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Sarasota Tuesday, May 7, 2019 3 months ago

City approves permanent School Avenue closure

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Despite objections from neighbors, the City Commission agreed to relinquish its control of a road segment that cuts through Sarasota High School’s campus.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

The City Commission voted 4-1 Monday to close a segment of School Avenue to pedestrian and vehicular traffic, citing concerns about student safety as it approved a request from Sarasota County Schools.

The vote authorizes the permanent closure of an 800-foot portion of the street that cuts through the Sarasota High School campus, extending from Tami Sola Street to Hatton Street. An earlier agreement between the city and school district, approved last year, closed the roadway between 6:30 a.m. and 10 p.m. on days school is in session.

Representatives for Sarasota High and the school district have argued the existing closure wasn’t sufficient, expressing fear the campus could be vulnerable at night, on weekends or during the summer. Sarasota High students supporting the proposal spoke at Monday’s meeting about the need for safety improvements at the school.

Some living near the school property, including residents from the Alta Vista and Arlington Park neighborhoods, objected to the proposed closure. Opponents have argued the closure would disrupt the transportation network in the area and questioned the safety benefits associated with the request. In March, the city’s Planning Board unanimously recommended denying the closure.

The commission, however, believed the school board was justified in its efforts to unite the bifurcated campus year-round. Mayor Liz Alpert said she believed the closure would inconvenience pedestrians, but she saw safety as a higher priority.

“I don’t want to be the one that is responsible if something did happen because we voted not to vacate this today and something happened at that school,” Alpert said. “I don’t know how I could live with myself.”

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch was the lone dissenting vote. Ahearn-Koch did not think the city had adequately considered the ramifications of the proposed closure. Considering the prospect of future development in the area, she said it was important to preserve the road network when possible. She expressed concern diverting more traffic onto U.S. 41 and Bahia Vista Street would lead to more crashes.

“We have not looked at this in a big picture way,” Ahearn-Koch said.

She also questioned whether permanently closing the road would provide meaningful safety improvements at Sarasota High. She noted there are existing areas of fencing around the school that someone could reasonably climb over or crawl under. School Superintendent Todd Bowden said the district is committed to safety improvements at the Sarasota High campus, stating the planning process has been paused to wait for an outcome on the street closure request.

“When a plan is delivered to my desk, I’ll fund it in full without question,” Bowden said.

As part of the approval, the city will work with the school district on an agreement stipulating the return of the roadway if a school no longer exists on the site. The agreement requires the district to grant easements allowing utility companies, emergency services and waste collection to access the vacated roadway.

The district has committed to spending up to $3 million on bicycle and pedestrian improvements to mitigate the effects of the street closure. As the street closure moves forward, Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie was optimistic city and school officials could continue to work together on addressing neighborhood concerns about transportation.

“I don’t think vacation is the end,” Freeland Eddie said of the closure. “I think it’s the beginning.”

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