Formed in 2016 and following in the footsteps of Sarasota Bayfront 20:20, the public-private partnership that is the nonprofit Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization has been tasked with delivering a Bayfront Master Plan deemed worthy of all the potential—artistic, cultural, economic and ecological—that those near 50 acres have to offer. In October of 2017, the planning firm Sasaki was selected to lead the process. The following month, Bill Waddill joined the SBPO as managing director, and the organization hit its $2.1 million goal to create the master plan. By mid-April 2018, Sasaki and SBPO were presenting three separate plans—Bridge The Divide, Shift the Horizon and The Village and The Island—and collecting community feedback from more than 2,300 respondents. Now they’re back.

With four weeks to digest the results, Waddill and two Sasaki designers, Gina Ford and Susannah Ross, held a community forum in the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium yesterday evening to reveal findings from April’s feedback, present fresh design elements and gather more input from the locals as they hit the home stretch to complete the master plan by summer’s end. “We’re facilitating this community conversation and reacting to what we hear,” says Waddill. “It’s important that we hear your voices, and that we continue to hear your voices.” Before the event even began, the three already met with near 600 people in the last two days, including meetings with the minds at the Van Wezel, Sarasota Orchestra and City Hall.


When Waddill and Sasaki stood in front of the community this past April, they offered three ambitious choices. Bridge the Divide sported iconic architecture in a performance arts hall that spanned the 10th Street canal to serve double duty as a bridge—although this also bred concerns for feasibility—and cleverly hid ample parking underneath central green space for maximum accessibility. The waterfront path garnered an impressive 90% approval from survey respondents. Shift the Horizon reimagined the shoreline with piers and manmade land masses jutting into the ocean, and redefined pedestrian access with a massive land bridge lapping over a considerable portion of Tamiami Trail to connect the Bayfront area to the downtown area. Both were met with feasibility concerns as well, but the giant outdoor amphitheater met with 69% approval and the waterfront walkway a whopping 89%. The final choice, The Village and The Island called for the creation of multiple islands and a new waterway cutting the available land in twain, with a series of islands dotting the area.

On a five-point scale, The Village and The Island scored lowest in the community with an overall score of 3.2, next to Bridge’s 3.5 and Shift’s 3.4, but the ever-popular waterfront path did receive 86% approval. Given this feedback, the design team at Sasaki took a frenzied week to hone and adjust the plan to the community feedback, returning to Sarasota with two plans in hand ready for judgment.


With near 200 folks at the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium and unknown more watching live via Facebook, Ford presented the current plans as “works in progress,” and decidedly open to community input. The designers used the Bridge the Divide plan as their foundation, she says, citing many advantages, including slight community preference, centrally located but unobtrusive parking, simplified phasing for inevitable construction and a great opportunity for iconic architecture to enhance the Bayfront. Also, in response to a very vocal minority (roughly 10% of respondents) concerned with the future of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, this plan also leaves options for taking that into account.

The refined plans have taken more solid shape in the south, says Ford, where changes to the design reflected concerns about pedestrian access from the Boulevard of the Arts area, activating the space with shaded recreation and capturing and preserving Bay views from the Bayfront and surrounding areas. The current plans incorporate the previously planned three pedestrian bridges, but revamp the southernmost one to arc over the coming roundabout at Boulevard of the Arts and Tamiami Trail, before looping out above the water, becoming its own destination. The rest of that corridor will then be filled in with options like casual dining, shaded swings, athletic courts and picnic spaces.

These plans also leave options open for the Van Wezel, though it will likely be repurposed in some way, such as becoming an open-air pavilion that retains and celebrates its classic shape, but becomes a more dynamic and flood-resistant amenity. Additionally, both plans leave ample green space in the west and southwest areas for “adventure playspaces”—highly engineered open-air parks that emphasize connectivity with nature and make the jungle gym playset look like, well, child’s play. These are “magnets for families,” says Ford, and the scale available on the Bayfront could make this iconic.

One area where the community and the designers disagree lies in the possibility of a waterfront drive. Respondents expressed concern over the presence of streets and resulting traffic in a pedestrian-focused Bayfront area, but Ford and the rest are “holding steady” on that point. Access remains king, she says, and a leisurely driving route—nothing high-speed—can help avoid inactivated areas and the “undesirable activities” they often contain.


But that’s where the plans—known as The Bridge and Canal District—begin to diverge, and Sasaki and SBPO want more input from the locals. Key differences reside in three interconnected questions: placement of the boat ramp currently off the 10th Street canal, placement of an outdoor amphitheater and whether or not the second planned performance arts hall should reside just south of the aforementioned canal or become that iconic piece of architecture spanning the waterway. Everything has its pros and cons to be weighed, says Ford.

The Bridge calls for that performance arts hall spanning the canal, which keeps the boat ramp where it is, in turn pushing dining to the south side of the canal. The amphitheater takes the southwest corner of the Bayfront, with the Van Wezel being repurposed into the design, and the adventure playspace occupying much of the space above. Canal District moves that performance arts hall south of the waterway, firmly on solid ground, and migrates the boat ramp north, freeing the canal from utilitarian use and creating a wraparound dining district. For iconic architecture, the plan imagines a great pedestrian bridge beginning at an elevated position in the north and ramping down over the canal to end at a sea-level pier jutting out over the water, all flanking a larger outdoor amphitheater oriented towards the Bay and the sunset. In this plan, the Van Wezel also stands to be repurposed, and the adventure playspace moves a bit to the south.

Before moving forward with either, SBPO and Sasaki are asking for another round of community input by launching another survey. Open through 11:59pm, Wednesday, May 30, those interested can go online, peruse the plans and make their voices heard as planning continues.