Mixed Blessing

By staff June 1, 2006

It has become too customary lately to describe new projects in Sarasota's downtown with the glib "good news, bad news" moniker. The unfortunate truth is that almost nothing that has happened in response to the new master plan is without signifcant drawbacks. In general, the good news relates to the immediate effect of some of the new projects, while the bad news can be seen as long-term and, therefore, probably more important.

And that's true of the redevelopment of our downtown center at Five Points. This is, in effect, our Times Square, our Piazza di Spagna, our Trafalgar Square, albeit vastly more modest. Even the name, a charming allusion to our small-town past, refers to the quirky way in which several streets find themselves meeting, in contrast to the orderly grid that was later imposed on the city center. So the way in which the Five Points area around the eponymous (and sadly ill-defined as well as constantly controversial) park will be developed is of enormous importance. Every city needs a focus, a place of assembly, a social center. Ours is Five Points, not, alas, the bayfront, a shabby and isolated treasure. It's the place where you can meet friends casually, where you can read the newspaper, sip a drink and watch the passing parade in comfort and style.

Here's the good news: The central meeting-place objective has been achieved, at least on the east side of the park, where the new Five Points Plaza building and the Whole Food Center/100 Central have risen. Here are the wide sidewalks, sheltering arcades, and outdoor seating that are essential to urban life and to the young people who give it so much energy. These two buildings, at least in their ground floors, define the space with civility and style, facing the park on the west and defining the urban space of First Street on the east.

It's such boundary walls that create the illusion of the urban "living room." Even in your home, you tend to spend the most time in rooms that reflect a human scale, not in a large space that makes you feel dwarfed. One of the mysteries of the megahouse trend is why people build rooms in which they do not live. McMansion owners hang out in the kitchen, den, or-heaven help us-in an enormous master bathroom, complete with microwave oven, fireplace and recliners, rather than in the chilly vastness of their "great room."

To experience our municipal salon, start at the tables scattered in front of Starbucks and Pino's restaurant, near the massive porte-cochere in front of 100 Central, and walk First Street east toward the Whole Foods Market, the bus transfer station and City Hall. Shops line the street, punctuated on your right by a glamorous entrance to what is called the Motor Court of Five Points Plaza. At this point, the structures above do not dwarf you, partly due to their setback and sensible design. You may find yourself saying, as I did, "Hey, this is a real city street!" However, when viewed from anywhere else in the neighborhood, the two buildings that provide these pleasant urban spaces on the ground take on a different aspect.

In fact, both Five Points Plaza and 100 Central/Whole Food Center are unambitious designs at best and depressing architecture at worst. Looking upward, as one should in a central public space, or from other angles, such as from the west side of the park or, on the east, from the Lemon Avenue mall, they are hulking presences, far heavier than they need to be.

The 100 Central Tower's primary mass is made up of a pattern book of pseudo Med-Rev decorations and details that seem pasted on to an enormous block of cement. The balconies and turrets have little relationship to the scale of the building they accessorize, apparently seeking to reduce its mass by a torrent of fussy gestures, causing it to resemble a stack of twee cottages. Oddly, the complex is more appealing as it recedes to the east to become parking garages, one for the general public, the other facing the Whole Foods Market. Even though the garages are given phony windows and other faux-residential touches, their scale is better controlled, and they don't seem as cynical as the main structure.

Five Points Plaza, with its glowering gray façade, resembles a government ministry, especially on the main façade, which rises from the park side without the benefit of setbacks. Black iron grillwork adds an authoritarian note barely tempered by the questionable use of Bermuda shutters and large "windows" on the garage exterior walls. The arcades on either side of the main mass are more successful, however, lightened by setbacks at the fourth level. As one sees the tower from the back, which is the aspect most visible from upper Main Street and the terminus of First Street, its money-saving plainness is almost a relief, enlivened by the improbable palm trees which decorate the swimming-pool deck above the garage block.

On the First Street flank, that snazzy "Motor Court" entrance, dominated by a soaring Art Deco ceiling, is visually damaged by views of the backstage elements, such as utility rooms. But the commercial spaces that face the Whole Food shops across First Street have the potential to add considerable life to the street, which is-even now-quite a pleasure to drive or walk, not the dark wind tunnel some had predicted.

It's hard to understand how the architects and developers of these crucial elements in Sarasota's downtown have managed to create a pleasant street scene while imposing such lugubrious mass on this key downtown space. The Selby Public Library building has, at last, retreated into relative anonymity (not a bad thing), and the bunker-like Zenith building doesn't look quite so grim in this new context. The Opera House is, as always, a graceful element, as are the Bijou Café building and the nearby Library Mews townhouses.

Remember when those citizens who participated in the master plan charrettes were assured that only one 17-story "signature" building would be allowed at the city's center, providing a landmark symbolizing the future of our town, while its neighbors would be kept in scale? Well, we got the big building, all right, in the shape of Five Points Plaza. But it is surely not the distinguished architectural landmark, the symbol of our municipal future, that we hoped for and deserve.

In May, Richard Storm won third place for "Best Criticism" for this column in a statewide contest conducted by the South Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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