For more than four months, the city of Sarasota has been in the final stages of selecting a design for the State Street garage.
Through it all, there have been mentions of an agreement with the developers of Pineapple Square that requires the garage to be completed by February 2015. But the city has displayed a relaxed attitude toward moving the process forward.
“At some point, a decision has to be made; I didn’t think that had to be today,” City Attorney Robert Fournier said after a Sept. 16 meeting, at which the Sarasota City Commission requested a new series of designs.
Pineapple Square developer John Simon takes exception to the city’s stance. He thinks meeting the deadline is crucial, not only from a legal standpoint, but for maintaining a vibrant shopping district downtown.
“They’re arguing about how to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic,” Simon said. “They don’t fully understand the import of the February drop-dead date.”
Simon said, despite any thoughts to the contrary from officials, Pineapple Square plans on holding the city to its contract. If it was going to implement a mixed-use element at the garage, a major reason for the protracted design process, the city had ample time to prepare, Simon said. The agreement was finalized in 2011.
One of the city’s primary concerns, Simon said, should be The Mall at University Town Center, slated to open at University Parkway and Interstate 75 in October 2014. Simon believes the parking structure needs to be in place for downtown businesses to attract shoppers during season. If it’s not, people will gravitate toward the newer option.
“It is a spring issue; it is a season issue — it was not arbitrarily picked,” Simon said of the February 2015 deadline. “Every day that deck is not operating, we will be suffocating under the new competitor.”
Still, some commissioners aren’t particularly concerned about the agreement with Pineapple Square.
Mayor Shannon Snyder said he doesn’t believe Pineapple Square would be able to show a financial loss if the garage isn’t built by February 2015 and, thus, wouldn’t have an argument in a lawsuit. He believed Simon was just posturing, and said the city shouldn’t be deterred from its current course of action.
“I’m not going to be bullied into rushing a project of that magnitude,” Snyder said. “We need to do it right.”
Commissioner Susan Chapman has, at previous commission meetings, asked whether the project could be renegotiated based on the progress of Pineapple Square’s mixed-use phase two. She still believes Simon has to be more forthcoming about that phase for the city to properly plan the garage and said all parties would benefit from a more thorough process.
“I think that Pineapple Square has an interest in the project being done right,” Chapman said. “The city has an interest in the project being done right.”
Simon said there is no reference to phase two of Pineapple Square in the garage agreement with the city, and progress on that development is irrelevant as to when the garage should be built.
Earlier this month, Pineapple Square lawyers sent a letter to City Manager Tom Barwin and commissioners expressing Simon’s concerns. Still, he said, nobody has reached out to him about the garage project. Based on the response from the city, he didn’t believe anyone but Fournier had actually gone through the agreement with Pineapple Square.
“I don’t know who’s not reading the document,” Simon said. “I’ve had no evidence as to who is reading the document.”
Commissioners have indicated that they’re focused on doing the project right, rather than quickly, but Simon insists that speed should be a factor.
“I think what they’re doing is ridiculous, shortsighted and damages downtown,” Simon said. “They need to move forward with a public parking structure now, and they need to get it open by October, let alone February.”
Contact David Conway at email@example.com