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Conceptual sketch of lounge seating in medians at St. Armands Circle
Sarasota Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020 7 months ago

St. Armands Circle landowners discuss streetscape, zoning initiatives

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From sidewalk lounge seating to a new hotel, St. Armands stakeholders are in the early stages of evaluating a suite of changes to the shopping district.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

The St. Armands Business Improvement District is ready to invest up to $20,000 to create small parklets in medians on St. Armands Circle — and that’s just the beginning of the streetscape and design initiatives the group is considering undertaking.

At an Oct. 15 meeting, the St. Armands BID heard a presentation from architect Dan Lear of DSDG Architects about the first phase of a potential streetscape improvement project on the Circle. The conversation was preliminary, but Lear said the scope of this work could expand beyond the streetscape and include modifications to development standards in the shopping district.

Changes Lear mentioned at the meeting included allowing hotels on the Circle, increasing height restrictions, modifying parking standards, promoting residential development and establishing new streetscape design guidelines. The proposals drew interest from BID board members, who agreed to further explore the possibilities at a future meeting.

Short-term: Placemaking

Lear began working with the BID earlier this year as the landowners group discussed strategies for placemaking around the Circle.

After consulting with BID Operations Manager Brandy Wiesner, Lear developed a menu of options that he said could bring more energy to St. Armands. Those options included art installations, public performances, storefront enhancements and gateway signage.

“Ultimately, it came down to trying to create a space that’s going to draw people out there,” Lear said.

Dan Lear suggested adding public seating could give visitors to St. Armands more options if they wanted to take out food from a restaurant but continue to hang out in the area.

The bulk of Lear’s presentation focused on adding public amenities to sidewalks, medians and St. Armands Circle Park, intended to make the area more attractive for people to hang around. Lear said the BID could create parklets on the sidewalks and in medians by installing turf, seating, shade structures and lighting.

Some areas could have distinctive lounge chairs. Some could have tables for people to dine at after ordering takeout at a restaurant. Some could have desks with solar-powered outlets for people to work at. There could be games, such as cornhole and jumbo-sized Jenga. Lear said the spaces could be designed to for a variety of configurations depending on the will of the BID.

Dan Lear said the opportunity for change could extend into St. Armands Circle Park, which he and Circle stakeholders agreed is an underutilized space.

The design process is at least in part reflective of circumstances related to COVID-19. If people aren’t eager to go shopping or occupy indoor spaces, Lear said St. Armands could still be a hub of activity if it’s an attractive outdoor environment.

The BID was eager to test out the concept, agreeing to budget $20,000 for one or two parklets in a median on at least a temporary basis. The group highlighted the medians on North and South Boulevard of the Presidents as potential sites for the project.

BID members said they didn’t want to invest in long-term fixtures, instead treating the project as a trial and possible precursor to more permanent streetscape additions, if warranted.

Long-term: Hotels, residential and more

After just one meeting, it’s unclear what direction the BID’s partnership with Lear will take, but the group is interested in big-picture changes, too.

Lear said the BID could ask the city to revise regulations in the commercial tourist zoning district, which applies only to St. Armands Circle, to codify design and streetscape standards. But he also said there is a tension between what existing zoning accommodates and what property owners and prospective developers are interested in building on the Circle, suggesting zoning amendments could address that.

“Is this CT zoning really serving its purpose still, and are there ways we can modify it to benefit and adapt to changing needs?” Lear said.

Right now, hotels aren’t an allowed use in the commercial tourist zoning district. Lear said that came as a surprise even to Gretchen Schneider, the city’s acting development service director. BID members said they felt a hotel was a logical use in a tourist destination if construction was feasible.

“[The zoning code] talks about how the CT zoning is for tourists, for tourists, for tourists,” BID board member Mindy Kauffman said. “No hotels.”

Exterior of the Inn on Fifth in Naples
Dan Lear shared an image of the Inn on Fifth in Naples as an example of a hotel that exceeds the current height limit in St. Armands Circle but might still be palatable for the community. Photo courtesy Inn on Fifth.

Even if hotels were allowed, actually building one might prove difficult. That’s the case for residential units, Lear said, which are permitted above ground-floor retail. Limitations on building height — 35 feet maximum — and parking mandates make it hard to construct residences on the Circle. The group discussed whether revisions to the zoning code or the creation of an overlay district could make it easier.

The conversation about zoning changes was in an embryonic stage. There was no consensus on what, precisely, the BID would pursue, how it would evaluate its priorities or how it would go about achieving any changes. BID board member Gavin Meshad said he was interested in bringing in an outside party to make recommendations about what policies would best serve the Circle as a district. From there, he said, the consultant could conduct community outreach to build support.

Meshad acknowledged that the changes the BID discussed could be controversial for residents, and he said the group had to be proactive about addressing any concerns.

“Historically, the neighbors have been really resistant to height changes, use changes, traffic, all these things,” Meshad said. “These are all things that our expert has to check on a box — ‘Here’s my counter to why this isn’t going to be negatively impactful on traffic and parking.’ That’s how you sell it.”

As the BID discussed how to avoid a protracted fight to rewrite city regulations, Lear said building a broad base of support early on in the process was the most effective approach. He recommended collaborating with residents in the area sooner rather than later.

“It’s not just about us telling them what we’re going do and them agreeing to it,” Lear said. “It’s having a conversation with them.”

Lear agreed with Meshad that, despite any concerns residents might have, the changes under consideration could benefit more than just Circle property owners. A hotel on St. Armands could eliminate car trips from tourists that otherwise would have stayed downtown and driven over the Ringling Causeway to get there. Revised development standards could come with a requirement to provide enhanced streetscapes.

As the BID continues to work with Lear, the group is prioritizing efficiently going after any changes, whatever that could ultimately entail. BID board members said they wanted to identify the procedural steps they would need to take, so they could properly evaluate whether revisions to building regulations are worth pursuing.

“It’s a tall task,” Meshad said. “It’s easy to throw something out there and say, ‘This would all be great.’ But then you look in the minutia and say, ‘To get this done, it’ll take an act of God.’”

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