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Saturday, September 24, 2022

St. Armands under threat by traffic, hotel plans

Editor & Publisher

Some people are born in an intellectual fog. Being in a fog they gravitate toward loud and constant noise to find their way. They stumble around, attach themselves to bad ideas and are influenced by more powerful folks. In the City of Sarasota, they sometimes slink their way onto the City Commission.

And I say this not to be mean or personal. But, one only has to study the case of the City Commission’s continued encouragement and entertainment of the idea of selling one of the largest public parking lots on St. Armands Circle, to see the very definition of out-of-touch leadership.


In the beginning…

The plan emerged last August when Gavin Meshad and company brought an unsolicited plan to the Commission to buy the Fillmore Parking lot, build a hotel and market and perhaps a restaurant.

So the Commission, which was previously convinced by Meshad and the St. Armands Business Improvement District to build a parking garage and obligate taxpayers to $13 million in bonds to address the massive need for additional parking, now were asked to allow additional zoning entitlements to mar Lido Key and destroy the very quaintness and scale of the island that we all have come to treasure.

And what is even more troubling than the long-term scheming and eyeballing of a public asset for personal gain is the ask for the allowance of tourism zoning at 150 units-per-acre and a height increase for the entire Circle.

The Circle as we know it — the scale, the charm, the character — would all be gone. We are talking about the abject Disneyfication of what needs to be protected.


Traffic traffic and more traffic

Simply put, we are already reaching a choking point. Traffic, Downtown development, the use of residences as Airbnb rentals, have created a de facto choice — do we protect this somewhat exclusive and fragile and beautiful island, or do we treat the Circle and Lido like Sally the Holstein Cow and tie her too a tree and milk her till she is simply a memory?

Remember, the St. Regis will add more than 200 hotel and condo units and is under construction on Longboat. A hotel, Inn on the Pass, will be built and the zoning has been approved and will add hundreds of units and the Sandcastle on Lido will soon be rebuilt and expand and has been approved. That is all within walking distance of the Circle.

Not to mention traffic and the roundabouts. Why did we build them? As a Hail Mary to deal with traffic that is choking the region year-round.

Previous City Commissions recognized the need to market and encourage a thriving St. Armands shopping and dining district. But they also recognized that it should be zoned strictly commercial to provide a destination for visitors and residents to shop and stroll.

It was never wanted nor desired to rebuild the circle with hotels to funnel tourists in like a cruise ship. If this hotel plan goes through and especially the zoning amendments allowing tourism units, it will mark a capitulation that can never be undone. It adds up to 1,200 possible rooms to the Circle under the zoning changes being sought.


Up the river with Martin Sheen…

But then it gets even stranger, like the journey up the river in Apocalypse Now.

Not only is the idea of selling the Fillmore Parking lot a distraction that needs to be stopped, the proposals made to purchase the lot are untenable even from the basis of good business.

In short, the City attorney last week took 18 pages of persuasive analysis to opine that the offers do not sufficiently address the lost parking revenue from a loss of parking spaces. And even worse, again, the offer from Meshad could end up costing the taxpayers money to sell their own property.

The proposals to sell the Fillmore lot will be discuses at Feb. 7 meeting in City Hall. Our fear should be that the Commission unabashedly and desperately try and find some angle or justification for this gifting of public property.


Lower your expectations…

In City Hall you will see a dense fog settle at the Feb. 7 meeting. The developers will beckon from one shore and the City Attorney will attempt to summon the adrift commissioners back to safety.

I feel bad to disparage fog.

Fog is beautiful in the morning and clears and then the air is crisp. The Sarasota City Commission will not grow clear. The St. Armands Residents association, the Lido Key Homeowners Association and the Town of Longboat Key are all terrified at the plans in play.

The region has experienced year after year of record tourism. We are growing faster with new residents moving in than most anywhere else in the nation. We are choking with transpiration and infrastructure demands.

This is not something we can sit idly by and watch happen. If this nonsense is not stopped, someday soon we will be stuck in traffic thinking, “Wow, this used to be such an amazing place not so long ago.”


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