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Sarasota Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017 5 years ago

Garage costs surprise St. Armands businesses

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The city is working on plans for a 521-space parking garage on St. Armands Circle — and businesses in the area are taking issue with their portion of the bill.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Businesses on St. Armands Circle agree there’s a need for more parking in the area, but as plans for a parking garage move ahead, there’s some concern about the cost.

At a Jan. 17 St. Armands Business Improvement District meeting, business owners said they were surprised by the price of the property tax the city is levying to help pay for the $15 million project.

In total, the special assessment is charging property owners around the Circle $260,000 annually. The cost for each individual property is determined using a formula that considers distance from the garage site on Adams Drive and the business type. According to the city, restaurants derive more benefit from the garage, so those businesses pay a higher rate.

Before approving the funding methodology, the city estimated the average property owner would see a 250% increase in their special assessment bill. From 1994 to 2015, St. Armands properties paid a total of $100,000 annually toward a special assessment that helped fund a parking lot on Fillmore Avenue.

There’s a key difference between the two assessments. The previous assessment charged a flat rate based on the square footage of a property. That is no longer a legal funding methodology, though — hence the new formula.

Marty Rappaport, the former chairman of the St. Armands Business Improvement District and an advocate for the garage project, said city staff worked diligently to find a fair way to determine the burden each property would bear. Still, other Circle stakeholders — including another BID board member — were taken aback by the new rates.

“Our assessment went up quadruple,” said Michael Valentino, the owner of Island Pursuit. “I’m paying $1,600 (per year). A fellow merchant let me know his had gone up about double. Our stores are not measurably that much different.”

Kelly Strickland, the city’s finance director, said using the previous assessment as a point of reference was misleading. 

Island Pursuit, for example, is one of the St. Armands properties closest to the 521-space garage site at North Adams Drive and Madison Drive. The other store Valentino mentioned, Dream Weaver, is located on the opposite side of the Circle.

As a result, Strickland said, it makes sense that one store’s assessment costs would rise more significantly than the other’s. Valentino, however, thought the two stores weren’t that different — they both sell clothes, and they’re less than a five-minute walk from one another.

“I think we’re pretty close to comparing apples to apples,” Valentino said.

Roger Schuhmacher, co-owner of Madison Avenue Café & Deli, shared a similar concern regarding the special assessment formula. He said the commercial district would benefit from a parking garage, but added the city’s system fails to properly account for the behavior of shoppers visiting St. Armands.

“People want to walk around the Circle,” Schuhmacher said. “They don’t want to just go to a building near a garage. They want to explore the area.”

Before approving the assessment in May, the city mailed notices to all of the property owners on St. Armands Circle explaining the formula. Still, when the first tax bill came in November, several businesses said they were caught off guard.

As a result, Circle stakeholders are searching for a way to ease the pain of paying for a project to which the city is firmly committed. In addition to the special assessment, the city will charge for parking on St. Armands to help fund the rest of the expenses associated with the garage.

“To add an extra burden to the restaurant, I think, is unjust.” — Diana Corrigan

Diana Corrigan, the executive director of the St. Armands Circle Association, said the city should find a way for restaurant employees to park for free.

“These assessments are higher than what we anticipated they’d be for the restaurants,” Corrigan said. “To add an extra burden to the restaurant, I think, is unjust. I’m not talking about $1,000 or $2,000 more; I’m talking about one going from $3,000 to $11,000. That’s a lot of money for 20 years.”

Mark Lyons, the city’s parking manager, said the city’s plans include the preservation of some free and unrestricted parking spaces in the area. He was hesitant to embrace the idea of waiving employee parking permit fees, but he committed to speaking to businesses in the area about possible areas of compromise.

Despite the concerns, the business owners reiterated their desire to see more parking created on the Circle. Rappaport and other supporters of the project said St. Armands needs to be patient and understanding as the city begins work on the design and construction of the garage, pegged for completion in late 2018.

“It’s not an easy concept, and they did a lot to make it work,” Rappaport said.

Merchant feedback

We talked to three St. Armands Circle businesses to get their thoughts on the parking garage project:

Jeanine Stebbins

“The fact is, we need parking. I think everyone is on the same page about the assessment — we don’t want it to get out of control — but the need for parking is there. Everyone can benefit from that.” — Jeanine Stebbins, manager, Blue Dolphin Café

David Hemmo

“It’s excellent. Thank God — it’s about time. The area is growing here. It’s so congested with all the cars trying to park right now. We need a garage.” — David Hemmo, general manager, Alvin’s Island

Roger Schuhmacher

“I think there’s a couple of reasons to put the garage up, but I don’t think the businesses should pay for it. It’s an infrastructural problem we have, not just a parking space problem. In high season, we have all this queuing up, and it affects traffic from Longboat to Sarasota.” — Roger Schuhmacher, owner, Madison Avenue Café & Deli

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