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Sarasota Thursday, May 20, 2021 1 year ago

Main Street businesses protest streetscape idea

Although city officials and property owners have expressed a desire to redesign two key downtown blocks, merchants aren’t happy with the prospect of losing parking spaces.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

A group of downtown business owners is asking the city not to proceed with a plan to widen sidewalks in the 1400 and 1500 blocks of Main Street by replacing angled parking with a reduced number of parallel parking spaces.

Although the project is still in the conceptual stage, merchants on the blocks are raising concerns about shrinking the on-street parking supply. Darci Jacob, the owner of clothing boutique Darci, and Harmoni Krusing Bens, the owner of Lotus Boutique, gathered signatures from businesses opposing the concept unless a series of other issues are addressed first.

Jacob and Krusing Bens see the stakes as severe, and they’re working to persuade city officials to see it the same way. Between a lengthy construction period and the elimination of the most convenient parking spaces, the merchants fear an intended beautification project could jeopardize the future of Main Street stores and restaurants.

“Do they want the small businesses to succeed, or do they want to close us?” Jacob said.

The idea for a Main Street streetscape project originated with the Downtown Improvement District, a self-taxing group of property owners in the downtown core. This year, DID board members have discussed the potential benefits of widening sidewalks, creating a more pedestrian-friendly environment and providing more room for outdoor cafes. The group paid a consultant to produce a conceptual design for the project, which emulates the look of the nearby brick-paved Lemon Avenue mall. The plans would reduce the number of parking spaces on the two blocks from 98 to 23.

A portion of the conceptual design for a Main Street project highlights the proposed changes to the 1400 block, including new landscaping, wider sidewalks and fewer parking spaces.

City planning staff praised the design, adding that the elimination of angled parking would help reduce traffic collisions.

“We were just amazed with it,” Planning Director Steve Cover said in May. “Not only does it tie in beautifully to Lemon, but it gives complete flexibility on Main Street.”

Ron Soto, a DID board member and the president of the Sarasota Downtown Enrichment Association, said a survey of merchants showed more support than opposition, though opposition was concentrated in the 1400 and 1500 blocks.

The merchant petition outlines some preconditions business owners would like to see before the city considers the project: expanding the nearby parking supply, addressing issues related to homelessness and filling existing vacancies on Main Street. Soto suggested the city should build a parking garage at First Street and Lemon Avenue at the site of the SCAT transfer station before eliminating any spaces on Main Street.

“We need to get the parking in place and then talk about this other type of thing,” Soto said.

Other merchants agreed parking is a principal point of contention. Although city officials and DID board members have highlighted the availability of parking garages on First Street, State Street and Palm Avenue, Soto said those garages have a finite supply — a portion of which is already reserved for residents and businesses. Both Jacob and Krusing Bens said they hear feedback from patrons who would rather park on the street.

“Our local clients, they don’t want to park in the garages,” Krusing Bens said. “They’ll circle around three times and leave before they park in a garage.”

Fatigue is also fueling the opposition. Merchants cited COVID-19, the installation of parking meters, red tide and other construction projects as challenges they’ve faced in the past five years. Krusing Bens suggested the city should wait five to 10 years before considering a major renovation on Main Street.

“Each hurdle we get over, there’s another hurdle,” Jacob said.

The city has no clear timeline for the proposal. In a statement issued through spokesperson Jason Bartolone, the city said it is working to get the project “as shovel-ready as possible” in the event funding becomes available.

City commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Hagen Brody have said they would like to prioritize a broader Main Street improvement project extending from U.S. 301 to U.S. 41. City staff said the city is seeking state grants for that initiative that likely won’t be available for at least five years.

The city said it would evaluate parking needs and communicate with stakeholders as plans advance.

“We are sensitive to the needs and concerns of the business community, and public input will continue to help shape the project going forward,” the statement said.

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