First Street business owners spent the last year observing the city finalize streetscape projects to improve both Main Street and North Palm Avenue. They wondered when their street would get similar attention.
Now they have their answer.
A $1.6 million First Street improvement project could start as soon as fall.
Merchants say, until now, the city has overlooked the less-traversed street north of Main Street when it comes to sidewalk maintenance, rusted lampposts and aging utilities. According to Rebecca Hopkins, longtime manager at Florida Studio Theatre, it got so bad that it was unsafe for people to walk from the city’s new public parking garage on Palm Avenue to the performing-arts venues on First Street.
“There is a kind of divide once you hit this end of downtown,” Hopkins said.
But, the project to add new wider sidewalks and plant lush landscaping will put First Street on the same aesthetic level as Main Street and Palm Avenue.
In addition to the wider sidewalks and new landscaping, the project will add brick-paver crosswalks, new decorative lampposts and underground power utilities.
City officials are also exploring the possibility of building two new roundabouts on First Street, to make it a more pedestrian-friendly corridor.
The pair of roundabouts, one at First Street and Cocoanut Avenue and the other at First Street and Pineapple Avenue, would be similar in size to roundabouts that opened in June on Ringling Boulevard downtown. Those roundabouts cost $1.3 million total to construct.
“We don’t have funding for the construction of the (First Street roundabouts) now,” said City Planner Steve Stancel. “But we are looking to see if roundabouts make sense.”
Although First Street doesn’t get as much foot traffic as either Main Street or Palm Avenue, the two-block stretch slated for wider sidewalks and lush landscaping is home to FST, Bijou Café and the Sarasota Opera House. It also acts a direct route from the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota to downtown.
Businesses were happy to hear that after years without seeing any major improvements, the city is spending $1.6 million on the facelift.
“We’ve been in this location for 27 years, and I’ve been saying for 27 years to the city, ‘How about doing something to our street?’” said Bijou Café owner J.P. Knaggs.
The sidewalk improvements have been a work-in-progress for more than four years. First Street was identified as a primary pedestrian gateway in the city’s 2002 Downtown Master Plan.
At one point, the city had proposed a small-scale project that would have added potted plants along the sidewalk, said Knaggs.
“The very first time I heard about (the project), it was just going to be some plants,” Knaggs said. “We got more vocal about it.”
The project grew in scope as Knaggs met with city officials. Last summer, City Commissioner Terry Turner walked down First Street with Knaggs, and the pair noted all the areas in need of sprucing up — including chipped, uneven and pothole-filled sections of the sidewalk, Knaggs said.
Hopkins joined Knaggs in some of the meetings with city officials.
“If you walk down the sidewalk, (you can see) it is coming apart,” Hopkins said. “First, is not well lit, and there are potholes everywhere. You have to watch where you are going or you will break your leg.”
Hopkins said many of the theater’s patrons are parking in the city’s new Palm Avenue public garage, and new sidewalks and better lighting will make the walk safer.
FST recently invested $4 million to renovate the Gompertz Theatre and to build an addition, which includes two theaters and a restaurant. The sidewalk improvements will be a well-timed complement to the new building.
FST is also working with city officials so that construction impact is minimalized, while power lines are buried on the theater’s property at the same time the city buries power lines on the city’s right of way in front of the theater campus.
The underground utilities will prevent outages that sometimes darken the four theaters on FST’s campus, Hopkins said.
“It will make (First Street) a lot more attractive,” Stancel said. “It is an area that deserves it. We have the theaters and performing arts there, the parking garage right there and the hotel coming in.”
Construction work will likely take place as improvements are under way on the proposed public-private hotel on Palm and Coconut avenues, Stancel said.
Although construction of both projects could begin as early as fall, the city could end up delaying the work so it doesn’t interrupt peak tourist season.
Knaggs said he doesn’t mind if there are some interruptions during season, if it means the facelift will be completed soon.
“As long as it gets done,” Knaggs said.
The roundabouts on First Street could also provide a directional improvement. Despite the fact that there are two stop signs, drivers mistake the intersection for a four-way stop, expecting other traffic to yield.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard squealing brakes and a smash,” Hopkins said.
Painter Frank Creaturo, who has an art gallery at 1269 First St., said just recently the driver of a new Bentley, on her way to dinner with friends, crashed into another car. She seemed confused by which cars were supposed to stop at the intersection, he said.
Knaggs said he was not a fan of roundabouts before the one at the Five Points intersection was installed.
“I didn’t know what to think of the roundabout, but now that it is done, I just love it,” Knaggs said. “Traffic flows so smoothly and it slows the traffic down; it is safer for pedestrians. People have learned to use them.”