A Walter Netsch–designed library is under threat as plans move forward for a much-anticipated, community-backed bayfront development in Sarasota, Florida. On Thursday, September 6, the city’s planning board voted 3-2 to approve phase 1 of The Bay project, a 53-acre recreational and cultural complex which indirectly calls for the demolition of the old Selby Public Library building.
According to Sarasota Vice-Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch, zero consideration was given to the fate of the 30,000-square-foot structure despite other historic buildings being saved on site. “My biggest issue with this is that the proper process isn’t being taken to determine the library’s future,” she said. “Why is the first step of creating this legacy project destroying a former legacy project?”
The Selby Public Library, designed under Netsch’s lead at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1976, sits on an underutilized waterfront plot that’s been eyed for large-scale development for over a decade. The building, now known as the G.Wiz Science Museum, has been empty for six years and costs the city $40,000 annually to maintain.
Ahearn-Koch and other G.Wiz advocates claimed that leading up to an early September special planning meeting, neither the city nor the public had been officially notified of the decision to take the building down. She also said the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization (SBPO), which is spearheading the effort, did not provide sufficient evidence for the $10.5-million cost the group estimated that it would take to rehabilitate the 42-year-old structure. The SBPO only provided a presentation with pictures of the proposal, which did not include the G.Wiz building.
“Before you talk about why you can’t save a building and repurpose it, you have to discuss the historical and cultural value of it and then figure out how much it will cost,” Ahearn-Koch said.
Following the SBPO’s presentation, locals took over the two-hour comment period citing concerns over G.Wiz. According to Ahearn-Koch, the city received countless emails calling for its preservation, but the SBPO team claimed they never received any pleas to save it prior to the meeting. Now the group says it will welcome ideas on how to reuse the building as part of The Bay.
Sarasota boasts a rich architectural legacy and a burgeoning development scene that often gets overshadowed by mega-projects nearby in Miami. The Sarasota School of Architecture includes an incredible roster of modernist buildings by architects such as Paul Rudolph, William Rupp, Mark Hampton, and Ralph Twitchell. According to Vassar College Professor of Art Nick Adams, Netsch’s Selby Public Library, while not widely known compared to Netch’s other projects, is a pure demonstration of “field theory,” the late architect’s approach to designing architecture around unique geometries suited to the program and environment.
“It’s not a building that’s very well-covered in Netsch literature,” said Adams. “But it’s quite ingenious how the shapes of the building have a residence within the location that’s very attractive. There aren’t very many field theory buildings that are still active in their original function. I do hope before they swing the wrecking ball that the city does a proper recording of what was there and what changes were done.”
Local architect Dale Parks completed an award-winning retrofit of the library in 2000, transforming it into G.Wiz and adding a soaring glass atrium to Netsch’s design. Parks believes his work didn’t inherently warp the SOM building’s original character. As an expert on the structure, he outright denies any claims that it did.
“We tried to respect SOM’s construction as much as possible, and I know it would be quite easy to restore it,” Parks said. “Whatever repurpose it may have in the future, it’s definitely not going to be a library because the layout doesn’t pertain to future use. But the outside of the building is still there.”
The top arguments for taking down the building are that it doesn’t stand up to current FEMA standards and would need to be significantly elevated, and that the city is spending too much money on its upkeep as tenants have shied away from staking claim to it over the past several years. Commissioner Hagen Brody, who voted yes to approve phase 1 of The Bay in favor of demolishing G.Wiz, recognizes its importance but believes removing it from the site will serve a greater good.
“The community overwhelmingly wanted green space, not buildings or redevelopment on that site,” he said. “With all of that, the choice was pretty clear. A vote against moving forward with phase 1 would have sent the whole project back to the drawing board after years of public input and would have seriously jeopardized the entire effort as well as fundraising. I believe these are tough decisions, but it’s a positive change for Sarasota and that’s the definition of progress.”
The initial build out of The Bay, led by a nearly all-female team from Boston-based planning firm Sasaki, would turn 10 acres of the site’s southern portion into a new public park by 2020. After being selected for the project last October, the team has worked with the SBPO and held an exhaustive community engagement process to shape the final master plan, first revealed in May and updated Friday. Susannah Ross, Gina Ford, and Christine Dunn conceived a grand park and cultural community less than a mile away from Sarasota’s beloved Boulevard of the Arts.
One of the structures on the site, the lavender-colored Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall designed by Taliesin Associated Architects in 1969, is included in Sasaki’s latest renderings, only after a major public outcry occurred over its absence in the initial images. Christopher Wilson, president of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, said the specific reuse of Van Wezel isn’t clear, but it’s more or less saved.
“Saving Van Wezel and not G.Wiz makes no sense,” Wilson said. “From the beginning, this building has not gotten the proper attention that it should. The excuse that it’s in the floodplain and not up to FEMA standards is not a reason to demolish it. The city is throwing around the $10 million number prematurely with incomplete evidence.”
Wilson also noted there are five other aging structures on site that have been deemed part of Sarasota’s cultural zone: the Municipal Auditorium (1938), Chidsey Library (1941), Arts Center Sarasota (1949), the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce (1956), and the Garden Club of Sarasota (1959). These buildings will remain during the construction of The Bay.
In a letter sent to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune last weekend, Eric Keune, design director at SOM Chicago, provided a list of five ways G.Wiz could be adapted for reuse, including making it an open-air pavilion, a co-working space, or a satellite studio for the University of Florida architecture program. The Architect’s Newspaper was sent a copy of the text, though it has yet to be published. In his argument, Keune wrote that though the structure today is undoubtedly not the Selby Public Library, he believes the building, along with Netsch’s original vision, is still inside it and “only needs to be (re) discovered.”
Vice-Mayor Ahearn-Koch feels the same way. For her, this fight is personal and she thinks people need to act fast, as Keune did, if they have ideas.
“All too often in this city we do demolition by neglect and this is a perfect example of that,” she said. “This is such a stunning building. I remember going to the big stack as a student, checking out a book and going off into one of the side nooks to read. I still feel this can be a very useful building for the future of Sarasota. Our arts community, including our architecture, is who we are, and I just don’t see the logic in destroying it.”
Sarasota’s Historic Preservation Board voted unanimously to recommend the SBPO and city commission find a new tenant for G.Wiz, pursue alternative renovation plans, as well as host more community workshops as phase 1 plans move forward. This is the third time in two years the advisory group has advocated for the building.