Sarasota's traffic may have eased up (slightly) in the offseason, but the news certainly didn’t slow down. Major developments have been afoot underfoot while you, our snowbird friends, were in cooler climes. (Yes, some of us may be jealous. How’s the weather been down here you ask? Well, not to be hyperbolic, but practically volcanic!)
Nowadays, even May through October, Sarasota keeps humming along, so we don’t want you to feel left out when the conversation turns to local happenings. That’s why we’ve put together this rundown of some of the top stories you may have missed while you were elsewhere.
So welcome back, but before we dive in, you should know it’s easier than ever to keep a finger on the pulse of paradise, because while you were away, the Observer rolled out its own app for smartphone, tablet and desktop users, featuring an enhanced reading experience. Of course you can always read the latest on YourObserver.com, but with the app you can even have Observer articles narrated for your listening enjoyment!
So here's some of what you may have missed.
1. The big blow-by
For about two solid weeks, there was one word on everyone’s minds: Idalia. The tropical storm, then hurricane seemed at times like it might chart a course right for Sarasota. Sandbag stations were crowded as Idalia approached, and on Aug. 28 evacuation orders began. Soon Longboat Key, St. Armands, Bird Key, Siesta Key and low-lying and coastal areas of Sarasota were under evacuation orders in advance of the storm.
But the Category 4 hurricane brushed past the area, diverting north through the gulf before making landfall Aug. 30 in the Big Bend area of Florida.
Although Sarasota was spared a direct hit, it didn’t escape completely unscathed. Storm surge from Idalia combined with a king tide to inundate areas of Longboat Key and flood St. Armands Circle and Sarasota’s bayfront. Several boats in the bay were damaged or shoved ashore.
And then another wait began for some. The wait to return home. Emergency responders were hard at work restoring access to the barrier islands, with access to Siesta Key restored quickly but with the Circle underwater and both bridges closed, residents had no way of knowing what they would find. Gradually the waters receded, with Cortez Bridge and Longboat Pass Bridge reopening before the Ringling Bridge.
It wasn’t until the night of Aug. 31 that St. Armands Circle was fully accessible again. Most businesses there were able to clean up and reopen in a day or two.
2. Not-in-the-roundabouts art
By now, seasonal residents may have expected to see some work on the foundations for the installation of sculptures in the roundabouts on U.S. 41 at 10th and 14th streets.
The city is on the hook for Seagrass and Poly, for which it has earmarked some $350,000. Meanwhile, the initial bid — as in singular — to build the concrete pads in the roundabouts was in excess of $1 million, more than double the amount budgeted by the city. That’s because, it was explained, it costs more to do work within the FDOT right-of-way and certified contractors are few and far between.
That and the rapidly rising cost of concrete since the foundations were budgeted.
Jon F. Swift Construction value-engineered the project to a point, but not far enough for the city’s liking, so Public Art Coordinator Mary Davis Wallace and the Public Art Committee were tasked to identify locations within the city and county right-of-way, where construction is less costly, to place the two new sculptures; a third piece yet to be approved by the City Commission originally destined for the Fruitville Road roundabout; and Complexus, a sculpture that was moved to make way for the roundabout at Gulfstream Avenue.
The City Commission has yet to sign off on the relocation plans and does have the option of instructing staff to find the money to place them in their intended locations.
3. Design time for SPAC
A nine-month global search by a select committee yielded three finalists for architects to create a design for the planned Sarasota Performing Arts Center. Following a day-long public forum during which the three — Renzo Piano Building Workshop of Genoa Italy, Snohetta of Olso Norway and Foster + Partners of New York City — made their in-person pitches, the task force selected Renzo Piano.
Contract negotiations with the city to draw up the replacement of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall have yet to begin as the firm is in the process of obtaining a license to provide architectural services to a government entity in Florida. A boutique firm, Renzo Piano on average takes on only two new projects per year.
Contrary to what its name might infer, the firm does not build pianos. It is named after its founder, Renzo Piano, who remains active in its work.
There was high interest in the project among the global architecture community. The city’s initial request for qualification brought 43 responses from around the world from firms that specialize in the design of such cultural facilities. The committee first sent requests for proposals to 18 of those firms, then cut the list to seven before paying site visits to one each of their finished projects. From that pool, three were invited to Sarasota to make their pitches.
4. Those purple ribbon people
With the process moving forward on its replacement as the city’s performing arts facility centerpiece, a new committee has begun its work on the underlying question of what to do with the beloved, and iconically purple, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
Committee members were selected in one each of five areas of expertise and two others city residents at-large. Members are Morris Hylton III (historic preservation), David Rovine (performing arts facilities finances), Charles Cosler (architecture, design and reuse of large public buildings), Robert Bunting (FEMA, climate adaptation and floodplains), chairperson Lee-En Chung (civil structural engineering), and at-large members Melissa Gissinger and Selma Goker Wilson.
With a handful of meetings and a tour of the Van Wezel under their belts, the committee is in the process of drafting its scope of work. Their task is to study and recommend any potential reuse of the 54-year-old, city-owned facility once the proposed SPAC is built in The Bay park on the opposite corner of the current Van Wezel parking lot.
5. What's in a bubble?
If you thought Sarasota real estate was headed for a correction this offseason, think again! Slow-down, what slow-down? Rising interest rates? Never heard of ‘em.
While insurance companies question the wisdom of building houses on narrow strips of sand in the Gulf of Mexico, luxury homebuyers remain undeterred and as a result still more record real estate listings closed this summer. Two of them in a single day, in fact.
On June 1, a house at 622 S. Owl Drive sold for $9.75 million, claiming the record for the highest residential sale ever recorded on Bird Key — briefly. Because later that same day, the neighboring house, 626 S. Owl Drive, sold for $11.25 million. Practically a bargain after being listed at $12 million.
Of course, those estates on Bird Key are emblematic of the continued interest, nay, the wild-eyed demand for Sarasota-area real estate.
Proof positive of that trend could be found in the $34 million Sarasota listing that hit the market in September. The bayfront estate at 1233 Hillview hasn't sold yet, but its sale is likely to set records when buyers are found for the nearly acre site with more than 140 feet of water frontage. The custom-built home is 11,275 square feet with eight bedrooms and 12 bathrooms.
In the meantime, a record was set for the most expensive condo sale in Sarasota when buyers closed on a penthouse at 605 S. Gulfstream Ave. in June.
The two-level unit in the Epoch Building fetched $11.15 million for its Sarasota Bay views and 6,000 square feet of interior space and 1,700 square feet of exterior space.
6. Goin' round the twist
Although some obvious esoteric work remains to be competed on its perimeter, the long local traffic nightmare that was construction of the roundabout on Gulfstream Avenue at U.S. 41 is over. Although the roundabout opened to traffic last winter, it was subject to occasional lane closures that continued into the spring as work on approaches to the city’s largest traffic circle lingered.
Those lane closures have ceased as ancillary work around the roundabout was completed, the long-term intersection closures north of the project area are now open, pedestrians can now safely cross the highway and it’s easy once again to get to the Swim City parking lot.
Gulfstream Avenue joins completed roundabouts on U.S. 41 at Fruitville Road, 10th Street and 14th Street.
The good news for construction-weary drivers is that Gulfstream Avenue is the last of FDOT’s chain of planned roundabouts along U.S. 41 through the downtown area for a while.
Under design are two more on U.S. 41 at Myrtle Road and MLK Jr. Way, and studies and planning for roundabouts at U.S. 41 at Ringling Boulevard and at Main Street are underway. Such projects take eight to 10 years from the time they reach the top of the FDOT priority list to the start of construction.
What that means is the building owners won’t be paying additional property taxes for enhanced city services and other improvements for the benefit of the landlords, their tenants and customers. The result will be fewer sidewalk and alley cleanings, less landscaping and other esoteric niceties that the BID provided, unless the property owners take on those expenses on their own.
Also different this year will be the absence of the Winter Spectacular as organizers abandoned plans to bring the monthlong holiday festival back for a second year, citing “the loud voices of a minority of citizens,” in opposition to a reprise of the event. In its place, returning will be the annual Holiday Night of Lights tree-lighting event and other previously regular December of events, including Porsches in the Park.
8. Tee it up
Returning snowbirds will have a new place to play golf this winter with the imminent grand re-opening of the Bobby Jones Golf Course. Talk of a renovation of the 45-hole complex on Fruitville Road began in the middle of the last decade and, after multiple iterations the city finally settled on a restoration of the original 18-hole Donald Ross layout plus a reimagined par-3 course in what project architect Richard Mandell calls an “adjustable” course.
While the par-3 will have five possible circuits for playing, the Donald Ross course will have only one — the original track created by the world-renowned architect enhanced to incorporate modern drainage on what would otherwise be a wetland. Although the course was lengthened, the scorecard identifies the tee boxes on each hole to allow golfers to play each from the original Ross distance.
Golfers will check in and snack in a temporary clubhouse for at least two years, but the city is working with general contractor Jon F. Swift Construction to design an upwards of $9 million facility in Old Florida style that will include a full-service restaurant and event space above a cart barn for electric carts. Although the course layout invites walking, with no indoor cart storage it will open with gas-powered carts.
9. The air up there
Plans for one controversial condo building were rejected by both the Planning Board and a circuit court judge while another is still working to overcome regulatory hurdles.
Meanwhile, the 342-foot tall, 14-luxury unit Obsidian proposed for 1260 Palm Ave., while administratively approved on almost all points, will appeal to the Planning Board a staff rejection of two of its key ground-level city code exception requests. Having met with a groundswell of opposition from residents of adjacent and nearby downtown condo towers, primarily over the height and scale of the building, should the Planning Board uphold the staff’s ruling developer Matt Kihnke could eventually take his case to the City Commission.
10. Going up?
If you flew into Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport to start your wintertime residency, you most likely saw vertical construction taking place adjacent to the south end of the passenger terminal.
In 2019, SRQ served 1.3 million passengers. This calendar year, airport officials project 4.3 million travelers passing through the terminal.
Future plans include connecting the new gate area, which will be labeled Concourse A, with the existing 13-gate Concourse B, where three more jet bridge-served gates will be added. That will give SRQ the capacity to serve upwards of 7 million passengers per year, according to Rick Piccolo, the airport’s president and CEO.
Airport expansion isn’t limited to passenger areas, though.
A new parking lot at Old Bradenton Road and University Parkway will add capacity, a new, amenitized cellphone lot is already open, and the airport is working to rezone land it owns within the city to add more hotel rooms, retail and restaurant space and consolidate rental car service areas onto one parcel. Long-term plans include a parking structure on the current short-term parking lot.
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.
James Peter is the managing editor of the Longboat and Sarasota Observers. He has worked in journalism in a variety of newsroom roles and as a freelance writer for over a decade. Before joining the Observer, he was based in Montana and Colorado.