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Sarasota Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018 1 year ago

Lido residents push for city to rethink pavilion deal

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Opposition continues to mount to the city's plans for the Lido Beach pool and pavilion. Is it enough to change officials' minds?
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Opponents of the city’s decision to cede management of the Lido Beach pool and pavilion to a private operator have gathered more than 2,300 signatures on an online petition asking officials to abandon the plan.

For their push to matter, though, they’ll have to persuade at least one more person.

Last year, the City Commission approved an agreement to lease the beach facility for up to 30 years to Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners, a group led by Daiquiri Deck co-owner Troy Syprett and property management professional Gavin Meshad. The private group intends to renovate the facility with its own money. It also plans to operate a 200-seat restaurant and a newly added Tiki bar on the property, which will remain in public ownership.

Although a majority of the commission has already shown its support for the concept, the plans must clear one more hurdle before the new model can take effect. The Planning Board and City Commission will hold public hearings in September and October to consider the site plan, as well as permits for a major conditional use and government zone waiver. The lease is already signed, but the site plan will be considered on its own merit.

With that in mind, residents who oppose the scope of the changes to the pavilion aren’t giving up the fight. Just the opposite: They’re mobilizing in hopes of getting one city commissioner to change his or her mind, working to get the city to reject a plan it has previously endorsed.

Earlier this year, after the city had approved the lease, Cathy Antunes started a petition for those who were against the redevelopment plan. She did so after a March community workshop with the development team, not satisfied with the answers she heard at the meeting. Antunes, who has been a critic of perceived overdevelopment in Sarasota, named the new campaign Save Lido Pavilion.

Much of the criticisms of the plan aren’t new. Above all, residents say they’re concerned about intensifying the activity at the pavilion and potentially diminished public access. Although Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners has pledged to keep the restaurant and pool affordable, Antunes raised the possibility that portions of the public could be priced out of using the property.

She frequently cites the fact that new cabanas near the pool area could rent for $100 a day, an item that came up in the community workshop. Although the leaseholder said the cabanas represent just a small portion of the pool area, Antunes suggested it’s indicative of a larger philosophy for the future of the pavilion.

“People raise comparisons to Marina Jack and what’s happened there,” Antunes said. “I don’t think they’re out of line with that kind of comparison.”

Last November, residents raised similar concerns. A majority of the commission still approved the lease, satisfied that public access to the pavilion and beach would be maintained. So how will opponents of the plans change at least one commissioner’s mind?

Antunes said residents will point to many questions they believe have been inadequately addressed. How will parking be handled? How can the leaseholders guarantee the property will remain affordable? How will the project affect turtle nesting? Is this really what the community wants to see at the beach?

“The strategy is: This might sound good in theory, but here’s the reality,” Antunes said. “Here’s what you’re truly looking at.”

Contested narratives

Before they tell you why they like the proposed changes to the pavilion, proponents of the plans first want to make sure the public knows what changes aren’t going to happen.

Cathy Antunes hopes a resident campaign can persuade officials to rejects plans for the pavilion, but the project team accuses her of mischaracterizing the proposal.

The beach itself isn’t getting privatized. (The project team says all existing points of access to the beach via the pavilion will be maintained.) The pavilion isn’t getting demolished. (The new restaurant will operate within the existing building footprint, adding a thatched roof covering over the current seating area.)

Supporters also maintain the plans don’t represent a radical change from what’s already going on at the pavilion. A private operator runs a food service business already; the new restaurant will just add sit-down service. Users of the pool already have to pay a fee; the new configuration will charge a few bucks more while adding more amenities.

Elements like the restaurant, tiki bar and cabanas — now targets of criticism — were drawn from a 2012 resident-endorsed proposal for renovating the property. Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners has repeatedly emphasized a belief their plans are not out of character with what the community wants to see at the pavilion.

The group says it wants to be a good neighbor. They’ve pledged to keep things affordable, if maybe a little more expensive than the current operations. They say they’ve adjusted the plans to incorporate public input — most recently, adding a driveway in front of the pavilion after residents raised concerns about access for people with disabilities.

“This is servicing the people that are coming to the beach now,” Meshad said. “That’s the customer base. What good would it serve to price our customer base out of the market?”

The reason supporters of the pavilion plans feel the need to clarify the scope of the proposal is because they believe the project has been mischaracterized among the public. Meshad took issue with a presentation Antunes made to the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations, a version of which is available online.

The presentation includes harsh criticisms of the redevelopment plan, including the suggestion the project might be designed to primarily serve the Aloft Sarasota, a downtown hotel that Meshad’s father helped develop. Meshad called the accusation ludicrous, and indicative of a larger effort to malign the leaseholder. 

“She’s created a groundstorm of a whole bunch more people who are now misinformed,” Meshad said.

Mayor Liz Alpert, who voted in favor of the lease, said the latest outpouring of opposition hasn’t changed her stance. She said when she receives a message of concern about the proposal, she writes back with her perspective on the plans, including details about what the renovation will include.

“More often than not, I hear back from them and they’re like, ‘That’s not what I understood,’” Alpert said. “’Oh, that sounds nice.’ I think there’s just a lot of misinformation out there about what’s going on.”

Passion project

Antunes acknowledged that some misconceptions about the project may exist, but she maintained the Save Lido Pavilion campaign has not put forward any incorrect statements about the plans for the property. She accused supporters of the plans of downplaying the scope of the changes.

On Sept. 12, the Planning Board will hold a special meeting regarding the pavilion plans. Meshad said it was frustrating to see a campaign against the project gain such traction, particularly because he believes it’s not rooted in fact. He said there’s little he can do other than attend the meetings and hope decision-makers see things the same way he does. Trying to stay optimistic, he drew a comparison to another once-controversial project: the construction of the John Ringling Causeway.

“I hope, and I’m prediction, this will be the same way,” Meshad said. “This is going to be such a nice amenity that they’re going to all love it say, ‘We were concerned about nothing.’”

Although the opponents will focus their arguments on reasons why the proposal doesn’t meet the city’s zoning criteria, a portion of the opposition is rooted in something more simple: Many residents don’t want to see the city cede control of a public property to a private operator.

“I do not want to live in a place where we take our public amenities and make them resort-type facilities,” Antunes said.

Carl Shoffstall, president of the Lido Key Residents Association, scoffed at the notion the city couldn’t find a way to renovate and maintain the pavilion themselves — particularly as officials consider multimillion-dollar investments into Bobby Jones Golf Club and the bayfront.

“Sometimes, I think they just want to give this stuff away that they don’t want to take care of,” Shoffstall said.

So even as the Save Lido Pavilion campaign refines a technical case for denying the proposed changes, the real power of the campaign has more emotional roots.      

“I gotta go back to the fact this is a public beach,” Shoffstall said. “It’s the last one for the city, the people”

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