Longtime Sarasota resident and activist Gil Waters, who helped bring what is now the Ringling Bridge to Sarasota, hopes to finally have a 50-year-old plan for downtown realized.
Waters and Sarasota architect Brent Parker are pitching a plan to Sarasota officials and downtown organizations that would make a portion of Main Street pedestrian-friendly and create a pedestrian overpass to Sarasota Bay.
Waters said the plan is the final phase of a 1959 concept that originally proposed taking Main Street past U.S. 41 to the bayfront.
That downtown project, Waters said, is already more than 80% complete and included the formation of Ringling Boulevard, the rerouting of U.S. 41, the creation of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, the dredging of the marina and the fill of land that created the dirt where Marina Jack now sits.
“What didn’t get funded was a pedestrian Main Street and a connection to the bayfront,” Waters said. “We only have two projects left, and there’s a need for the identification and implementation of the walking street concept that promotes tourism and the merchants’ best interests.”
Waters hired Parker to create renderings that shows a bricked, pedestrian-only Main Street from Orange Avenue to Gulfstream Avenue and a pedestrian overpass that sits 18 feet off the ground and allows pedestrians access to the bayfront.
Parker, however, said he knows a pedestrian-only Main Street might receive criticism. He said that concept could be implemented in sections to see if it works.
Downtown Improvement District Chairman Ernie Ritz also acknowledged a pedestrian-only Main Street would be a hard sell.
“Merchants are already complaining about the elimination of some of the parking as part of the Main Street streetscape project,” Ritz said. “I’m not sure that would work.”
Noting the city could add electronic metal posts (that could go up or down at any time) at Palm Avenue to block cars from entering, Parker said the city could try a pedestrian-only Main Street from Gulfstream Avenue to the Five Points roundabout to see how successful it is.
The posts would allow garbage trucks to access the street and also allow for pedicabs, trams and other forms of transportation along the street.
“This will work now because we have the parking around Main Street to accommodate a pedestrian-only street now,” said Parker, noting the Palm Avenue parking garage and future State Street parking garage as examples of other parking options.
The goal, Parker said, would be to create roadway loops outside of Main Street and to install signage alerting pedestrians to both parking options and where the Main Street pedestrian activity is.
“The second part of the project is how we connect to the bayfront,” Parker said.
Parker believes that can be achieved by building a pedestrian overpass, at a cost of approximately $2 million, that would follow the traffic pattern above a roundabout that will eventually be built at Main Street and U.S. 41.
“I think it becomes the gateway to downtown Sarasota and will be very popular among joggers,” Parker said.
Parker and Waters have presented their plan to Mayor Suzanne Atwell, City Manager Bob Bartolotta and groups such as the Downtown Improvement District.
“It’s being met with much enthusiasm,” Waters said.
Bartolotta said the plan needs to be vetted through the public process to see if it gains traction.
“It’s certainly creative and innovative,” Bartolotta said.
Waters, meanwhile, said he is simply trying to complete the last two elements of the 1959 project.
“Everything else is already in place,” Waters said.
Parker said that if you take what’s already been done as part of the 1959 plan, it would translate into $400 million worth of projects in today’s dollars.
“All that’s left is a couple of million dollars for an overpass and a pedestrian Main Street that could take $4 million to create,” Parker said.
Waters, however, said the impact the completed project would have on Sarasota is immeasurable.
“We are talking about leveraging this as a geographical centerpiece and an educational program worldwide that tells of the cultural, physical, 12-month pedestrian plan that emphasizes the nature of this remarkable community going into the 21st century,” Waters said. “It would attract more international flights to our airport and sell Sarasota as a beautiful, pedestrian-friendly, world-class community.”
Waters, meanwhile, is in the process of forming a new organization called Sarasota Vision Inc. to help promote and fund the project. The group, Waters said, already has a $250,0000 anonymous donation in place once the project is approved.
Parker and Waters both live at Golden Gate Point and marvel at the number of walkers and runners on the Ringling Bridge each morning.
“This is another ‘Field of Dreams’ for Sarasota,” Parker said. “If you build it, they will come.”