Downtown's Soap Opera

By staff November 1, 2005

Once again, the parking garage dragon has raised its ugly head.

For years, Sarasota city leaders have struggled with the need to provide additional parking in the downtown core, a need rendered more urgent by the recent surge in development around the Five Points area. Yet despite its decade-long failure to provide public parking in that critical zone, the city owns a substantial piece of land there which cries out to be developed as a parking garage. Everything about it-its location, its dimensions, its ownership-would seem to make the idea a no-brainer. But this parcel, on North Palm Avenue behind the Sarasota Opera House and the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, north of Sarasota News & Books and south of Cocoanut Avenue, has somehow resisted every effort to create a mixed-use development with a parking garage there.

Perhaps its location in the theater district and behind the Opera House has shaped the way this saga has unfolded. Certainly, the process has been nothing less than operatic in its dramatic twists and turns, not to mention the high-volume public performance art it has spawned.

In Act One, an ambitious project was unveiled, in which some of Sarasota's heaviest hitters joined to present a slick design. The glamorous rendering showed slim people and sexy cars surging around ground-floor shops beneath condo towers aglow in the flattering sunlight.

Act Two brought together another team of prominent business leaders and architects to deliver a somewhat Euro-modern look, but basically the same mix of parking, chic shops and trendy restaurants underpinning towers that included "boutique" hotel rooms and condos.

Not long ago, the curtain rang down with a thud on Act Three, a mix of Mediterranean-Revival elements that assumed the participation of both the Opera and the Golden Apple, which would have brought additional land to the table. Well, no deal. Not only was this last act a downer in an increasingly tawdry drama, it also shone a spotlight on the reason these glitzy scenarios keep flopping: Sarasota's city officials seem unable or unwilling to focus on the primary purpose of this project-to build a much-needed parking garage in the center of town.

In fact, it has come to seem that the city administration has a dysfunctional view of the deal. They want a garage all right, but they want someone else to build and operate it. In their view, developers should be happy to take on the task of building the complex, selling the condominiums and hotel rooms, leasing the restaurant and shopping facilities and-this opera's Tragic Flaw-turning generous parking revenues over to the city. In someone's fevered imagination, this would be a public-private partnership made in heaven.

Unfortunately the numbers just don't work. If the opera, the theater and the developers are to have all the parking spaces they each believe they deserve, the remaining public parking earnings would not meet City of Sarasota expectations.

Every opera has a moral message. This one is both simple and sad: The city cannot have it both ways. It is long past time to face that reality head-on and do something about it. Our "new" downtown desperately needs the parking that could be created on that parcel, and the city needs to build it, without trying again to cobble together a public-private consortium to do so.

What could be wrong with simply building a good-looking, functional, safe, city-owned parking facility?

Never mind boutique hotels or, heaven help us, more condominiums. Why not construct a garage of several levels above a ground floor that would include commercial space to keep the streetscape lively and attractive? In this area, art galleries, bookstores and restaurants are generally successful; a couple of nifty clothing stores would not be amiss.

Hey, we aren't inventing the wheel here. This has been done all over the world with a good record of success. We can leave those European garages, with their mass transit or light-rail hubs (what a concept!), out of the discussion for now. But look at the other medium-sized cities with municipal parking. Just two hours to our south, Naples has a fine downtown parking garage that is good-looking, well landscaped, unthreatening and popular.

In Oregon, Portland has a system of city parking garages around the periphery of the downtown core, linked with a magical and thoroughly efficient tram system, which is free of charge in the downtown. Eugene (also in Oregon-what is it about those people? It must be the pinot noir) has built and is building more city-owned and privately operated garages around the central core. They are reasonably attractive, well lit and maintained, with retail on the ground floors providing, among other things, copy and courier services to the businesspeople who use them. And get this-many of them are free after 5 p.m.! The restaurant-theater-jazz-concert crowd loves them and keeps them full after business hours.

It can't be that difficult to do. After all, Sarasota County built a reasonably attractive parking garage on Ringling Boulevard, anchored by an elevator tower that echoes the architecture of the old courthouse nearby.

Private interests have built some attractive facilities, too, such as Links Plaza. But they're limited in size and intended to serve their tenants rather than the public at large.

I'm sure there is much I don't know about the backstage antics relating to this sad show. No doubt there are facts and figures to explain some of the odd behavior we've seen of late. But the crux of the matter is simple: This city needs accessible public parking and needs it soon. The land is there; the city has the authority to create a bond issue; the downtown redevelopment now under way requires more than the dedicated parking mandated in the new buildings under construction.

Let's try to avoid another round of theatrics like the recent debacle in the Burns Court area-more like a parking soap opera than an intelligent attempt to provide a garage on the downtown edge-and get on with a solution. The operatic dragon belongs in The Magic Flute. In downtown Sarasota, cars belong on uncongested streets and in adequate parking facilities.

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