In a 4-1 vote Monday, the City Commission said it was open to hearing proposals for the sale and development of the Fillmore Drive parking lot on St. Armands Circle, a move intended to allow further consideration of plans for a hotel on the city-owned property.
The commission’s vote was a response to a conceptual development proposal the city received earlier this year. In May, developers John Meshad, Gavin Meshad and Dennis McGillicuddy appeared at a commission meeting to detail their vision for transforming the 1.98-acre site. The group proposed a 98-room hotel, 15,000-square-foot Morton’s grocery store, six townhomes and 270 covered public parking spaces to maintain the capacity of the existing lot.
At Monday’s meeting, City Attorney Robert Fournier went over the commission’s legal obligations when it came to considering a private development proposal of the city-owned lot. Fournier said the city was not obligated to open a competitive bid process before selling the land, though the commission could pursue such an initiative if it were interested in actively soliciting more proposals. But a majority of the commission spoke positively about the hotel plan, expressing an interest in considering a sale of the parking lot to facilitate the project as presented.
“I think it’s a good proposal,” Commissioner Liz Alpert said. ”I think it would be a benefit to St. Armands, I think it would be a benefit to the public and I'm in favor of moving forward.”
During his presentation to the commission, Fournier also detailed the hurdles a builder would have to overcome to construct a project in line with the one submitted. The developer would need to get the city to approve a series of revisions to existing regulations in St. Armands Circle, rewriting the zoning code and comprehensive plan to allow for hotels, residences and buildings up to 45 feet tall — 10 feet taller than the current maximum in the area.
The St. Armands Business Improvement District, a self-taxing group of property owners that includes Gavin Meshad as a board member, is already in the process of pursuing those changes for the commercial tourist zoning district on St. Armands. Although the parking lot property is zoned for governmental use, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch suggested the city should hold off on considering redevelopment of the Fillmore site until officials have a chance to evaluate the broader regulatory revisions the BID is submitting.
The BID anticipates its proposal will go to the Planning Board and City Commission for public hearings in early 2022. Ahearn-Koch said allowing that application to go through the city’s review process would help illuminate the public’s feelings about hotel development and taller buildings on St. Armands, which could inform the commission’s decision on the Fillmore lot.
“Let’s test the waters, and then we can engage — or not,” Ahearn-Koch said.
Members of the public who spoke at Monday’s commission meeting also encouraged officials to take their time in considering the prospect of redeveloping the parking lot. Kevin Hennessy is an attorney representing Ocean Properties, a company whose portfolio includes four barrier island hotels, including the Lido Beach Resort, Sandcastle Resort at Lido Beach and Holiday Inn Sarasota-Lido Beach. Hennessy asserted the city was taking a backwards approach to the potential sale of the Fillmore property, arguing officials should be engaging with the public to determine the best path forward for the site and surrounding area.
“What has the city done to create its vision for St. Armands Circle?” Hennessey said.
Mayor Hagen Brody noted that a 2008 master plan the city produced identified a grocery store and boutique hotel as top needs for the Circle based on stakeholder surveys. Brody said he believed that remained true today, calling the grocery store in particular a significant benefit for individuals living on the barrier islands. Brody said he was not interested in going through a competitive bid process, because he felt it would take additional time and resources without any guarantee a project would be built in the end.
“I’m in favor of getting things done,” Brody said.
Fournier advised against the city jointly negotiating the details of a contract with an interested purchaser, indicating it could create a perception of bias if the commission is asked to review future development proposals for the land. Instead, the city is inviting a prospective developer to submit a contract proposal for consideration.