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Sarasota Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019 9 months ago

My View: Time for a reality check on Selby

Not in my backyard opposition to master plan has played out to an extreme.
by: Thomas Luzier

I was born and raised in the neighborhood south of Hudson Bayou that my family has called home since the 1920s.   My father was (allegedly) born in the front room of our bungalow.  He likes to tell stories of how it was way back when: the old Bellamy wood yard down at the end of our street; campouts on the beach where the only company was legions of mosquitoes; the elementary school in the heart of downtown where he was “dragged kicking and screaming” each and every day; and so on.   

Thomas B. Luzier

Tales of a bygone era, in a town none of us would recognize. 

My own memories of growing up are filled with details of the places I frequented, many of which are long gone.  The Sarasota I knew is not the Sarasota I know now.  A little sad, maybe, but inevitable.  Change means our community has a pulse, and a future.

As a grown-up making a life here, I had the honor to serve as a trustee of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.  Together with an astute group of volunteers, we were committed to making sure the Gardens not only survived, but thrived.  This was no small task since the Great Recession happened during our turn, making it impossible to ignore what was then the shaky reality of Selby’s finances. 

The outcry was deafening from those who denounced our decisions to temporarily curtail operations that were not self-supporting, while we implemented a strategy to reduce debt and plan for future improvements.  Our critics proudly professed their “love” for Selby.  Almost never did they provide actual support or philanthropy.

We soldiered on, pitching in to shore up the foundation of the Selby Gardens of today: a dynamically managed, fiscally substantial institution, fulfilling its mission.

The Gardens came to be thanks to the generous gift of Marie Selby.  Its founding trustees set it on the course to international pre-eminence in the study of epiphytes. Along the way, Selby became known and loved the world over. 

Head east along Mound Street from the Bayfront, you pass the 17-story Embassy House condominium and numerous other homes, businesses and offices.

What has not kept pace with Selby’s reputation is its built environment.  Assembled over a number of years, Selby Gardens is more than double the size of the original bequest, whose inspiring waterfront location belies the reality of decrepit greenhouses, irreplaceable collections situated in a velocity flood zone, administrative functions shoehorned into decaying former residences, and parking carved out of every spare nook and cranny. 

These are just a few of the many compelling reasons Selby is ripe for modernization.  Its master plan lays out the Selby Gardens of the future, where its more than 200,000 visitors each year will be better connected with the science and nature for which Selby is famous. 

Yet here we are again, suffering an outpouring of denunciation, as those who have come out to proclaim their love of “flowers, not towers,” spend their time and money not in service of the Gardens, but working determinedly to ensure the current setting they call “bucolic” – the one with cars scattered anywhere and everywhere — never changes.  It is feigned reverence for a reality as flawed as the argument against progress.

The flashpoint is Selby’s planned Sky Garden, which will consolidate and expand existing parking, and bring logic to an incoherent system of ingress and egress.  That the project will include major roadway improvements in and around the intersection of Mound and Orange is lost in the hubbub.  That its budget has increased by more than $1.5 million in accommodation of neighborhood concerns is taken entirely for granted.

Detractors intentionally mischaracterize Selby’s master plan as an overt attempt at commercialization.  

Curious Jiu-Jitsu here.  Time, then, for a reality check.

Head east along Mound from the Bayfront, you pass the 17-story Embassy House condominium, numerous medical and professional offices, scattered single- and multi-family residences, a five-story senior care facility, a Chinese restaurant with open air seating, the Suncoast Blood Bank, and a park, ending up at the new sewer lift station.  Hudson Bayou provides the line of demarcation between this hodgepodge and the neighborhoods.  

And, while this busy, east-west thoroughfare is the gateway to our Bayfront, its odd collection of commercial, residential, and municipal uses on each side of the road leaves plenty to be desired in the way of visual, or practical, coherence. 

Selby Gardens has grown by fits and starts over its 40+ years in its Bayfront location,  always in plain view of its neighbors.  In fact, many of those neighbors put down roots near the Gardens precisely because it is one of those indelible features that make our neighborhood, and Sarasota, unique.  To now oppose a thoughtfully planned, philanthropically funded, revitalization of Marie Selby‘s gift, is the “Not In My Back Yard” philosophy played out to an extreme. 

Do I ever wish Sarasota was that town of my youth?  Sure – if I’m in a nostalgic mood.  Otherwise, I am delighted knowing that our beautiful little city is dynamic and ever-developing.  Not the way it was, mind you, but neither are any of us. 

The time is now for Selby Gardens to make its master plan a reality.  Come stand with me and embrace the future.

Tom Luzier is a native Hudson Bayou resident, and long-time Selby Gardens supporter. He is a partner at the Williams Parker law firm, which is representing Selby Gardens in the city's development review process. 

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