The first citizens to officially ask the new City Commission to help with what they saw as a serious problem saw a quick resolution.
Three people asked commissioners Monday to remove the three remaining benches in Selby Five Points Park.
“(The homeless) have set up a home office there,” said downtown resident Jim Lampl. “While it’s legal to use the benches, they’re there for six-to-eight-hour shifts.”
About a month-and-a-half ago, the city removed six benches from the park, because residents had complained that the benches attracted transients and panhandlers and allowed them to mass together, which intimidates some citizens and tourists.
“We were hoping for a more favorable outcome, but it hasn’t happened,” Lampl said. “It’s not thinning out the masses of transients.”
Peter Fanning, president of the Downtown Sarasota Condo Association, consistently had been opposed to removing benches from the park, because residents also used them.
However, after seeing little change in the number of transients at the park, he changed his stance and also asked commissioners to take away the remaining benches.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll try it your way,’” Fanning said he told supporters of bench removal.
Pat Westerhouse, a member of the Downtown Improvement District and manager at Casto Properties, which owns the Whole Foods complex from Lemon Avenue to Central Avenue, agreed that something needed to be done.
“We’ve been a magnet for transient traffic,” she said. “Leasing has been very tough for us. Removing the remaining benches would be extremely helpful.”
Less than two hours after hearing those requests, Commissioner Paul Caragiulo asked to open a discussion about the issue.
His fellow commissioners came to the quick conclusion that all Five Points Park benches should be removed.
“The Plaza at Five Points has the highest property-tax value in the county,” said Vice Mayor Terry Turner. “We need to be mindful in harming the property value.”
Said Commissioner Shannon Snyder: “There’s a difference between helping people and enabling people.”
And Mayor Suzanne Atwell said the time to act is now.
“We need to do something,” she said. “We have to pay attention to that neighborhood.”
The city’s park smoking ban will begin to be enforced in about a month. The city will remove the benches and study for three months after that what effect the removal has on the transient activity in the park.
A decision will be made after that time about keeping the benches out of the park or returning them.
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected].