Mark Kauffman has a fear of downtown Sarasota becoming a food court.
That’s why the Downtown Improvement District board member stood firm when the DID reconsidered its recommendation that the city restrict the 14,000 square feet of retail space at the planned State Street garage so that restaurants occupy no more than 40% of the building.
As the DID upheld that recommendation, Kauffman expressed his concern that the growing number of restaurants downtown are not effective generators of foot traffic. Small boutiques and cafés were essential to creating an interesting, active city center, he said. And taking the focus off attracting those types of shops would turn downtown into little more than an eating-and-nightlife district, he said.
It’s a recommendation that’s gotten an icy reception from people involved in the planning process of the garage.
“I broached the suggested proposal to the commission, to the interested parties and to other recognized retail developers well-known in this community, as to what they would think of this additional restriction, and all of them said it was a deal-killer,” said Ian Black, a real-estate broker the city retained to sell the garage’s retail space.
Norman Gollub, downtown economic development coordinator, says the abundance of available downtown land means blocking restaurants from particular locations is premature.
“If we start restricting usage, whether it be for retail or restaurants or residential, we're going to be sending business elsewhere,” Gollub said.
Ultimately, Gollub said it’s not in the city’s best interest to focus on what specifically would work best at any individual location.
Kauffman said people involved in the planning process were acting out of self-interest. He said downtown merchants agree that variety would be a boon to their businesses.
Tony Souza, president of the Downtown Sarasota Alliance, said he didn’t want to see a restaurant occupy the garage’s entire first floor, but also said he didn’t think there was a basis for restricting usage in the retail space.
Souza said there are 93 restaurants within the downtown community redevelopment area, a sign that developers are beginning to see the area as a restaurant niche. Still, he said, there’s a benefit to the activity that a restaurant would create, particularly on State Street, which Souza said lacks the signage and foot traffic to make it a lively retail stretch at this point.
“We'd love to see a drugstore there, something that is a service to downtown that's desperately needed,” Souza said. “But, just automatically saying, ‘A restaurant doesn't belong there,’ I'm sure that's just the DID's opinion. It's certainly not based on any professional studies that have been done.”
Ron Soto, president of the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association and owner of Soto’s Optical, at 1383 Main St., backed the DID’s recommendation to limit restaurant usage at the garage. He said restaurants are often only open for dinner, which negatively affects businesses that are open during the day.
The City Commission is scheduled to consider the scope of the State Street garage at an Aug. 29 meeting.