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Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 11, 2021 1 month ago

Downtown group explores future parking options

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From Main Street parallel parking to a garage at the SCAT transfer station site, merchants and property owners are discussing long-term strategies for reshaping the city’s commercial center.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Mark Kauffman knows the idea is ambitious, but he thinks it’s worth the time and effort to fully explore it — and perhaps make it a reality.

Kauffman, a downtown property owner and member of the Downtown Improvement District, sees an opportunity to dramatically reshape the 1500 block of First Street, home to City Hall and the Sarasota County Area Transit bus transfer station. He envisions consolidating several properties, including the bus station and surface parking lots next to City Hall, into the foundation for a large mixed-use facility that works to address multiple community needs.

The complex could have commercial space on the ground floor, expanding the retail and restaurant experience north of Main Street. Upper levels could accommodate hundreds of new parking spaces, a resource for both downtown businesses and City Hall. Depending on how high the city was willing to build, Kauffman indicated there was no shortage of options to consider. Adding office space for city employees? Providing affordable housing? Why not?

“It’s long, bold,” Kauffman said. ‘But I think that’s what the area really needs.”

Kauffman’s concept was just the seed of an idea, tossed out at the March 2 Downtown Improvement District meeting during a larger discussion about garages. But it was also reflective of the long-term perspective many downtown stakeholders are taking as they consider the future of the city’s commercial core. Property owners and merchants have expressed a desire to reinvigorate and reshape downtown via major capital projects.

The timing makes some sense: The city’s downtown master plan, adopted in 2005, specifically seeks to guide development through 2020. City planning staff is in the process of exploring opportunities to update land use regulations downtown. City commissioners have identified a Main Street streetscape improvement project as a leading infrastructure priority.

As city leaders ponder the future of downtown, parking has emerged a leading point of emphasis. How might the parking landscape evolve over the next decade in the heart of the city?

Parallel pushback

One potential downtown project doesn’t have a design or funding, but it’s already been the subject of attention and debate.

For more than a decade, the city has considered redesigning Main Street to create wider sidewalks by converting existing angled parking to parallel parking. City Engineer Alex DavisShaw said the idea arose in response to public input expressing a desire for a more pedestrian-friendly downtown. It gained momentum in the past few years after the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization identified the street as a top regional site for crashes  — largely because of fender-benders associated with angled parking.

In February, the DID agreed to produce concept plans for a streetscape project in the 1400 and 1500 blocks of Main Street. The board envisioned it as an opportunity to gather public feedback and get the ear of the city in the early planning stages.

Even before those plans could be drawn up, the concept has garnered a negative reaction from some downtown merchants. At the March DID meeting, four speakers shared their opposition to the prospect of removing angled parking anytime soon. The business owners said they were concerned about the effects of construction and reducing the number of parking spaces. Because COVID-19 took a toll on business, they asked city to hold off on any major projects.

“Give us at least five to 10 years to recover with little to no disruption,” said Harmoni Krusing Bens, the owner of Lotus Boutique.

A proposal to remove angled parking from Main Street has drawn objections from some merchants, but city staff said any project is likely at least five years away.

Merchants were also skeptical about how visitors would handle parallel parking.

“Our customers can hardly pull-in park,” said Aliki Gable, the manager of Evelyn & Arthur. “Parallel parking is going to back up Main Street back to Longboat Key.”

Colleen McGue, the city’s chief transportation planner, said staff initially slated the project for the back end of a 25-year work cycle because of similar input from merchants. In February, however, city commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Hagen Brody both said the Main Street redesign should rank highly among the city’s priorities. As a result, McGue said it’s possible the project timeline is moved forward during this year’s budget cycle.

That doesn’t mean construction is imminent. Because of the expense associated with the project, the city is seeking state grants that likely won’t be available for at least five years. For now, even if officials endorse the project, the city will primarily focus on producing a design and preparing for the moment funding is secured.

Garage options

Proponents of the Main Street project said they believed merchants’ concerns could be mitigated if the city produced more parking elsewhere.

At the March 2 meeting, the DID heard a presentation from Hoyt Architects about opportunities for parking garages north of Main Street. Chris Gallagher, the vice president at Hoyt, cited a city-commissioned study that said the surface lot at 1530 First St. could facilitate a five-story garage with up to 184 spaces. More space could be added by incorporating the adjoining property that formerly housed Sur La Table.

Hoyt also analyzed the possibility of placing parking on the current site of the SCAT transfer station at First Street and Lemon Avenue. Last month, the County Commission directed staff to prepare a report with options for relocating the transfer station.

Gallagher agreed with Kauffman that a new facility at that location with ground-level retail space could expand downtown’s commercial options and reflect the ongoing growth in the city center.

“It’s hard to argue it wouldn’t be a better experience up toward City Hall if the bus station weren’t there,” Gallagher said.

It’s unclear whether the city and county would be receptive to the DID’s desires. DavisShaw said she felt the garage discussion warranted further consideration, but the city currently has no plans for a new parking facility and no money allocated toward that cause.

Still, DID board members were optimistic a First Street parking facility could be a key step toward achieving the change they envision for downtown.

“That would be a great parking asset for Main Street,” board member Wayne Ruben said. “It would help Main Street thrive.”

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