Saturday, April 15, 2017

Sarasota at the Crossroads

Sometimes it takes a bad plan to recognize a good one.

The recent furor provoked by efforts to rezone and sell public lands adjacent to the Celery Fields for industrial uses is about more than Roseate Spoonbills and Purple Gallinules.

Putting a construction waste processing operation at the intersection of East Palmer Boulevard and Apex Road, as one developer proposes, would hardly be life-enhancing for the myriad creatures who thrive at this lovely open space, including thousands of Sarasotans who hike, bird, and exercise there weekly.

But there’s a more fundamental test of judgment, common sense, and communal identity at stake here as well.

Over the past two decades, while no one was paying much attention, the ingredients of a unique new area of the county have been quietly ripening. The natural heart has been the unforeseen success of a stormwater project that evolved into an 85-foot high observation mound rising from an environmental treasure that everyone seems to love -- the Celery Fields.

Just to the North lie 420 acres set aside for the Fruitville Initiative -- a mixed-use community that was conceived through the unusual collaboration of County staff, private landowners, neighborhood HOA’s and the Moule & Polyzoides architectural firm. The resulting plan is a success story ready to come alive: A civic gateway to Sarasota at the Fruitville exit that could feature a well scaled mix of homes, shops, an Audubon-themed hotel, a Sarasota history museum, even a 1.5-mile “Riverfront” along the northern watercourse of the Celery Fields.

People who have seen sketches for the Initiative wonder why, since its adoption in 2014, little has been done to make it happen. It’s a terrific asset that deserves a confident push in the right places, such as The Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, the Celery Fields are ripening into a stunning eco-tourism destination. Placing a 16-acre waste processing plant full of noise, diesel fuel, crushed concrete particles and asbestos-laden yard waste next to them is clearly not the best option.

We can thank this bad idea for galvanizing the people of Sarasota to think about better alternatives. Hundreds have turned up at rallies, neighborhood workshops, and County Commission hearings. There is a strong sense that the intersection of Apex Road and Palmer Boulevard is now a crossroads -- and so is Sarasota.

The 32 acres at that intersection known as "The Quad" form a central core. Here these promising assets connect with recently built residential communities (and Tatum Ridge Elementary School) down East Palmer, and with the Packinghouse District to the West, with its new bakeries and gyms alongside Detwiler’s Market and JR’s Old Packinghouse Cafe.

The core area doesn’t need much. East Palmer Boulevard cries out for a tree canopy. A well-shaded neighborhood market, a public garden, day care, walking paths, perhaps an eco-lodge -- with something so basic, three ripening areas will converge in a useful, walkable, publicly mindful way.

The alternative -- the industrial uses the county is now considering -- would insult the environment and the communities that love its unique features. Think of the reports reaching our visitors’ international communities -- how we turned our Observation Mound, whose unique open vista we relish, into a Industrial Debris Overlook. The economic ripple effects of this shock to our “brand” would be incalculable.

Sarasota: Define yourself. Something amazing has been gestating here for two decades. No one was looking at it until the news of selling our public lands for industrial use came to light. That uninspired proposal has sparked new public interest that could go far toward connecting the dots and bringing these promising pieces into a powerful alignment.

The potential in this alignment -- economic, civic, natural -- is still bright. It’s not too late to recognize what an original, multi-faceted place of commerce, tourism, history and neighborhood life East County has in its midst. A kind of Central Park, as many see it, for people as well as birds, bees and wildflowers.

Such recognition could spur a renaissance of the very thing that once made Sarasota County special: thoughtful consideration of place.

Tom Matrullo


  1. A brilliant call to action - thank you!

  2. Well said, and right on the mark.

  3. As an Audubon member I volunteered as a docent and I loved going up the Observation Mound, as you call it, and seeing nothing but raw, undisturbed land. So I even bristle at the Fruitville Initiative bringing with it increased traffic and another source of non-point pollution. But I know humankind's need for commerce is unstoppable, so the Fruitville Initiative is obviously the lesser of two evils.

    1. Ideally the Fruitville Initiative can develop slowly and modestly - keep the oversized monstrosities from taking over. Do it East County style - no Lakewood Ranch, No Benderson nonsense.

  4. Thanks for delineating this. We love and appreciate the Celery Fields and surrounding area.

  5. What would it take for the rest of Sarasota to hear this and see this? Destroying such a beautiful piece of paradise to allow developers who heavily fund commissioners campaigns is an insult to the people of Sarasota county and to the ecosystem that is thriving here. Surely Sarasota wouldn't sell out all this potential to the highest bidder and rezone it without public input. How does it get better than this? What would it take for the public voices to be heard? What else is possible?

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  7. Tiffany, You could send this link to local media - the papers, radio, TV stations. Or write your own letter to the editors. When the media know you care, if they are not corrupt, they will shine their light on it. The more light, the less Sarasota County can allow developers to get away with. If you look at this hearing --

    you see that no one was there to speak up - because no one knew about it - before, or after - until a citizen dug up the tape.