A series of open house events this week is letting Sarasota residents tell planners what they want to see built on the bayfront — and creating a sense the redevelopment of the land surrounding the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is actually within reach.
Bill Waddill is managing director of The Bay Sarasota, the group developing a master plan for more than 50 acres of city-owned bayfront land. On Tuesday, at the first of five public events scheduled to gather input from residents, he said attendees were receptive to the planning process The Bay has put together so far.
More than that, he said, people were energized by the prospect something might come to fruition soon.
“Several people have said, ‘Wow, this might really happen,’” Waddill said. “And they’re excited about it.”
The open house events include a history of the bayfront land through the decades, a rundown of the existing site conditions and an explanation of the groups involved with The Bay Sarasota. They also invite attendees to list their priorities for the development of the land and envision their “perfect day” on the bay.
The goal is to develop a long list of ideas for what, exactly, will end up going on the bayfront land. The Bay has hired a professional planning group, Sasaki, to produce a master plan. Sasaki intends to develop a list of options for the bayfront by April, which will reflect the input gathered at this week’s workshops.
Ultimately, the work will culminate in a presentation of a master plan to the City Commission in September, if all goes according to schedule.
Ginger Schirmer and Alex Theis live along U.S. 41, across from the bayfront site. At Tuesday’s open house, they expressed a desire for more activity along the waterfront. Their ideas included outdoor performing arts space, improved trails, additional shade and a kayak launch.
They were concerned about maintaining sightlines to the water, and were enouraged the planning seemed to focus on a product that would prioritize public use of the land.
“It’s a beautiful space, and it really needs to be developed,” Schirmer said. “It’s been far too long.”
While Sasaki works on a plan for the bay, others are already working to figure out the logistics of implementing that plan. HR&A Advisors, a development consultant that worked with the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 grassroots planning initiative, will search for funding opportunities. Kathy Blaha, a Miami Beach-based parks and land use consultant, will examine governance models for managing the land.
The events also reflect an effort to capture the voices of the entire community in Sarasota. The open houses are being held at different times and in different locations, including the Van Wezel and the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex, to accommodate different schedules.
An open house Wednesday evening at Michael’s On East was specifically targeted toward individuals between 21 and 45 years old in hopes of reaching a younger demographic. And on Saturday, Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie is holding a “digital town hall” on bayfront planning with nonprofits serving Newtown, an event that will be livestreamed on Facebook.
As The Bay Sarasota accelerates toward a master plan, those involved with the organization are excited about the level of engagement throughout the community.
“I am really happy with the diversity of the group of attendees we’ve gotten,” Waddill said. “The amount of passionate feedback we’ve heard is really cool.”