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Sarasota Thursday, Jun. 19, 2014 3 years ago

City stakes claim to bus station land

by: David Conway and Alex Mahadevan

If Sarasota County moves forward with a proposal to relocate the downtown SCAT bus transfer station, the Sarasota City Commission intends to re-obtain the county-owned land.

In the meantime, city commissioners questioned the wisdom of moving the station at all.

Over the last six months, Sarasota County has been considering a potential relocation of the bus transfer station, located at First Street and Lemon Avenue. As county staff continues to evaluate the proposed new site at Ringling Boulevard and School Avenue, the city commission has signaled its interest in controlling the future of the land on which the transfer station sits.

“Certainly, if the county is thinking of moving the bus station, I want the property back,” City Commissioner Susan Chapman said at a meeting Monday.

Commissioners directed staff to pen a letter to the county, expressing the city’s intent to buy the land if plans to relocate the transfer station move forward. SCAT originally bought the land from the city for $478,000 in 2002. The contract included a clause giving the city “the right to acquire the property in the event the (county) desires to sell the property,” according to the contract for sale and purchase.

The group also discussed the logic behind the relocation, with some commissioners arguing the new site could be a misstep. Commissioner Shannon Snyder, who placed the topic on Monday’s agenda for discussion, said the county was potentially overburdening the Ringling Boulevard corridor by placing several projects in that area.

Snyder also said the .41-acre parcel is likely too small to attract an economically viable development on its own. Snyder anticipated a potential buyer asking to relocate the adjacent city parking lot or even to move City Hall if the property moves into private hands. In light of that, he said, the city should have a say in the future of the land.

“I think you’d rather be driving the bus than under the bus, so to speak,” Snyder said.

County Commissioner Joe Barbetta has been a leading advocate for moving the bus station. He has said the transit service has outgrown the current site and has stressed the importance of drawing property-tax revenue from the centrally located downtown property. Following Monday’s City Commission meeting, Barbetta said he was surprised by the city’s discussion surrounding the move.

In questioning the city’s intent to buy the land, Barbetta pointed to the development of the State Street parking garage — and its budget, which came in $4 million higher than original estimates. Based on that experience, Barbetta asked whether the city purchasing the land would be the best route toward getting a new project on the site.

“After watching the State Street parking garage, I have no confidence,” Barbetta said regarding the city’s ability to develop the site. “Coming in $4 million over budget — as a city taxpayer, that’s very upsetting.”

Barbetta also questioned the monetary wisdom of the city purchasing the land. According to the Sarasota County Property Appraiser, the site is worth $1.1 million. Barbetta said he expected an appraisal in excess of $1 million if the county were to sell the land. With the city facing the prospect of covering another budget deficit in the next fiscal year, he said that additional expense would only increase the financial burden.

“They don’t have any money; why they would want it back is beyond me,” Barbetta said. “They’re welcome to it, though.”

Chapman said she believed the criticism of the city government was unfair and that the city has demonstrated in the past it is capable of developing high-quality projects. More than anything, Chapman said, the location of the transfer station property makes it a priority for the city.

“I think the real issue is that property is right next to City Hall,” Chapman said. “We have to preserve it for public use.”

Grinding halt
New opponents to the county proposal to relocate the downtown transfer station east of Washington Boulevard emerged at Monday’s meeting: skateboarders.

Payne Skate Park Manager Mike Walling said that, when he took the position more than three years ago, vagrant activity plagued the concrete skate haven. Stakeholders at that time complained of drug dealing and vandalism.

“There were homeless sleeping in our bowls,” Walling said. “They were using our bowls as toilets.”

But, after internal work and “hundreds of calls” to the Sarasota Police Department, the park has become a safe place for skaters of all ages, he said. Walling said he is afraid that placing the transfer station on School Avenue “is going to bring the homeless population back on my doorstep, basically undoing all the work I’ve done over the last couple of years.”

Contact David Conway at [email protected] and Alex Mahadevan at [email protected]


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