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Five Points Park benches
Sarasota Thursday, Jul. 30, 2015 6 years ago

Could benches return to Five Points Park?

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A downtown leader is attempting to rally support to add benches at the downtown park. More than three years after benches were removed, can his proposal gain traction?
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Ron Soto knows it’s a controversial topic to tackle, but he’s not shying away from talking about park benches.

More specifically, Soto thinks it’s time to return the benches to Selby Five Points Park. The City Commission voted unanimously to remove the six benches from the park in April 2012, a divisive move designed to make it more difficult for homeless individuals to congregate in the public space.

More than three years later, Soto is convinced the experiment has borne no positive results. As a result, the Main Street storeowner and Downtown Improvement District board member is calling on city leaders to return the benches and add another amenity for the benefit of visitors at the downtown park.

“The idea of taking the benches out and the vagrants will go away — that idea has failed,” Soto said.

Although he’s reached out to a number of city officials in attempt to begin a larger conversation about the benches, he’s failed to gain any significant traction. Because the commission made the policy decision, staff says any reversal would also have to come from the commission.

Casey Colburn, chairman of the Downtown Sarasota Alliance, was hesitant to endorse the return of the benches without a clearly defined plan to address homelessness issues in the area as well.

"It's been so frustrating, with all the great minds downtown, that we can't have a clean and safe downtown." — Casey Colburn

“I think everybody agrees — ideally, they should be returned, and they should have been returned a long time ago,” Colburn said. “It's been so frustrating, with all the great minds downtown, that we can't have a clean and safe downtown.”

Vic Scully, a board member of the nearby Plaza at Five Points Condominium Association, agreed with Soto that vagrancy was still an issue without the benches. He, too, wanted to see a solution aimed at addressing the homeless issue.

“The real problems are the vagrants are in the park,” Scully said. “They'll just sit on the benches instead of the grass.”

Even if the issue remains as contentious as it was in 2012, Soto is determined to get the topic on the agenda for city decision-makers — and he’s optimistic that popular opinion will be on his side.

“I’m hoping it’ll come true in a short period of time,” Soto said.

Turf war

Benches or no benches, Five Points Park seems fated for a makeover of some sort in the near future.

At the July 21 Downtown Improvement District meeting, city Public Works General Manager Todd Kucharski said the grass at the park likely has to be replaced at least every other year because of the wear and tear it receives.

One reason the grass needs frequent replacement is the level of activity in the park. Another part, however, is attributable to the shade cast by the trees in the park — and that’s a problem Kucharski wants the DID to consider addressing as it helps fund the maintenance.

Five Points Park
City Public Works General Manager Todd Kucharski outlines sections of Five Points Park where he believes grass could be removed, replaced with ferns or other plants.

On Wednesday, Kucharski and DID Operations Manager John Moran surveyed the park, outlining places where he thinks turf can be removed in order to make the maintenance process easier. By replacing the shaded grass with ferns or other plants, the city can avoid dealing with patches that don’t get enough sunlight to stay healthy. In grassy areas where cut-through routes have naturally developed, replacing turf with mulch will reduce the number of dead spots, as well.

Although it’s still relatively early in the planning stages, Kucharski said the city would consider adding turf elsewhere — possibly replacing a bricked area designed to be used as a stage, which currently doesn’t get much use.

In August, staff will return to the DID board with a more detailed proposal about redesigning the park’s landscaping. He made clear that he’s happy with the amount of use the park is getting, and he doesn’t want to eliminate green space from the city’s urban core if possible.

Making sure all of the different parts of Five Points Park can exist in harmony with one another will take some effort, though.

“The challenge is, we're trying to fit that all in a little stamp-sized area of the city,” Kucharski said.

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