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Sarasota Thursday, Jul. 1, 2021 6 months ago

Downtown Sarasota street closure plans remain in flux

The Gator Club is leading a push to reinstate expanded outdoor seating on Lemon Avenue, while downtown leaders consider options for weekend pedestrian-only events.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city authorized a series of weekend closures on downtown street segments to facilitate outdoor dining on Lemon Avenue and Main Street.

In June, Gov. Ron DeSantis let Florida’s state of emergency associated with COVID-19 expire. The city likewise stopped extending its local public health emergency, suspending orders that had been executed under that state of emergency — including those street closures. Now, at least one business is attempting to rally support to reinstate the expanded outdoor seating.

A representative for The Gator Club owners did not respond to requests for inquiry, but the bar’s staff confirmed the establishment was gathering signatures from customers on a petition to allow the closure of Lemon Avenue between Main Street and State Street on the weekends. A June 14 post on The Gator Club’s Facebook page asked supporters to contact the City Commission to share positive thoughts on reestablishing the Lemon Avenue outdoor dining.

“This not only provides jobs to people but is a way for local small businesses downtown to stay relevant and enjoy our city!!!” the post said.

In addition to the Lemon Avenue closure, the city also authorized weekend closures in the 1300 block of Main Street and the Ringling Spur adjacent to McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre. In an emailed statement, the city said the closures ended with the expiration of the emergency declaration because the City Commission hadn’t directed staff to extend the program. In May, the commission voted to extend provisions allowing for outdoor dining in public parking spaces through at least the end of the year.

In 2020 and the first half of 2021, the city closed portions of Main Street and Lemon Avenue to facilitate expanded outdoor dining. The program expired when the city stopped extending its COVID-19 state of emergency. File photo

The city said it has told businesses interested in restoring the street closures that they would need to secure support from the commission and neighboring property owners.

After the city initially implemented the closures in spring 2020, the concept drew mixed feedback from merchants, though the restaurants who were able to expand their dining footprint said it was a boon during a financially challenging time.

“You help out one industry, the restaurants, by closing the streets, and you shoot the foot of the people who have the dress stores, the hair cutters, the jewelry stores,” said Ron Soto, president of the Sarasota Downtown Enrichment Association, in a previous interview with the Sarasota Observer.

Chip Beeman, the owner of Pastry Art Bakery Café, has expressed concern about previous plans for extended street closures associated with construction near his Main Street business, located just east of the Lemon Avenue intersection. But he said the pandemic street closure, which was limited from 3:30 p.m. until midnight prior to its expiration, would probably not be excessively disruptive if officials wished to bring it back.

“It’s probably an OK thing — as long as it’s on a north-south street,” Beeman said.

First Fridays (and Saturdays?)

Members of the Downtown Improvement District are pushing forward with plans for an even grander street closure at least once a month.

On June 1, the DID had a brief conversation about the possibility of closing Main Street to vehicular traffic to facilitate a recurring weekend event. Although the scope of any pedestrian-focused event is still to be determined, the idea was inspired by “first Friday” gatherings in locations such as Lakewood Ranch Main Street.

DID Board Member Chris Voelker said she had received a letter expressing interest in the concept from Mayor Hagen Brody, and she felt elected officials would be interested in working with the DID if the board desired.

“I sense some energy,” Voelker said. “I’ve heard this before from the commissioners about wanting to do First Fridays.”

Voelker and other DID board members noted that the events wouldn’t necessarily have to be held on the first Friday of the month — or limited to Fridays at all. Board member Eileen Hampshire pointed out that Palm Avenue merchants have a recurring gallery walk in the evenings on the first Friday of the month, which she suggested could be a natural foundation for a more expansive event.

“We have a nucleus,” Hampshire said. “We’ve had first Friday on Palm Avenue for what, 30 years? I would say build on it; don’t reinvent the wheel.”

Although Beeman said he was OK with a limited closure on Lemon Avenue, he expressed opposition to the prospect of extended closures of Main Street. He said a once-monthly pedestrian-only event could be manageable, but he thought anything more than that would cause problems.

The DID has expressed optimism that closing Main Street to cars could create a more vibrant environment downtown, but Beeman said he didn’t see the benefit.

“It’s changing the personality of what the city is and what’s drawn people here to being something someone saw in another town,” Beeman said. “They’re willing to take a risk with other merchants’ money to see if they can make their dream come true.”

DID board member Mark Kauffman said he’s received feedback from downtown stakeholders who have said the vast majority of efforts to create pedestrian-only streets have failed.

“I appreciate that, and I agree with that figure, but this is not a pedestrian mall,” Kauffman said. “This is closing a street only for Friday night, Saturday night, and maybe Sunday afternoon.”

Although Kauffman has expressed support for a recurring event spanning the entire weekend, the DID has not settled on a plan. The board is scheduled to discuss its options July 6.

Regardless of the eventual model, the group is hopeful it can test out a first Friday-style program in the near future to gauge its viability as a long-term endeavor.

“This is something I would try for, say, six months,” Kauffman said. “And if it works, then we can keep funding it.”

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