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Sarasota Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020 2 months ago

St. Armands bathroom plans remain in flux

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In response to rising costs, officials are considering scrapping the favored design and housing the restrooms in shipping containers.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Despite merchants’ eagerness to bring public restrooms to St. Armands Circle, the St. Armands Business Improvement District continues to struggle to finalize construction plans for a bathroom structure in the commercial district.

At a Nov. 18 meeting, the BID discussed its long-gestating efforts to build public restrooms, an effort that dates back nearly five years. The group has produced a design and earned the city’s approval earlier this year to put a facility with three bathrooms in the median at John Ringling Boulevard and South Washington Drive.

As the group sought a contractor to build the project, however, it received some disconcerting news. BID Operations Manager Brandy Wiesner said the initial construction quotes the group received exceeded $500,000 — well above the $300,000 the BID budgeted for construction.

Wiesner said the city is not scheduled to formally unseal the actual construction bids until early December. Still, officials have already taken some steps to respond to the higher-than-expected quotes. The city revised its bid request to ask respondents to provide two alternative prices — one with some design features removed, the other with one of the three bathrooms eliminated.

At the Nov. 18 meeting, the board discussed another possible cost-saving measure: scrapping the selected design altogether and using a shipping container to create a bathroom facility. Weisner highlighted examples of other projects that repurposed shipping containers and said the prefabricated structures could be designed to better complement the aesthetics of the Circle.

Early concept images shared at a November BID meeting showed what a shipping container restroom facility might look like. Image via city of Sarasota.

Weisner said the shipping containers could save money on construction and flood-proofing. She estimated the total cost of the project using shipping containers would be around $200,000. If the BID decided to change its plans, the group would have to get new approvals from the city’s Board of Adjustments — and possibly from the City Commission itself.

The shipping container pitch didn’t win over Diana Corrigan, executive director of the St. Armands Circle Association. Even with the proposed enhanced design, Corrigan said she believed the container did not meet the standards of St. Armands.

“Now we’re going backwards,” Corrigan said. “I get the costs, but we’re going backwards. I take a look at this, and this is not St. Armands Circle.”

Others in attendance Nov. 18 were more open to the idea. Earlier this year, BID board member Gavin Meshad expressed some hesitance to move forward with the restroom project considering the economic environment associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. At last month’s meeting, Meshad said he was increasingly concerned about constructing a permanent structure.

“Given the direction of our economy, retail and so forth, I wonder if spending half a million dollars on a restroom is really as important as it was a year or two ago,” Meshad said.

Meshad wanted the BID to continue its consideration of the initial plans, but he was unhappy with the rising costs and the prospect of losing some design elements. He said it was prudent to explore the shipping container alternative and suggested that alternative solutions to the Circle’s public restroom shortage could arise in the future, eliminating the need for a fixed facility.

BID board member Mindy Kauffman also thought the preliminary quotes were concerning, but she said St. Armands businesses continue to emphasize their desire for public restrooms.

“I did take the time to talk to a bunch of different merchants on the circle to put my finger on the pulse of how important this is to the different merchants,” Kauffman said. “I generally found out that it is very, very important.”

At the conclusion of the Nov. 18 meeting, the BID agreed to continue evaluating both the permanent structure plans and the potential viability of the shipping container alternative. Until the construction bids are unsealed, the group held out hope the costs would be more in line with the budget than the quotes indicated.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do if it comes in at $500,000,” Kauffman said.

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