Making the Rosemary a Pedestrian Paradise

County Government


This month is a significant one for our family. It marks the thirtieth anniversary of Caragiulos. Thirty years in this community at the same location. This prompted me to ask myself what has changed in the downtown community. Has it been for the better? I meet fewer people who can recall what downtown Sarasota was like in the ‘80s simply because they weren't here yet. My family first arrived in town in 1987 and my dear father was often the recipient of perplexed responses when he announced to others he leased a space on Palm Avenue to open a restaurant.

The old Mira Mar hotel had been demolished a few years prior and Palm Avenue was mostly vacant and inactive, unless you count late night prostitution and drug activity. When the restaurant opened, no one complained about parking because there were few cars downtown. This was in the year 1989 BWF (Before Whole Foods). That's the project that set our urban core in motion and paved the way for most of the development we see today. As someone who was there then and is here now, there is no question our downtown core has become a wonderful place. It's thriving. This is amazing considering in the mid-‘80s, the same area met the statutorily designated definition of “blighted.” The remedy was the creation of a Community Redevelopment Area. After 30 years and over $80 million of public investment, the result speaks for itself. The downtown core is thriving. The increased pedestrian traffic alone should be enough to prove the point.

Subsequently and appropriately, policy makers set their gaze on other areas of downtown in need of attention and the focus moved north, to the Rosemary District. This area, which extends from Fruitville Road north to Tenth Street and from Central Avenue west to Orange Avenue, is in the midst of an acute revitalization due largely to a significant increase of available dwelling units (density) within the district. This was approved with broad community support by the City Commission in 2013.

Last month urban planner, author and walk-ability guru Jeff Speck returned to Sarasota after six years. The time frame is interesting when you consider six years ago was just prior to the return to the community of Florida's state bird, the construction crane. After a walking tour, he held a well-attended public forum largely focused on transportation in the urban environment (the event can be seen here). Jeff has a highly sophisticated understanding of Downtown Sarasota since he was part of Andreas Duany's team, which created the Downtown Master Plan in the early 2000s. What's more, he was specifically tasked with the plan for the Rosemary District. The area, when viewed as a clean canvas, is an urban planner's dream because of its textbook street grid system, a necessary component for establishing connectivity. In short, Jeff likes much of what has transpired here. One thing was made clear; there is still work to do on the pedestrian environment. This includes bridging the gap that exists in our current regulations for primary and secondary streets.

Pedestrian connectivity is especially important between adjoining districts and this is where the principal challenge presents itself. That challenge is Fruitville Road, formally and quite logically known as Third Street. It should be noted this road section is completely within the jurisdiction of the city—not state or county authorities—and remains by far the biggest impediment to connectivity.

The city has a plan to narrow Fruitville, which Mr. Speck completely supports. That will enhance the pedestrian environment and connect these two downtown neighborhoods together. It can and will take the downtown experience to the next level. True, there are some naysayers (I know, what a surprise) whose concerns are principally vehicle capacity issues, basically the ability to get through downtown neighborhoods. Okay, they should watch the Speck video. He does a great job explaining capacity. Let's just say there are some myths. 

Let's recognize the city is now a bona fide urban area barely in its adolescent stage and our transportation policy should reflect that. Urban transportation policy should be preferential to those traveling to it or within it, rather than through it.

Paul Caragiulo is a former Sarasota County Commissioner and Sarasota City Commissioner.

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