A master plan that re-envisions Sarasota’s now asphalt-coated Bayfront as a “blue and green oasis” with a new performing arts hall won unanimous support from Sarasota City Commissioners on Thursday. The city also moved ahead with a controversial plan to implement the first phase of the project, which includes demolition of a building that once housed the Selby Public Library and the G.Wiz science museum but which has remained vacant for the past five years.
Overall, the master plan for The Bay lays out a future of 53 acres of waterfront property that includes growing cultural assets like Art Center Sarasota, preserving landmarks like the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and redefining the public space as a largely outdoor asset. The plan includes three pedestrian bridges over Tamiami Trail and a new venue with the potential to turn into one of the most important arts destinations on Florida’s west coast.
“We believe we are reaching out with a transformational master plan,” said A.G. Lafley, chairman of the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization.
Gina Ford, who has led the process by the Sasaki group while a plan developed over the past two years, says, as the property stands today, more than two-thirds of the acreage is covered by parking lots or rooftops, but once the plan gets fully implemented over the coming decades, then two-thirds of the property will be green parkland and blue water amenities.
But while the overall plan won unanimous endorsement from the Sarasota City Commission, the finer points of its implementation already introduced the first of many controversies bringing the new vision to life. Commissioners approved implementation of the first phase of redevelopment by just a 3-2 vote, with the former Selby Library the sticking point. “It has not been properly spelled out that phase 1-a of this project means the demolition of the G.Wiz building,” said Commissioner Jennifer Ahern-Koch, who along with Commissioner Willie Shaw voted against the first phase of the project.
Representatives from the American Institute of Architects spoke out against demolition of the 1975 structure, and said the Walter Netsche-designed structure had won more architecture awards than any other building on the Bayfront.
But Lafley said the future of the building has been carefully studied and that the building hadn’t had an effective use since the Selby Library functions moved to a new building downtown. G.Wiz leaders heavily renovated the structure in 2002, and ultimately went bankrupt a decade later. City staff for years has been unable to find a viable use for the building and favored demolition. Commissioner Hagen Brody said he agreed. “We don’t have to speculate to if somebody would use it or if somebody has a desire to use it,” Brody said. “It’s been sitting vacant for years.”
Officials from the Van Wezel Foundation on Thursday announced they had launched a new fundraising campaign and had just been willed $10 million to preserve and expand venues on the Bay, including the creation of the new performing arts hall. In addition to allowing a doubling in programming and increasing seats, the development should raise the prestige of the Bay project overall. “We shouldn’t have to wait 21 tears for the Lion King here, or for Hamilton, for heaven’s sake,” said Van Wezel executive director Mary Bensel.
As for the price of all this, the project will benefit from philanthropy, and SBPO leaders said the city should consider creation of a tax-increment district, which could raise an estimated $150 million over 20 years. That would cover the $40- to $50-million improvements and allow revenue to boost the surrounding region. But that will be discussed by city officials at a later date. In the next 100 days, the city commission will see contract proposals from a new conservancy that will manage the site.