Evolution Offers Best Path To Preserve Sarasota

Under The Hood


In one sense, you can’t blame Sarasota City Commissioners.

With neighbors up in arms, dissent for the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens master plan proposal forced a multi-night public hearing. Yet, the only thing I felt as elected officials voted 3-2 against a visionary but unpopular plan was disappointment. Once again, fear of the unknown left a cultural treasure in Sarasota with an uncertain future. Forces longing to keep Sarasota as it is today cursed it with a destiny lacking in sustainability.

The fate of the Selby plan seemed spelled out before City Commissioners reached the official time for debate. Some commissioners’ propensity to always read a gathering mob as a sign any plan lacks citizen support forecast doom.

“We are now having to pivot and react to what has happened,” Selby Gardens CEO Jennifer Rominiecki tells me. “We were severely disappointed, but at the same time, we are committed to Selby’s future, and the status quo is not an option.”

It sounds like the institution may yet fight. But for now, Selby Gardens will stand exactly as it looks today.

But the irony is those who want Sarasota’s atmosphere kept exactly as it is today increasingly threaten that very character.

I can't help thinking of the Sarasota Orchestra. The valued cultural treasure also presented a future recently that Sarasota soundly rejected. A cultural venue at Payne Park would ensure the symphony stayed in town for a generation. Many prefer the institution remain instead on the Bayfront. But it won’t. Not forever.

And while The Players likely prefer to be left out of this conversation, it’s no wonder when leaders there wanted to open a new Centre for the Performing Arts, they chose growing Lakewood Ranch over Sarasota. It’s easy these days to imagine pitchforks greeting any plan on 4.5 acres of this already perfect municipality.

Yet, it’s easy to imagine a development reviled now being exactly what Sarasotans 10 years from now simply love about the city. The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall once drew ridicule, but when Bayfront planners suggested tearing it down, citizens nearly rioted. Indeed, the entire plan for a waterfront park’s greatest barrier at one point seemed controversy over razing the G. Wiz building, which had gone unused for years.

We won’t know if Sarasotans of the future might eventually have embraced that five-story Sky Garden at Selby or become fan’s of a rooftop restaurant overlooking an expanded venue of greenhouses and activity. Just like we won’t know if future historians would fight to save a Payne Park orchestra venue the way the seek to preserve any sidewalk structure Paul Rudolph may or may not have touched.

But if what Sarasotans love about the city is its rich culture, its green spaces, its music and architecture and theater and artistry, know this inflexibility and intransigence threatens those things.

Venice worked cooperatively with the school district to open a gorgeous stage in that city. The Manatee Players barely a decade ago rallied community support there for a performing arts hall that opened in 2013. Lakewood Ranch just poached a Sarasota acting troupe. North Port, meanwhile, has practically built a new city to support a sports venue for the Atlanta Braves. Sarasota looks less receptive to culture than any of its neighbors.

But I get it. Payne Park’s a treasure too, and nobody likes a five-story parking garage.

It’s hard right now to imagine any plan for the Gardens where a substantial number of residents don’t cry foul. But demanding stillness leads to atrophy, and Sarasota’s identity seems increasingly in decay. A different outcome requires residents realize that to preserve the city’s cultural character means embracing its evolution.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.


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