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City Commission hears update on bayfront planning effort

At a workshop Monday, commissioners asked questions about Sarasota Bayfront 20:20’s vision for developing city-owned land near the Van Wezel — before offering signs of support.

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  • | 10:12 p.m. February 22, 2016
Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 leaders hope to share more details on a new planning organization within the next two months.
Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 leaders hope to share more details on a new planning organization within the next two months.
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Even as Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 pushes into the next phases of a master planning effort for more than 40 acres of city-owned land, leaders acknowledge there are many significant questions that remain unanswered.

On Monday, Bayfront 20:20 provided an update on its work at a City Commission workshop. The group, comprised of 50 stakeholder organizations, has developed a series of guiding principles for developing the land surrounding the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Now, it’s working to apply those principles and devise a plan for the future of the bayfront area.

At the workshop, Bayfront 20:20 Chairman Michael Klauber outlined the group’s recent accomplishments and proposed next steps. Most significantly, Bayfront 20:20 plans to help create a new, distinct organization to lead the master planning process for the land in questions.

Commissioners asked a series of questions to Bayfront 20:20 leaders — about funding, about the existing properties, about environmental concerns and other topics.

Klauber and other Bayfront 20:20 representatives were unfazed by the commission’s questions, many of which could not substantively be addressed at this point in time. The goal, they said, is to answer long-standing questions in the next phase of the planning process.

“These are excellent questions, and we’ve been asking them ourselves,” Klauber said. “This is why we wanted to embark on creating the planning organization.”

According to Bayfront 20:20 leaders, the planning organization would consist of a board of directors and a project manger. The project manager would likely come from outside of the city and have experience leading a similar public-private partnership. Sarasota residents with expertise managing large projects would be tapped for the board of directors, said Jon Thaxton, the senior vice president for community investment at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

In total, the planning process comes with an estimated cost of $1 million. Klauber said Bayfront 20:20 would work to privately raise the entirety of the necessary funds.

Venue Menu

A significant portion of the meeting focused on the Van Wezel and Sarasota Orchestra. Two recent studies examining both institutions have called for the creation of new performing arts halls. Representatives for the orchestra and Van Wezel Foundation both asserted a real need exists for more performance venues, as arts organizations are competing for an increasingly small amount of space.

“This is a calendar issue that’s only going to be solved with additional performing arts venues.” — Joseph McKenna

“The facts here are really simple,” Sarasota Orchestra President Joseph McKenna said. “(Van Wezel Executive Director) Mary (Bensel) cannot solve this problem. This is a calendar issue that’s only going to be solved with additional performing arts venues.”

The Van Wezel is less than 50 years old, but a consultant hired by the Van Wezel Foundation says the venue needs to be replaced. Steven Wolff, the principal of AMS Planning and Research, said retooling the current hall would only go so far — that without a new building, the city would just be riding out tail end of the Van Wezel as a competitive entity.

“I think it’s a long tail,” Wolff said. “There are probably years to go, but there probably aren’t decades and there aren’t half-centuries.”

The subsequent discussion among commissioners included questions on cost and community demand for a new performance venue. Klauber said Bayfront 20:20 is still not supporting any specific plan for development, but that details regarding new facilities should be hashed out during the planning process.

The commission does not take action during workshops, but multiple commissioners signaled support for Bayfront 20:20’s direction.

“We need people who know what they’re doing to do this planning, who are able to answer all these questions,” Commissioner Liz Alpert said. “Then you can make the decisions that need to be made.”

There were also multiple indications that the commission wished to proceed with caution. Bayfront 20:20 leaders offered assurances that any planning organization would operate with significant transparency and community input. The city would have to approve any plan developed by an outside organization.

“I am far more concerned with our planning being deliberate and inclusive.” — Willie Shaw

Bayfront 20:20 has set a goal of getting a “shovel in the ground” by December 2017, and also hopes to complete the planning process by that date. Klauber said that deadline could represent a smaller or even symbolic step forward, addressing the commission’s desire to thoroughly examine the future of the bayfront land.

“It gives me the idea we’re not rushing into anything,” Mayor Willie Shaw said. “I am far more concerned with our planning being deliberate and inclusive.” 


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