Those who live and work near Selby Five Points Park say that crime has been reduced and that transients are virtually non-existent since the city removed six benches from the park three months ago.
Sarasota Police Capt. Paul Sutton backs up the crime-drop claims.
From July 1, 2010, through Sept. 30, 2010, Sutton said the department received 16 calls related to the park. In the same time period in 2011, the department received three calls. And, the overall police district that the park sits in received 67 calls from July 1, 2010, through Sept. 30, 2010, compared to 39 calls in the same time period for 2011. There were also 19 arrests made in that district during the 2010 timeframe, compared to 12 arrests for the same period in 2011.
“However, you want to measure it, crime is down in that area,” Sutton said.
The bench-removal decision was made after residents complained that the benches attracted transients and panhandlers and allowed them to congregate, which intimidates some citizens and tourists.
But the city is planning on revisiting its decision.
City staff will approach the Sarasota City Commission in early December at the earliest and ask commissioners whether they want to place benches back in the park. The three-month trial period will have ended by that time.
But the question that really needs to be asked, according to Peter Fanning, president of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, is what the city would do differently if the benches were to be returned.
“There’s no denying that our association has voiced support of bringing the benches back in after three months,” Fanning said.
But Fanning said that, as of now, he and his association don’t support the return of the benches at this time.
“We have since taken the position of supporting the residents’ desire to refrain from putting the benches back in at this time,” Fanning said. “Safety, security and cleanliness has much improved in the area, and we feel that needs to be maintained until a permanent solution can be reached.”
Fanning suggests the city draft an ordinance that addresses homeless feedings and has agreed to work with the Rev. Thomas Pfaff, who is working with all parties to reach an amicable solution. Pfaff plans to present his plan to the commission some time early next year.
But the homeless issue isn’t the only problem, according to Fanning and others.
“We need enforcement mechanisms to actually be consistent and enforced,” said Fanning, who believes the city needs to enforce its no-camping ordinance. “We are trying to work out a situation where we can get both sides to agree on something.”
But downtown residents Frank Brenner and Phil Grande believe there’s nothing to work out.
Brenner addressed the Downtown Sarasota Alliance at its Oct. 5 meeting, only to be cut off before he could finish reading a three-page prepared statement.
The statement, entitled “An Appeal to Reason,” said a solution has already been found.
“The effect (of the benches’ removable) is visible, dramatic and undeniable,” said Brenner, who has circulated a petition of downtown Central Avenue residents, which includes 134 signatures in support of the removal of the benches. “It’s been a 100% turnaround, and I urge that the benches under no circumstances be returned to Five Points Park.”
Resident and radio host Grande agrees.
“The question everyone needs to ask is whether the downtown area is better now than it was when the benches were installed there,” Grande said. “There’s no question that if you poll the residents and business owners of the downtown area, which are directly affected, the answer would be a resounding yes.”
The Sarasota Observer contacted eight business owners near Selby Five Points Park, and all agreed with Brenner and Grande’s assessment.
Eileen Wallace, owner of Write On and More, said the transients are not prevalent in the area.
“It’s been calmer and my customers feel much safer,” Wallace said. “I am definitely looking much more forward to this season without the hassles.”
Gerrie Heibel, owner of Envie, said the situation was “99% better.”
“Both my customers and my employees were being harassed this time last year by the homeless,” Heibel said. “Customers who previously told me they were afraid of the area are now strolling the streets at night.”
The merchants on First Street, in fact, were so confident in what they perceive as a transformed area that they agreed to stay open for the first time for last week’s Downtown Sarasota Alliance First Friday evening event.
“We are so pleased with this street and the activity we have now,” Heibel said.
City Manager Bob Bartolotta, who will present the issue to the commission again for its discussion, said he wants a discussion to take place before benches are considered again.
“I can see there has been a notable difference in the Five Points Park area,” Bartolotta said.