People visiting Sarasota’s downtown will soon have the opportunity to indulge their musical side. The Sarasota City Commission approved the placement of up to six pianos outdoors in the public right of way at its meeting Monday.
Commissioners supported a 180-day pilot program in which the pianos would be placed on public sidewalks during the day. Downtown businesses would help sponsor the pianos and store them inside during the night. Local artists would decorate the Spinet pianos in keeping with the city’s image, and the public would be free to play the instruments.
The Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County backed the proposal to place the pianos on sidewalks downtown. Similar programs in London and New York City inspired the proposal, according to former Vice Mayor Ken Shelin, who helped develop the idea.
Rich Ridenour, a musician who recently moved to Sarasota, is also assisting in the effort to obtain the pianos and funding. In 2011, Ridenour spearheaded a similar program in Jacksonville. He brought the project to Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance, who informed Ridenour that several people in Sarasota were interested in a similar effort.
Ridenour said the group is now working to determine locations for the pianos, which they hope to have in place as soon as the next couple of weeks. Already, Ridenour said, businesses and individuals have reached out to help contribute to the project.
“We’ve had a lot of interest,” Ridenour said. “Since the City Commission meeting last night, there’s been about three or four emails that have gone across my screen where people want to donate pianos.”
The commission approved the program by a 3-2 vote Monday. Vice Mayor Willie Shaw expressed concerns about the nuisance the pianos might create, and Commissioner Susan Chapman said the idea wasn’t original to the city; both commissioners voted against the proposal.
Mayor Shannon Snyder and Commissioners Suzanne Atwell and Paul Caragiulo backed the program, which they said promoted interactivity and was a fun branding opportunity for downtown. Caragiulo acknowledged the potential drawbacks of the proposal, but said the commission could always rescind its approval.
“If it turns out to be the worst idea ever, we could just set them all on fire,” Caragiulo said of the pianos.
Approving the outdoor pianos was one of two steps the commission took to increase activity on downtown sidewalks. Commissioners also approved a 180-day trial period for a sidewalk café at A. Parkers Books; owner Dan Christian said the tables would be used for table games such as chess. The commission directed staff to look into expanding the city’s sidewalk café ordinance to include all businesses that serve neither food nor alcohol.
Following Main Street improvement efforts, both A. Parkers Books and the Gator Club applied for sidewalk cafés on the newly constructed bulb-out near Lemon Avenue. Neither application could be accepted under current city regulations, which require a sidewalk café to be operated by a business that serves food.
The Gator Club application was considered at Monday’s meeting. Commissioner Suzanne Atwell argued in favor of a similar trial period for the Gator Club, arguing the city should experiment with the improvements on Main.
“There’s a lot of space for playing and doing things a little bit differently,” Atwell said.
Ultimately, however, commissioners unanimously voted against expanding the ordinance to allow bars to operate sidewalk cafés. Ron Rayevich, president of the Plaza at Five Points condominium association, spoke against the Gator Club’s proposal, arguing that it would depart from the spirit of the current ordinance.
“We’re taking public property and bringing people out there to drink relatively late at night without food,” Rayevich said. “This is not a café; this is a bar.”
Gator Club owner Larry Siegel said he was disappointed with the commission’s decision. Siegel said he would look into offering food service at the bar to comply with the city’s current café regulations.
“My intention is to enhance downtown, not to disparage it and not to ruin it,” Siegel said.
Contact David Conway at [email protected]