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Sarasota Friday, Oct. 11, 2019 10 months ago

Selby garage proposal remains central point of contention

Sarasota residents and officials point to proposed 486-space structure, with a restaurant on top, as the main discussion focus.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

After a public hearing that stretched more than 20 hours over three hearings, the city’s Planning Board struggled to produce a decisive recommendation regarding Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ proposed master plan.

The board was divided, ultimately voting 3-2 to recommend approval of a proposed site plan for Selby’s bayfront property and accompanying changes to the city’s zoning code and comprehensive plan.

And one of the three Planning Board members who endorsed the project offered a caveat before casting her vote, stating she opposed a provision that permitted an independent restaurant to operate on Selby’s 15-acre site even when the garden is not open.

Given the length of the meetings and the scope of Selby’s master plan, the public review of the potential project has covered many aspects of the proposal. But as the Planning Board began its final deliberations, one single building garnered more attention than any other plan element: the parking garage and rooftop restaurant.

The structure that Selby officials call the “sky garden” has been a focal point of the proposal since the master plan became public in 2017. Selby has said its 270-space parking lot is insufficient, and it believes a vertical garage structure will allow the gardens to attract more visitors while concentrating parking on a smaller portion of the property.

Opponents have used the parking garage as a central exhibit in their argument the master plan is incompatible with neighborhoods nearby. The garage could be up to 75 feet tall, more than twice as tall as the maximum height currently allowed on the property.

When the City Commission meets Oct. 28 to consider Selby’s proposal, a supermajority of four commissioners will need to support the application for it to pass. During the forthcoming public hearings, those lobbying against the project will continue to assail the scale of the garage — and those supporting it will argue the structure is right-sized for the Selby campus.

Selby officials said a variety of factors shaped the proposal for a 486-space parking garage with a footprint of about 44,000 square feet.

The botanical garden projected future attendance over the next decade based on numbers dating to 2015. They looked at the parking included at other botanical gardens across the country. They referenced existing city parking regulations and transportation engineering manuals.

The most important guiding point, however, was the parking capacity at other local destinations. Selby determined that The Ringling, which drew more than 400,000 visitors annually, had more than 600 parking spaces. Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, which drew around 350,000 visitors annually, had more than 500 spaces.

Because Selby projected its attendance to increase to between 310,000 and 340,000 annual visitors by 2030, it felt the 486-space configuration  was appropriate. In his presentation to the Planning Board, consultant Chris Cianfaglione said the parking garage was 18 spaces beyond the city’s minimum parking ratio for botanical garden uses, which is one space for each 250 square feet of floor area.

Cianfaglione argued the height of the garage was appropriate given the presence of 18-story buildings across the street along U.S. 41, and he said 486 spaces was a reasonable figure based on each metric Selby considered.

“That’s what we did to evaluate parking,” Cianfaglione said. “It wasn’t a thumb in the air. It was with some thought and diligence.”

Project opponents remain skeptical. Bill Moore, an attorney for the Bay Point Park Neighborhood Association, questioned the methodology behind Selby’s calculations and projections.

He noted that one Selby projection used a rate of growth of 4.6%, which is the average annual growth in attendance since 2015. But year-over-year growth declined over that same period, and Moore challenged the steady projection of growth based on a four-year sample size.

The master plan proposal.

Despite Cianfaglione’s assertion Selby had thoroughly vetted its proposed parking numbers, Moore argued the justification for the garage is lacking.

“I think there has to be some data,” Moore said. “The analysis can’t be, ‘We sorta feel like we need 486 spaces’ without some kind of support for that.”

Not all residents near the project site are opposed to the height of the garage, however. Robert Lincoln is an attorney representing the Hudson Crossing condominium association, which directly borders the Selby property. If the city rejects the master plan proposal, he imagined a scenario in which Selby builds a shorter parking structure with a similar number of spaces —  increasing the footprint of the building.

He said that could be even more problematic for the area surrounding Selby Gardens.

“I don't think any of those things would make it less intense, would take away any of the other kinds of issues people are worried about,” Lincoln said.  

A majority of the Planning Board harbored some concerns about the parking garage. Board member Patrick Gannon agreed the data wasn’t sufficient. Board member Kathy Kelley Ohlrich said the size was out of scale. And Chairwoman Eileen Normile, who voted to recommend approval of the site plan, objected to the plans for a standalone restaurant on the roof of the garage, stating she didn’t think it was appropriate unless it was a secondary use to the botanical garden.

The five-story garage would feature a rooftop restaurant.

The other two Planning Board members saw the parking garage as appropriate. Both David Morriss and Damien Blumetti questioned the notion there wasn’t sufficient justification.

“I don’t know if they could even possibly create more data analysis for this proposal,” Blumeti said. “We’ve never seen anything like this in the three years I’ve been on the board.”

With the project set to go before the City Commission this month, Selby Gardens President and CEO Jennifer Rominiecki said the organization would use the input shared at the Planning Board meeting to make adjustments to the master plan where possible.

Although Rominecki said Selby would consider the possibility of operational changes to the restaurant, she continued to defend the criteria used to determine the size of the garage. She said Selby has to use off-site parking more than 60 days a year currently, and the organization said the limitations of the existing parking lot will only become more pronounced.

Rominiecki also bemoaned the amount of attention devoted to the parking garage. She said Selby’s master plan is designed to improve the operations of the botanical garden, including the plant research work done on-site, and noted it would enhance public access to the Selby campus.

“Everybody has a laser focus on the parking and the restaurant, but there’s so much to this plan and so much the public will gain from executing it,” Rominiecki said.

Still, after two years of public debate over the master plan are any indication, the parking garage is poised to remain a critical topic of consideration as officials prepare to render a final verdict on Selby’s proposal.

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