park politics

Developer's Hopes to Build a Food Court on Downtown Park Property on Hold

Several residents spoke out against the plan at a Sarasota City Commission meeting on Monday.

By Kim Doleatto December 7, 2021

Paul N. Thorpe Jr. Park.

A New York development firm wants to build a food court on a piece of a downtown Sarasota park owned by the city, but after wide opposition to the plan emerged, the City Commission on Monday voted to delay discussion of the proposal.

The move comes after years of legal wrangling over the parcel, which is part of Paul N. Thorpe Jr. Park, located at the intersection of S. Pineapple Avenue and Lemon Avenue. Earlier this year, a judge found the city of Sarasota to be the rightful owner of the 30-foot-wide piece of land, which is adjacent to the Northern Trust parking garage alongside the park. EDM Realty Partners, LP, the New York City firm that claimed the land didn't belong to the city, filed an appeal after that decision, but the company meanwhile proposed another solution.

That solution? EDM would buy the parcel from the city for $275,000. According to the offer, the space would be used to build a multi-tenant food court with rooftop seating and tables on the ground floor. The food court would include restrooms for customers and that the public could use during the weekly downtown Sarasota Farmers Market.

Paul Thorpe Park is approximately 10,890 square feet. The size of the disputed parcel is approximately 5,409 square feet—roughly half of the park.

Yesterday, EDM's legal representative, Icard Merrill attorney William Merrill III, was on hand to present EDM's proposal to commissioners. The company had 20 minutes to do so, but took no more than five, when Merrill asked for a continuance instead.

"We've learned today there's a significant amount of correspondence in the matter that we haven't seen yet and we ask for a continuance to reschedule the meeting through the city attorney's office so we can address those concerns," Merrill said.

Commissioners voted unanimously to grant the request, but still allowed 24 members of the public to share their input. Only three people spoke in favor of selling the parcel to EDM, claiming it would staunch vagrancy and safety issues. The other 21 speakers included the president of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, David Lough, who urged the city to retain the green space that cost the city "well over a million dollars" to update with swings, benches, pavers, landscaping, a trellis and more. In fact, a 2019 receipt from Jon F. Swift Construction indicates a total cost of just under $3,480,000. That same year, the park was awarded a Civic Beautification Award for Outstanding Landscaping by the Sarasota Garden Club.

Several of the speakers claimed the proposed settlement by EDM was "extortion," since the firm didn't get its way in court.

According to City Attorney Bob Fournier, the judge who ruled in favor of the city's ownership of the land did so on three main points, and that EDM would have to obtain a reversal on all three points to win an appeal, giving the city an advantage in the lawsuit.

A new date has not yet been set for city commissioners to hear EDM's settlement proposal.

A Bit of the Backstory

In 2016, the city sold Hembree & Associates a 5,049-square-foot property next to the park for $260,000, despite a group of residents who fought against the sale, saying it infringed on public park space.

In partnership with another company, State Street Partners (SRQ) LLC, Hembree planned to build a two-story office and commercial building on the site. Announced tenants included Sarasota Magazine, RE/MAX Platinum Realty and the jewelry shop Optional Art.

But the owner of the nearby Northern Trust bank, EDM, challenged the city’s initial ownership of the land and claimed it had no right to sell it. The two firms entered a legal battle that ended in a dismissal. The city then agreed to pay $300,000 to get the land back in 2018.

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