Tre Michel, co-owner of State of the Arts Gallery, points to a brochure map.
With a black pen, she draws lines outward from a square on the map. The square denotes the city-owned parking lot directly across from her gallery on State Street. The lines go out to Greater Main Street, Burns Square, Lower Main and Upper Main Street.
“It’s a hub,” says Michel. And that is why the gallery owner supports plans to raze the parking lot and build a parking garage on that land. The estimated $7.3 million project would at least double the number of parking spaces and add two floors of retail-and-restaurant space.
The city will begin seeking proposals Oct. 1, from prospective firms for the designing and construction of the garage and commercial space. The city has set aside $7.29 million in tax-increment financing for the project. Area merchants say the garage would lessen the downtown-parking squeeze in the winter months and add additional upscale retail and restaurant space.
Rob O’ Neill, barista at Pastry Art, said he welcomes the proposal for a parking garage right behind the café.
“More smart infrastructure is always welcome downtown, especially if it will bring business and customers,” said Neill.
As the city moves ahead with the engineering process, a concept of what the garage will look like — along with the exact number of parking spaces and storefront space — will begin to take shape. In the meantime, merchants and residents look forward to the addition of new commercial space in the area. One anticipated store is a drugstore, and previous negotiations have taken place involving CVS, said Ernie Ritz, chairman of the Downtown Improvement District (DID). A full-service pharmacy is something that downtown is lacking, Ritz said.
“There isn’t a place where residents can walk now to fill a prescription,” Ritz said.
Commissioners have said the commercial spaces should be leased before construction begins so the retail space doesn’t sit empty for years, like the Palm Avenue parking garage retail space did. As a result, a marketing effort to fill those spaces could happen as soon as the city chooses a design-and-construction firm to develop the garage, well before actual construction work begins.
In June, the DID Board of Directors voted to support the process of building a State Street parking garage, concluding those 300-plus parking spaces downtown will make a difference during the season and will attract more high-profile retail tenants downtown.
It could make a difference in off-season as well. On Saturday night the State Street lot was full, with the exception of a handful of spaces set aside for valet.
In winter, especially during the Saturday Farmers Market or other weekend events, parking becomes a fiasco, O’ Neill said.
However, some Sarasota city commissioners are questioning whether it’s the right time to build the garage. Commissioners Terry Turner and Shannon Snyder have pointed to a 10% average usage rate in the Palm Avenue parking garage as a reason they believe the city doesn’t need another parking garage.
David Steiner, Michel’s husband and co-owner of State of the Arts gallery, said that 10% rate won’t stay that low at the Palm Avenue garage.
“Over the next five years, there will be a new hotel on Palm Avenue, two new condos and many other changes,” Steiner said. “It will all be changing. I call it a synergistic effect.”
Along with these changes downtown comes an even greater need for parking, Steiner said.
If commissioners decide to reject the plans for the garage, the city would be breaking a legal agreement. The agreement that the city reached with Pineapple Square in 2010, when it acquired the 43,700-square-foot lot, requires the city to build at least a 300-space parking garage on the site within four years. The city must have the garage built by February 2015. The city’s parking master plan in 2005 also identified the State Street lot as a priority designation for a garage. The site is currently home to a 139-parking space lot.
City attorney Bob Fournier told the Sarasota Observer in June that if commissioners decided not to build the garage, the city would be breaking a development agreement that would most likely prompt Pineapple Square developer John Simon to seek damages against the city.
To have the garage built in time, senior city planner Steve Stancel said, the city must start its two-phase process of selecting a design-build firm no later than October.
“This would be part of the whole philosophy of centralized parking,” Stancel said. The idea behind that parking vision is to have residents and vacationers come downtown and be able to park in one spot and walk throughout downtown for shopping, dining and enjoying the area.
After the garage is built, developers of nearby residential projects could pay a fee to purchase parking spaces from the city to meet the parking requirements for their own projects, thus allowing those developers the freedom of building a project without a parking garage onsite.
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