a dearth of progress can serve as the necessity inspiring invention; a lack of a vision pushing the mind to dream. Leaders of the Bayfront 20:20 organization for almost three years have worked tirelessly to unlock the imagination regarding what exactly the Bayfront in Sarasota could and should be. Along the way, fears of sea-level rise, a shuffle in the community’s cultural assets and the sudden arrival of commercial progress on and around the land added urgency to the reshaping of this amenity. A push-and-pull between institutions that want to call the Bayfront home and conservationists who most want to ensure this land remains an available asset enjoyed by everybody has already begun—proof that tension, too, can provide the force needed to keep a process tight. And while the evolution of Sarasota’s coastal core will surely wind a largely unpredictable flow, the foundation has been laid to ensure the future won’t be haphazard—that the results will be something to treasure.

3D model by UF CityLab student Elena Nonino

SKETCH BY MURF KLAUBER

 

3D model by UF CityLab student Elena Nonino

3D MODEL BY UF CITYLAB STUDENT DAN JOHNSON

 

Groundwork

It wasn’t always easy for Michael Klauber, chairman of Visit Sarasota County, to convince people that his intentions for the Bayfront were pure. In the early days of the Bayfront 20:20 group, people arrived at workshops certain a plan was in the works to pave paradise and put up a garish arena. Folks would express concerns fearful that the entire Bayfront would be given away—to a convention center, to a hotel developer—to whoever had the evilest of intent. That’s why it proved such a big moment in early 2015 when the group completed its draft of implementation principles, a document since adopted by the Sarasota City Commission to guide an ad hoc advisory board now officially plotting redevelopment of the Bayfront.

Among the principles is a guarantee of providing a “welcoming, attractive, publicly accessible, safe, fun and family friendly open space.” That “publicly accessible” part attempts to assuage many a fear lobbed at Bayfront 20:20 over the past few years, though plenty remain concerned. But along the way, city commissioners dismissed a proposal by a development group interested in a conference center hotel on the space. A request from Mote to have a downtown aquarium approved similarly got put off until the rest of the visioning process could be completed. Bayfront 20:20 hired HR&A Advisors to facilitate creation of a roadmap for the Bayfront’s redevelopment. And in October, City Commissioners voted to form a planning organization to oversee creation of a master plan. It seems that concerns were allayed enough to at least keep the progress moving forward. “We did our homework. We figured out a structure that would work,” Klauber says with a sense of audible relief. “This is a win-win for the community, something that keeps the commission in tune with everything that is happening, and it all was a very positive experience.”

Getting city leaders on board has been more than a symbolic achievement for the redevelopment effort. The 42 acres of land in question all belong to the City of Sarasota, even the parcels occupied by organizations like the Sarasota Orchestra. Before closing down unexpectedly, the G. Wiz science museum had a $1-per-year lease to operate in a structure now owned by the city, and the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, while assisted by a private foundation that weighs in on programming decisions, has always been operated by city staff since it was built primarily with taxpayer dollars and opened in 1970.

The Public Good

The creation of entire new venues on the Bayfront also reshapes the skyline in ways that leave long-time residents wondering what public amenities will be put at risk by any move to develop the waterside. Sarasota City Commissioner Susan Chapman—perhaps the most prominent voice in town resisting Bayfront redevelopment that results in more vertical construction—feels any plan for the Bayfront’s future must accommodate for rising tides and side effects from global warming, and that the focus of any plan should be an environmental preservation more than the creation of new attractions. She points to successful redevelopment plans utilized on Florida’s west coast beaches that allow for tides to sink underneath planned boardwalks, allowing for public access that isn’t detrimental to the land below. “A lot of waterfronts are being used for storm water mitigation and for handling heavy rain,” she says. That, along with maintaining perpetual public access to land day and night, should be the priority of city officials moving forward, according to Chapman.

From the dawn of the Bayfront 20:20 talks, Chapman expressed skepticism about plans for massive venues to replace the Van Wezel. Do audiences even want to gather at giant theaters anymore? She noted cancelled projects from Miami to Los Angeles that seem to reflect a change in the public’s habits when it comes to live entertainment. Chapman voted against a recent plan for redevelopment of the former Quay site, a commercial property adjacent to the Hyatt Regency. Any plan for arenas and performance halls, she says, would need to demonstrate a need to exist before she endorsed bulldozing and rebuilding the Bayfront to make room. 

For City Manager Tom Barwin, progress with the Bayfront redevelopment serves as one of the most important initiatives during his nearly five years in charge of the local government. “Everyone is hoping and expecting to plan and implement major improvements in that zone,” he says. It could take years to do so. After a planning document gets drafted, it must be approved by the Sarasota City Commission before going into effect. Barwin served as a liaison between City Hall and the Bayfront 20:20 organization, and now will provide regular updates on the actions of the city planning organization to a board anxious to hear every bit of discussion. Lost in talks of flood mitigation and public access, though, can be the future of a solid cultural district, one with arts organizations that thrive in a public space that the more than 55,000 people living in Sarasota and the thousands of visitors to the city each year will enjoy in a community that has always prided itself as a haven for performing arts.

The Downtown Sarasota Master Plan was developed by legendary planner Andres Duany and implemented by Sarasota City Commissioners in 2001, with Duany himself building on the successful downtown plan created by cherished planner John Nolen in 1925. Nolen followed in the footsteps of revolutionaries like Charles Ringling who helped spawn a successful downtown in what was a humid fishing village in the 19th century. The Duany plan called for the Bayfront space to become a cultural center, one that housed not just the Van Wezel but also other permanent treasures. Such a plan for the 42 city-owned acres would be approved in 2006, but with the Great Recession arriving shortly afterward, the plan over the following decade went unrealized. That vision included a pedestrian bridge between the Van Wezel and G.Wiz, the latter abandoned in disrepair and located in a flood plain that likely prevents the structure from ever being used for anything other than city government functions. Space would also be reserved for The Players Theatre, which has since relocated to Lakewood Ranch. The $29.2-million plan today sits on a shelf, lacking the community pieces to ever be executed in full. Organizations, though, have to buy in as well. While Bayfront 20:20 boasts more than 50 signatories to its principles, just a few with a presence on the bay today will largely drive any vision that gets realized.

Inspiring Dreams

Students at the University of Florida CityLab at the Center for Architecture  Sarasota (CFAS) have quickly become players in painting the new face of the region. Architect Guy Peterson employed students’ talents when planning a finish-line tower for races at Nathan Benderson Park. The entire idea of putting the towering structure on a manmade island built in the course was based entirely on the suggestion of students, who saw the opportunity to reshape the earth to suit the amenities when most focused purely on building upward from existing ground. And this year, the grad students took on the task of reimagining exactly what the Bayfront could be.

Given different plans for the future of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, from tearing it down and replacing it to leaving it in place for all other changes to revolve around, students last fall were tasked with creating their own independent concepts for a Sarasota public space. The ideas, translated into model form, were exhibited by CFAS this winter.

Gabriella Ebbesson imagined a Bayfront where the Van Wezel would be replaced by an amphitheater with a new symphony hall opening on Tamiami Trail. “It is such a valuable property with beautiful views that shouldn't be obscured,” Ebbesson says. “As Sarasota densifies, the Bayfront should be an area for everyone, not just for symphony visitors.” Christopher Fadely, meanwhile, imagined a new hall that offered architectural canopies over much of the public space, one that turned the Bayfront into a sort of extended lobby, keeping the Van Wezel intact. “We thought keeping the Van Wezel was better for the community as many would like to see it succeed,” he explains.

These plans, intended only to stimulate discussion, were unveiled to the public the same night CFAS hosted a panel of planners experienced in redeveloping major spaces, from the work done by Sweet Sparkman updating the pavilion on Siesta Key to the building of an urbanized area surrounded by environmentally sensitive watershed in Conway, AR.

Indeed, the very fact that a major redevelopment project like this was in the works has managed to grab the attention of experienced planners from around the nation. Chris Reed, founding director of Stoss Landscape Urbanism in Boston, spoke at CFAS about the prominent and formative role landscape can play in cities and showed slides of a West Palm Beach project he oversaw that incorporates floating ponds as well as a Gulf-front interstate plan with juts of green space surrounded by new neighborhoods. “You don’t always have to make a choice of development or landscape,” he stressed, showing greenery that invigorates downtown areas the way one expects from premiere office space. “You can do both at the same time.”

The CFAS event came a year and a half after an SRQ-sponsored SB2 keynote address by Thomas Balsley, the landscape architect behind such premier park plans as Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa, West Shore Park in Baltimore and Riverside Park South in New York City. Each project offered a different lesson for this community, he noted. Patience was required on the Hudson River, where a park was planned and approved in 1991 that stretched underneath an aging elevated highway. A tunnel is in the works to redirect the road under the park, and 24 years into the project, Balsley still waits to see that plan completed. As for Curtis Hixon Park, Balsley felt some achievements there could be especially useful as the Bayfront 20:20 group and a diverse group of city leaders plot the future of a cultural district fronting Sarasota Bay. The Tampa park's reinvigoration required a relocation of a cultural institution (the Tampa Museum of Art) to better improve public access to the park, and lessons there may well apply as a master plan comes together in Sarasota. "People were willing,” Balsley told the crowd, “to let go of their prejudices for the sake of their grandchildren and the future.”

But Sarasota’s future must incorporate efforts from its past as well, many experts say. Andrew Georgiadis, who has worked on form-based codes in Bradenton and Sarasota and today serves as president of Georgiadis Urban Design, says construction can enhance greenery, especially in creating perimeters around recreational areas. “Park-goers crave an edge, with doors and windows that look over the park space,” he says. When areas simply get walled in, it creates a bleaker surrounding. As he showed images of skyscrapers adjoining park space in Miami at a CFAS event, he briefly drew gasps from Sarasotans interested in preserving human scale anywhere near downtown. But he said plans can be scaled for a community appropriately. Responsible architects and planners will be a must in any plan, he told guests.

It has become clear through a variety of events, whether sponsored by CFAS, SRQ Media or the Bayfront 20:20 group itself, that nothing will likely happen without community buy-in getting demonstrated first. How can that be accomplished? Stephen Luoni, director of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center, says he oversaw a long-term plan for the growing community of Conway, and suggested work started to be achieved there through a careful development of a master plan that involved both cultural leaders and experts on environmental needs. Planners, Luoni says, must incorporate the same skills they employ while creating working urban networks to keep up natural environments. “Watersheds are ecosystems,” he says, “and cities are ecosystems.” A good framework for either can produce good results for a community.

More locally, Sweet Sparkman Architects Principal Todd Sweet has wondered aloud if the community would benefit more from a series of “micro-projects” on the bay. On Siesta Key, where Sweet Sparkman oversaw an award-winning reimagining of the landmark pavilion greeting many visitors to the beach, the goal was always to renovate a cherished structure originally designed by a Sarasota School of Architecture visionary Tim Seibert. A similar sense of local history and community needs will need to be incorporated in the sensitive plotting for a waterfront near Downtown Sarasota. “We’re going to want to preserve views in new development on the Bayfront,” Sweet notes. Structures will also need to deal with threats like storm surge and sea level rise, and sustainable solutions, like a butterfly roof on the pavilion that turns rainwater into toilet water, will need to be employed. Of course, utilizing such protections on the scale of the Bayfront could be another challenge altogether.

Building on Visions of Yore

All the work happening today just forms the most recent chapter in Sarasota’s long and sometimes tumultuous desire to create a future as close to perfect as possible. Many have taken stabs at Bayfront plans through the years, some of which saw a level of implementation and many of which did not. Murf Klauber, the developer considered one of the luminaries who made Longboat Key the place it is today by turning The Colony from a bohemian retreat into a world-class tennis resort and family hospitality destination in the 1970s, gets a spark in his voice when he thumbs through his own aged ideas about Sarasota’s Bayfront. He brought forward plans in the 1980s to recast the area as a center for water connectivity between Downtown Sarasota, St. Armands Circle and Longboat Key. “The community wasn’t ready,” he says today. It’s somewhat fitting that another Klauber, his son Michael, now acts as such a driving force for the process currently underway. The older Klauber marvels at what his son already has achieved in getting a conversation started. The two men’s approaches show a tremendous juxtaposition in terms of how a future can be forged. “The difference is he really has been getting community buy-in,” the elder Klauber acknowledges.

A Bayfront renovation in the end involves more than painting existing structures and planting a few new trees. “It’s a significant project, but it’s one that needs to be done,” Michael Klauber says. That’s why it has been worth the public workshops, the intimidating hearings, the skepticism and the risky expressions of ambition. For too long, dreams have been shelved and little to nothing has resulted in terms of change on the Bayfront. It’s time now, the younger Klauber says, for citizens to engage themselves in planning a future that can and will be realized. Do that, he believes, and generations of Sarasotans will be grateful for those acting today to maintain the importance of this city on the bay.

UF CityLab Student Visioning

CityLab-Sarasota, School of Architecture

Daniel James Johnson: The proposed development of the Bayfront project as a center for the arts will allow a variety of visitors to experience the culture of Sarasota. The suggested reworking of the site encourages foot and car traffic from the neighboring communities as well as those accessing the site by boat. It includes the existing Van Wezel with an addition of a theater, small commercial walk and symphony hall. The proposed symphony hall will be the “jewel” of this site as it will become the canvas for local artists. The enveloping  “case” will provide dramatic glimpses and framed views as it reveals the jewel to symphony and art enthusiasts, and become an act of discovery for individuals unrehearsed in the arts. Inspired by sheet music, the design of the case draws on the concept of folding one single plane into a dynamic illuminated vessel.

Olivia Ellsworth: My partner Francia and I decided to propose a master plan without the Van Wezel. Since we were proposing for the Van Wezel to be re-constructed, we wanted to memorialize it within our plan. The Van Wezel is meant to be shaped like a shell. We took this shell concept and abstracted it to organize the site. From our drawings, you can see how the chambers of the shell started making pathways and green spaces. We wanted the language of the master plan to be consistent throughout the whole site. This not only allows visitors to know when they have arrived to the Bayfront, but also provides an iconic branding strategy for the site. I wanted the symphony hall to respond to music—this idea led me to the motions a conductor uses. After studying and analyzing the motions, the shapes begin to inform the skin of the building.The pathway from the master plan acts as a walkway underneath the building, allowing pedestrians to look up in the space and be a part of the excitement even if they are not attending a show. On one half of the program, there are classrooms and administrative offices. The other half consists of the actual symphony hall and restaurant.

Christopher Fadely: The concept of the building connects the symphony to the context that it resides in. The long cantilever roof talks about a datum that extends out from the building into the landscape, accepting and creating a civic lobby underneath. The horizontality of the roof plane suggests the connection to the flat landscape of Sarasota and the Bayfront. I placed the building near the water on the created canal. This gave the opportunity to offer other programs beyond a symphony so that the building can operate daily. Some of the programs include community learning centers, computer labs, sailing school, boat license certification areas, etc. We thought keeping the Van Wezel was better for the community as many would like to see it succeed.

Gabriella Ebbesson: I saw the garage and symphony hall as one entire concept, where the garage does not have to be an eyesore but rather included in a beautiful design. For me it was important to continue the concept of the park and take nature as far as possible. That is where the sloping garage comes from—to continue the movement of the landscape and invite cars and people to be a part of the green roofs. The entry hall of the symphony structure serves as a light transition from the park to an interior space, where the lines between inside and outside are blurred, before entering the completely closed-off symphony hall. The tree-like structure of the garage meets the circular shapes (representing leaves) of the symphony hall walls. The garage and the hall are also connected through a courtyard, where the trees from the park continue to spread through towards the east and are represented as steel columns on the inside. Keeping cars and large buildings out towards the main streets would create a buffer to protect a more calming space toward the water.

Implementation Principles

Aspiration: Sarasota’s Bayfront will be an iconic, public destination that welcomes the diversity of Sarasota, enhances our status as a cultural capital and serves as a venue for multi-generational, inter-neighborhood, broad-based enjoyment of our bayfront.

Cultural Heritage: The Bayfront’s identity as a cultural, arts and educational destination will be strengthened, anchored by some of the region’s most important institutions and rooted in Sarasota’s diverse cultural legacy.

Bayfront/Natural Assets: Welcoming, attractive, publicly accessible, safe, fun and family friendly open space celebrating the Bayfront’s natural heritage will be developed for future generations. Views of the bay will be enhanced.

Activation: Outdoor cultural programming, aquatic and onshore recreational programming, educational programming, urban amenities, plentiful shade, adequate lighting and alternatives to surface parking will support the active and passive usage of the Bayfront throughout the day and evening and in all seasons.

Connectivity: Greatly improved connectivity among the Bayfront, adjacent neighborhoods and the wider region is necessary to achieve our aspirations. Improved connectivity will be accomplished via safe, convenient pedestrian, bicycle and water transit connections to the north, south, east and across the bay. Convenient automobile access to the site should be accommodated with the smallest practicable footprint.

Sustainability: Ecological, economic and financial sustainability are fundamental to the long-term success of Sarasota’s Bayfront and critical to the realization of our aspirations. Achieving a sustainable future for the Bayfront will require continuous cooperation among the public, private and nonprofit sectors. 

Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization members:

Tom Barwin: Sarasota City Manager. Allen “Al” Carlson: Retired Sun Hydraulics President and CEO, University of Florida Innovation Station Sarasota County Regional Director. Jennifer Compton: Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick Attorney.
E. Keith DuBose: Matthews Eastmoore Attorney. Michael Klauber: Michael’s on East President, Chairman of Visit Sarasota County.
A.G. Lafley: Former Procter & Gamble CEO.
Rob J. Lane: Kerkering Barberio Managing Shareholder.
Cathy Layton: Retired Sarasota Commercial Real Estate Broker.
Cynthia P. McCague: Pier 1 Imports Director, Former Coca-Cola Senior Executive.