Plans are moving forward for a new pedestrian and cyclist route near Sarasota High School, albeit with a few trees relocated from the initial proposal.
As the city and Sarasota County Schools work to make pedestrian and bicycle improvements associated with the 2019 closure of a portion of School Avenue, they’ve run into some troubles with the trees.
When the city and school district first drew up plans for a multiuse recreational trail west of Sarasota High School, they intended to include a row of trees between the sidewalk and the roadway along U.S. 41. Despite the intended benefits — providing landscaping for the trail and shade for walkers — that plan was a problem for the Florida Department of Transportation, which cited conflict with underground infrastructure.
The proposed fix was simple: Move the trees to the other side of the sidewalk, farther from the roadway, and add some hedges to create a buffer between the trail and the vehicular travel lanes. That was fine with FDOT, but it drew objections from Ringling College of Art and Design, operators of the nearby Sarasota Art Museum. Ringling worried the trees would block the facade of the refurbished art museum building and that the bushes would require the college to provide additional landscape maintenance.
On Monday, representatives for the school district and the city appeared before the City Commission to ask for guidance on a finalized design for the segment of the MURT along U.S. 41. In a 3-2 vote, the commission voted to keep the bushes but alter the landscape plan by removing three trees, a move made in response to Ringling’s concern about obstructing the view of the museum.
“That’s covering up a beautiful, beautiful building, and they did spend lots of money refurbishing it and saving it,” Mayor Hagen Brody said.
In a subsequent 5-0 vote, the commission directed the project team to find an alternate site along the MURT route to relocate the trees. The MURT will extend from Bahia Vista Street to Browning Street. One stretch of the 10-foot-wide trail will run directly alongside U.S. 41 where a sidewalk already exists, while other portions will be farther east.
The school district is obligated to construct the MURT as part of an agreement tied to the city’s street vacation of a segment of School Avenue through the Sarasota High campus. In neighborhoods surrounding the high school, the street closure drew opposition from residents upset about the loss of a portion of the city’s public road network. In an effort to mitigate the effects of the closure, the school district agreed to spend up to $3 million on improvements on the east and west sides of Sarasota High.
The prospect of removing trees from the landscape plan on U.S. 41 divided the commission, with commissioners Erik Arroyo and Jen Ahearn-Koch voting against the proposal. Both commissioners expressed concerns about the process behind making such a revision, noting that the material for Monday’s agenda gave no indication the commission might remove or relocate trees.
“I don’t want to create any changes without public input, and I would not want to approve something without at least seeing a conceptual plan,” Arroyo said.
Ahearn-Koch objected to the merits of removing trees from the U.S. 41 segment. She said the interlocal agreement with the school district was the product of extensive community input and a series of meetings before the School Avenue closure. She questioned the notion that the trees would obstruct the facade of the museum, and she said the city needed to prioritize making the trail an attractive and comfortable place to walk or ride.
“It is Florida, and one of the best ways we can get people out there is to provide shade for them,” Ahearn-Koch said. “People will be able to view the building. Trees have trunks, and then they have branches open up.”
One resident near the project site spoke at Monday’s meeting. Linda Kitch, who lives on Bay Street, said she appreciated Ahearn-Koch’s perspective. She said the original MURT plan was a compromise between residents and other stakeholders, and she was concerned about further altering the design in a way that could make the conditions on the trail less appealing.
“If we can improve 100 yards of the landscaping along 41, that counts,” Kitch said. “Little by little, it’ll all add up.”
Despite the concerns voiced at Monday’s meeting, a majority of the commission felt relocating a small number of trees would not negatively affect the MURT project while showcasing the Sarasota Art Museum.
“I’d like to see it being able to view it from the road,” Commissioner Kyle Battie said.
The school district is targeting a completion date of September 2022 for the MURT.
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