Rosemary District continues push for parkland

The city agreed to pursue the purchase of property in the neighborhood, but a deal is not yet finalized.

David Conway · Sarasota Observer

Four years ago, with the Rosemary District poised to see a spike in population associated with a spate of new residential projects, a group of neighborhood stakeholders got together to discuss their shared priorities for an evolving community.

That group, which eventually became the Rosemary District Association, quickly identified the creation of a park within its boundaries as one of its leading ambitions. With no public open space in a 125-acre district, Rosemary residents agreed that a park was a must-have to realize the community’s goal of becoming a vibrant, walkable urban neighborhood.

Rosemary District Neighborhood past presidents David Lough and Debbie Trice unveil the community's choice for park design

Now, after spending more than 18 months lobbying the city to buy property to convert into parkland, the group has a major victory. On Oct. 29, the City Commission voted unanimously in favor of drafting a purchase agreement for a 10,500-square-foot tract at 531 Central Ave. and 1386 Boulevard of the Arts with the intention of eventually building a park on the site.

To fund the purchase, the city and the Rosemary District plan to enter an atypical public-private partnership. The city has committed to spending $890,000 — the appraised value of the land, according to a 2019 report the city commissioned — in park impact fees generated by development in the Rosemary District. To meet the property owner’s asking price of $1.01 million, the Rosemary District Association has agreed to raise the money necessary to cover the gap of $120,000.

At the Oct. 29 commission meeting, board members said they agreed with residents about the need for a park and lauded the neighborhood group for pledging its own financial contribution.

“They have been patient, this neighborhood,” Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch said. “The door is open. I think it’s time for us to walk through that door and get this pocket park for that neighborhood.”

Debbie Trice, the president of the Rosemary District Association, said the group has maintained a consistent dialogue with city staff as officials negotiated with the owners of the targeted property. Although Trice said it was a lengthy and challenging process, the neighborhood appreciated the city’s continued focus on procuring a park in the Rosemary District.

“We have been working hand in hand with the city every step of the way, and the city has been cooperating with us every step of the way,” Trice said.

Trice emphasized that there’s still lots to do before the neighborhood actually has a community park for residents. Before the city can get to design and construction, the actual purchase of the property has to be finalized, including a formal commitment from the property owner. The city will not be able to officially allocate the impact fees until January at the earliest, and staff must draft the agreement and allow time for a sale to close.

The Rosemary District Association also has to secure $120,000 in funds to dedicate to the purchase, but Trice is confident the community will hit that target if all of the other conditions of the sale are met. The group has already lined up some larger preliminary commitments that gave it the confidence to move forward alongside the city, and it plans on conducting a neighborhoodwide fundraising effort to encourage small-dollar donations.

Although the Rosemary District is located just north of downtown and across U.S. 41 from the future 52-acre The Bay Sarasota park project, Trice said it’s important to the neighborhood to have a park that it can call its own. Part of that is for practical reasons: The Rosemary District Association wants residents, including students and seniors, to be able to enjoy green space without having to cross a major thoroughfare.

“We would be doing a disservice to them if we said, ‘Oh, walking to The Bay, that’s close enough,’” Trice said.

The association also believes that there’s intrinsic value to having a communal space that the neighborhood can call its own. If the park does come to fruition, Trice said residents should take pride in the knowledge that they played a crucial role in making it happen — from conception to investment to completion.

“It’s going to be important that the community recognizes: This is our park,” Trice said.