As the Bay Park Conservancy begins planning for the first anniversary of the opening of Phase 1 of The Bay, design work on the second phase of the $200 million effort to convert the city-owned 53 acres into a multi-faceted city park is underway.
Last week, the BPC held a public workshop to present an update of its plans for the $65 million second phase and to receive public input. In an estimated three years, the finished portions of The Bay will bookend the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall parking lot to the north and south, bridged by what it calls the Cultural District along Tamiami Trail and the multi-use recreational trail along the bayfront.
The workshop follows meetings hosted by the BPC with boater and food and beverage groups and precedes several more as plans are further refined for improvements along the 10th Street boat ramp canal; repurposing and refreshing buildings and open space fronting Tamiami Trail, including Municipal Auditorium; construction of the Sunset Pier at the western end of Phase 1; and fortifying the seawall on the bay.
What will likely be missing in Phase 2 are restaurants that were conceptualized, but following City Commission direction and further input from the public and working groups, they may move to Phase 3.
“We have been planning for over a year on funding for Phase 2, which is $65 million,” Bill Waddill, the BPC’s chief operating officer, told the Observer following the workshop. “About two-thirds of it is a $48 million bond with city and county tax dollars, and so that’s in the trust fund. The other one-third of the funding is through seven local state and federal grants.”
The capital cost of The Bay is evenly divided between city and county funding through a tax increment finance district on downtown property in the vicinity of the park and through philanthropy. Operations expenses will largely be the responsibility of the BPC, which is why revenue-generating aspects of the second and third phases are critical.
In addition to expanding the boat ramps on the north side of the canal, day docks are planned on the south side, providing boater access to what is envisioned as restaurant, retail and concession operations there as well as in Centennial Park, the 11 acres north of the canal.
“We've had a series of meetings with a food and beverage working group that's helping us think about food and beverage offerings in Centennial Park,” Waddill told workshop attendees. “It's always been a part of the master plan. That's an important destination not only for our community, but it's also an important revenue generator. We’re going to take 6% to 7% of the gross revenue of two or three restaurants in the in the district, and that revenue will be part of the funding for sustainable operating and maintenance revenue.”
To help streamline planning for Phase 2, the BPC won City Commission approval to consolidate several zoning districts within The Bay into one, called the Bay Park Zone. Next is a zoning text amendment, which includes vacating the 10th Street right of way west of the roundabout at U.S. 41 to accommodate future re-routing for a future Phase 4 of what is effectively the Van Wezel parking lot driveway.
“At the same time we're going through a process to update the master plan for the northern 11 acres where the boat ramp and the canal are,” Waddill said. “We're in the middle of hosting six or seven working groups and public workshops to get input on that. Then we'll update the master plan on that 11 acres and recommend it to the City Commission for approval. Once the master plan is updated, that enables us to execute what the City Commission directs with an approved master plan in the streamlined manner that we're getting approved as part of the comprehensive plan.
The strategy for streaming, Waddill said, is to accelerate park development in the face of rapid inflation. He said the BPC hopes to roll into Phase 3 development even while Phase 2 is underway, if funding allows, to help curb rising costs.
“At 6% to 8% inflation on $60 million per phase, that's real money,” Waddill said. “We're trying to accelerate the pace at which we execute the phased implementation of the master plan.”
During previous meetings with the City Commission and Bay Park Improvement Board, which comprises city and county commissioners, the BPC said Phase 2 may include some permanent structures on the south side of the canal to accommodate small shops and concessions. Also included would be an area for food trucks and other portable vendors that could be removed in the event of major storms.
Waddill said those features may be rolled into Phase 3 instead.
“The City Commission passed a resolution directing us to go back out to the community and update that Centennial Park portion of the park and include recommendations for brick-and-mortar restaurants, boating and anything else in that district,” Waddill said. “There was a bit of healthy discussion about how many restaurants and where they should go, and so the right thing to do is go back to the community, discuss and make sure we understand what the community wants and come back to the City Commission with recommendations based on that.”
That input includes those meetings with boaters and food and beverage groups. The input from those and others has prompted the BPC to pause planning for permanent structures on the south side of the canal in Phase 2.
“Amazingly for a waterfront community there's so little access to waterfront restaurants and/or a place you can bring your boat up and come to a public park, so there's a lot of demand there,” Waddill said. “We always hear, No. 1, people want to be by the water; and No. 2 or 3 is always get a bite to eat or grab a beverage or a to-go box and go sit in the park. We're working through some of the details of how to integrate that with the boaters so both can be complementary and make the northern district a great waterfront experience for everybody.”
The restaurant discussions have been somewhat polarizing among the governing bodies, particularly regarding size and location and whether they would restrict access to any portion of the bayfront in an otherwise free park. As a result of that input, the BPC is planning to propose smaller-scale eateries.
“The concept we're working on is that these restaurants would be relatively small, in the 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot range,” Waddill said during the workshop. “Think about a small restaurant in a park like Tavern On The Green in Central Park or something like that. These are park-scale restaurants. Whether we do 3,000- or 4,000-square-foot restaurants in this area, this is four to five football fields of land, so we've got a lot of land to nestle in a few restaurants and then lots of public pathways and seating areas.”
Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.