City Commissioner Shannon Snyder thinks narrowing a downtown stretch of Fruitville Road from four lanes to two lanes will make it easier for residents and tourists to cross into neighborhoods and commercial areas north of downtown.
Snyder envisions a tree-lined street with wide sidewalks that would slow traffic and also rejuvenate slated development in the Rosemary District, and Central Cocoanut and Gillespie Park neighborhoods.
“When Fruitville Road was put in, it was put in to skirt downtown,” Snyder said.
But, now, the busy road is cutting downtown off from future growth north of Fruitville Road, Snyder said. The commissioner pitched the concept of a narrowed Fruitville Road at a City Commission capital improvements plan workshop April 23.
At the workshop, commissioners agreed to direct city staff to come up with cost estimates for the project.
“The commission directed us to take a more comprehensive look at Fruitville Road from U.S. 41 to U.S. 301,” said senior city planner Steve Stancel.
Snyder wants the City Commission to consider using up to $2 million in available Community Redevelopment Area funding to start with a three-block, first-phase project to narrow Fruitville Road from U.S. 41 to Lemon Avenue.
The city has previously considered several concepts to make Fruitville Road through downtown more pedestrian friendly, such as adding a series of visible crosswalks, called pedestrian sleeves, at five intersections. But a two-lane thoroughfare is a new idea.
“You want to see Rosemary take off, you do that,” Snyder said about making the road two lanes.
Commissioner Paul Caragiulo agrees, and he thinks Snyder’s concept would “pedestrianize” Fruitville Road.
It would make Rosemary feel like part of downtown — which isn’t the case now, Caragiulo said.
Fruitville Road from U.S. 41 to U.S. 301 is classified as a local road that is under the city’s jurisdiction.
Snyder thinks a narrowed Fruitville Road, combined with an eventual development on the vacant Quay property on the bayfront, will expand downtown northward and eastward.
“Everyone thinks downtown is Fruitville Road to Mound Street, and U.S. 301 to the water,” Snyder said. “We need to have a bigger vision for downtown.”
Snyder thinks a two-lane roadway leading into a proposed roundabout at Fruitville Road and U.S. 41 would flow just as well as a four-lane roadway leading into a traffic signal on U.S. 41.
“Slowing traffic doesn’t necessarily mean bottlenecking it,” Caragiulo said.
“I gotta say, I’m excited,” said Diana Hamilton a downtown advocate and a vocal proponent of narrowing Fruitville Road.
In 2008, Hamilton suggested a plan that would have removed one eastbound lane and added wider sidewalks to Fruitville Road. She called Snyder’s pitch for a two-lane Fruitville Road a “smart idea.”
The project would unite downtown with neighborhoods and commercial areas north of Fruitville, Hamilton said.
“Skinny roads work better for people,” Hamilton said. “You can get across them. It might not work better for cars.”
But, some people are more worried about what the project would mean for motorists.
“That’s insane,” said Dan Lobeck, an attorney and president of Control Growth Now, in an interview with the Sarasota Observer when he heard about the proposed concept. “What about those of us who drive?”
Lobeck said he understands the need to connect downtown to the areas north of Fruitville Road, but he is worried that narrowing the roadway is a drastic move that will lead to congestion. He wants to see some traffic studies that show how the project would impact east-to-west and west-to-east traffic.
“I sense a lack of regard for vehicle mobility in this city,” Lobeck said.
City commissioners should consider other options, such as a pedestrian overpass across the roadway, that wouldn’t narrow the lanes, Lobeck said.
Hamilton had some advice for Lobeck, if the city moves forward with the road-narrowing: “Leave five minutes early. Slow down. You’ll get there early anyway.”
Urban planner Jeff Speck, who visited Sarasota in March, mentioned the possibility of narrowing Fruitville Road and suggested that adding parking along the street and narrowing lanes would help slow traffic just enough to make it a safer environment for people walking.
“Jeff Speck said ‘Put Fruitville Road on a diet,’” said Ernie Ritz, downtown advocate. Ritz said narrowing the road to two lanes will accomplish something the city has been trying to do for years in connecting the Rosemary District to downtown.
“I tried walking across Fruitville (at Lemon Avenue) the other day,” Ritz said. “It is a very narrow crosswalk. Cars are going by at 50 mph. And it is not the best gateway into our town.”
Snyder predicts, however, that some residents will have the same reaction as Lobeck and will oppose the proposal.
“It is going to be controversial,” Snyder said. “I’m sure there will be a lot of screaming and yelling about why we shouldn’t do this.”
Narrowing a roadway such as Fruitville Road could impact traffic concurrency requirements — and, thus, future development — but proponents of the proposal say a mobility plan adopted in 2008 allows the city to circumvent traditional transportation requirements downtown.
“We are going to a system that doesn’t require concurrency (downtown),” Snyder said.