Architectural groups want The Bay to consider repurposing the bayfront structure — but do residents?
As the city considers adopting a master plan for redeveloping more than 53 acres of bayfront land, the fate of a vacant 33,444-square-foot building looms large in the mind of at least one official.
City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch has been a vocal advocate for the preservation of the former GWIZ building, located at 1001 Boulevard of the Arts. The building has been without a tenant since 2013, when the children’s science museum confirmed it was closing permanently.
In 2014, the city decided not to seek a new occupant, instead waiting for the results of what was then a newly hatched, community-driven bayfront planning effort.
The structure sits on a swath of city-owned land at the center of The Bay Sarasota’s efforts to revitalize the waterfront near downtown. Since The Bay began producing concepts for redesigning the property earlier this year, the GWIZ building has not been included in any vision for the future of the site.
For Ahearn-Koch, that’s a point of concern. At a June commission meeting, she urged The Bay to explore options for preserving the building, which dates to 1976.
“I don’t see any reason why it can’t be repurposed and fit into the plan and used,” Ahearn-Koch said.
Bill Waddill, The Bay’s managing director, said several factors led to the decision to propose demolition. In 2016, city staff reported the structure needed $300,000 in repairs and cost $44,000 to maintain annually. At that time, the city researched the possibility of demolishing the building, but instead deferred any decision until the bayfront plan was complete.
City staff said the building was vulnerable to flooding and possible sea-level rise. The property is also subject to FEMA regulations that limit the amount of money that can be can invested into structures built below modern elevation minimums.
Even more importantly, Waddill said The Bay hasn’t heard much public support for preserving the building. Waddill said 20% to 25% of respondents to a March survey advocated for the preservation of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall when The Bay was considering removing that structure.
Based on that feedback, The Bay incorporated the Van Wezel into its plans. The same can’t be said for the GWIZ building.
“It was about 1% or 2% that even mentioned the GWIZ,” Waddill said. “And of those who mentioned it, a number of them said, ‘Tear it down.’”
In the latest bayfront master plan, the site of the GWIZ building is part of a “recreation pier” along Boulevard of the Arts. Waddill said the proposal reflects a community desire for open space and increased waterfront access.
“We think there’s a higher, better use long term for that site,” Waddill said.
Ahearn-Koch said the architectural and design community has asked The Bay to research options for repurposing the structure. She’s gathered letters sent from organizations including the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, the Center for Architecture Sarasota and the American Institute of Architects Gulf Coast Chapter.
All of them urge the bayfront planning group to give more consideration to preservation. One of them comes from Lorrie Muldowney, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation and former manager of the Sarasota County History Center.
Muldowney said there are architectural and historic arguments for saving the building. Originally built as the Selby Library, the structure is the only one in Sarasota designed by renowned architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.
She thinks the argument goes beyond design considerations, too. She believes the building’s connection to the city’s past makes it an important part of the community’s fabric, a legacy worthy of being maintained.
“The building does represent a public investment, and it does contribute to the sense of our community,” Muldowney said. “I would just like to feel we really had explored all options fully before it was taken down.”
Muldowney said she has heard public sentiment for saving the building, but she thinks residents may not have been vocal because the property has been vacant for so long. She speculated that some people might not even realize officials are considering demolishing it.
Although the campaign for preservation may hold sway with some key figures in Sarasota, Waddill said The Bay’s plans will continue to reflect what the public has shared. Based on what the group has heard so far, that doesn’t include a strong desire to save the GWIZ building.
“We believe we need to try to understand what our guiding principles are and advance a master plan that represents the majority consensus,” Waddill said.