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Opinion
Sarasota Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019 3 weeks ago

Beware of the vitriol

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Don’t let the vitriolic hyperbole about Selby’s restaurant cloud the bigger picture. Every concession weakens Selby’s ability to achieve long-term sustainability.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

If you observed portions or all of Monday’s Sarasota City Commission hearings on the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens redevelopment and expansion plans, some of the nastiness, vitriol, virulence and emotional hyperbole that came out of speakers’ mouths could have made your eyes bug out.

Clearly, the flash point that ignited the most vicious comments was the restaurant above the parking garage.

One speaker said, “The garage is designed as a pedestal for the restaurant.” Another said it is designed to handle 1,000 people at an event. Another called it an event center and party place.

Another used the words “greed” and “avarice” in reference to the future restaurant operator, Michael’s On East.

Again and again speakers implied — with tones of anger and disgust — that the whole Selby plan was about the restaurant, intended to become a fine-dining haunt for Sarasota elites and to “line the pockets” of Michael’s owners, Michael Klauber and Phil Mancini.

Another flash point, of course, was the five-story garage. Numerous speakers invoked the term “incompatible” and that Sarasota’s “rule of law” (the city’s comprehensive plan) requires structures to be compatible with their neighbors.

You heard the usual intonations about “greedy developers lining up” to spread commercial development and high-rises south into the surrounding residential neighborhoods. One speaker offered this cutting sarcasm: “Maybe we can just put in a good car wash.”   

It was such a contrast to witness — the difference between the tones of the speakers who favor Selby’s plans (calm, positive, encouraging, aspirational for a greater and better Sarasota) and the tones of those speakers opposed (angry, gruff, sarcastic, teeming with contempt).

As the opposition often does in emotional hearings, its speakers distorted the truth.

As an antidote, additional context often helps you see and understand the truth. Perhaps what follows will aid that pursuit:

 

COMPATIBILITY

Compatibility, often times, is like art: It’s in the eye of the beholder.

But there is also relevant context that helps put the entire Selby plan in perspective with respect to compatibility.

Speakers objected to Selby seeking an amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan — to be designated with the Metropolitan/Regional Land Use Classification, which Selby opponents frequently say is the city’s most intensive land-use designation. This, they say, is proof Selby’s plan is incompatible with the neighborhood.

But lost in this is that Selby is seeking this designation for this most important reason: Under this designation, the Selby property can never be used for anything other than Selby Gardens — in effect, an insurance policy for its neighbors. Without the designation, Selby’s board could sell the property tomorrow to a condo developer.

The land, by the way, was recently valued at more than $60 million, and it could accommodate 360 residential units.

Another way to look at this zoning designation is that the Selby board is making a commitment to its neighbors and the citizens of Sarasota: that it and future boards will keep the botanical gardens in operation in perpetuity.

This is a big commitment and a big risk. As with every enterprise, business or not-for-profit, to keep this institution going as an internationally recognized botanical gardens will take a lot of money. And that’s where the restaurant and garage fit in this picture.

All not-for-profit boards know they can reduce the pressure of having to tap donors every year if they have other sources of recurring revenues. That’s why we have so many consignment shops affiliated with not-for-profit organizations throughout the region.

At Monday’s meeting, Palm Avenue resident David Gurley cogently explained, “The restaurant makes tremendous sense because it self-funds the operations.” Actually, it only will help fund a small portion of its operations.

 

THE RESTAURANT

Calling the proposed restaurant an event center or a party place is wrong. Especially now that Selby has agreed to reduce the restaurant space 25% (see diagrams).

“Why would we build an event center when we clearly already have one?” Selby CEO Jennifer Rominiecki said.

Before the reduced footprint, the restaurant was designed to accommodate 260 guests — 190 inside diners and 70 on the outdoor terrace, nowhere close to 1,000. The revised restaurant will have capacity for 145 inside, 40 on the terrace.

Two of its signature features will be: 1) It will be the first 100% solar-powered restaurant in the world — no gas, no burning wood; 2) Some of its fare will be produced in Selby’s edible garden, which also will be located atop the parking garage.

The cuisine won’t be high-priced fine dining. “It’ll be more casual,” Klauber said. “We don’t want to compete with ourselves at Michael’s.”

Rominiecki and Klauber also will tell you that the new Selby restaurant is not his. Selby is the owner; Selby asked Klauber to operate it on a standard operator-owner lease agreement, much like a concessionaire at a sports stadium.

But with this week’s additional concessions, the opportunity for the restaurant to help fund Selby has shrunk. To help assuage neighbors even more, Selby announced it would move the outdoor restaurant terrace from the south side of the garage overlooking the gardens and the bay to the north side, on the Mound Street side of the garage. The size of the terrace will shrink by more than 50%.

In earlier designs, Selby planned to erect 6-foot-high glass panels around the terrace as a noise buffer.

One more concession: The edible garden will be relocated from the Sky Garden roof to the restaurant level, which will allow the height of the garage to be reduced by 7 feet.

All of these concessions have consequences: The less earned income that comes in, the more Selby will be relying on donors or having to make the choice of reducing its research and other activities.

 

FROM GOOD TO GREAT

Come Monday, commissioners are expected to hear from another 30 residents urging them either to approve Selby’s master plans or ask Selby to back to the gardens and scale back the plans even more. The nearby neighbors will continue to harp on their narrow, self-interested perspectives.

But we hope commissioners keep in mind that with every concession and change they ask Selby to make, they will hamper constrain and weaken Selby’s ability to sustain itself and to flourish and grow into what it should be.

This is that one moment in time commissioners can help the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens go from good to great.

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