Sarasota city commissioners are starting to question whether the well-known movie phrase, “If you build it, they will come,” will ring true if a State Street parking garage is built in the next two years.
But downtown Sarasota developer John Simon told the Pelican Press he still wants the garage built by 2014, as promised per an agreement.
An agreement the city reached with Pineapple Square in 2010, when it acquired the 43,700-square-foot lot, requires the city to build at least a 300-space parking garage on the site within four years.
The city’s parking master plan in 2005 also identified the State Street lot as a priority designation for a garage. The site is currently home to a 139-parking space lot.
“They (commissioners) made a commitment and, quite frankly, the city already has the funds set aside to build the garage,” Simon said.
Commissioners Terry Turner and Shannon Snyder have recently pointed to a 10% average usage rate in the Palm Avenue parking garage as a reason they believe the city doesn’t need another parking garage.
“That’s not a valid argument,” said Simon, who said that cities bigger than Sarasota also have empty garages during the week and out of season.
“If you go to any regional parking area, 10% of the parking spaces are used,” Simon said. “But come Christmastime and during special events, those spaces get filled.”
Simon said the city needs to build the garage and think ahead.
“When downtown is busy and the theaters are running, those structures will fill up and so will the State Street garage,” Simon said.
Simon compares Sarasota’s parking garages to the garage at International Plaza in Tampa, which sees light usage traffic most of the week but is bustling on the weekends and during the holiday shopping season.
Commissioners, meanwhile, have postponed until next year a request for proposals from contractors interested in building the garage.
“The sooner the garage comes online, the sooner we incur operating costs,” said Turner, who also expressed concern with the retail components of the project.
Like the Palm Avenue parking garage, the first floor of the State Street garage will include a retail component.
“If we went without retail, we could get something done more cheaply,” Turner said. “I think this is a Cadillac when something a little less extensive might be necessary.”
If the garage process eventually moves forward, it will involve a series of public hearings to gauge what kind of retail the public would like to see on the site. Site plans and designs would also be created during this phase, while allowing potential tenants for the retail space to come forward with what they would like to place in the first floor of the garage.
“At the end of this phase, we hope to come up with a guaranteed maximum price for the cost of garage that the commission must agree upon before moving forward,” said senior city planner Steve Stancel.
Turner’s lack of support for the garage now does not mean he doesn’t support the future project.
“I believe in the State Street garage, but it’s a question of timing,” Turner said. “It’s just not needed right now.”
Turner suggested during a recent workshop about downtown projects that the garage be built at a price tag closer to $5 million, instead of using all $6 million that’s set aside for the project.
Not everyone is against building the parking garage now, though.
“I believe in the garage and think we need to move forward with it,” said Mayor Suzanne Atwell.
Simon, meanwhile, points to the future development of Pineapple Square as a reason to build the garage.
Although the Pineapple Square development has slowed due to a downturn in the economy, Simon says the first phase of the project is almost complete with tenants such as Brooks Brothers, Pastry Art and Eileen Fischer across the street. In June, Reasons Shoes is moving from St. Armands Circle to Main Street. Also, J.McLaughlin is bringing its ninth Florida location to downtown Sarasota in June.
“What once was vacant is now filling up,” Simon said. “We need to plan for the continued uptick in pedestrian traffic and build the garage.”