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Sarasota theater progresses on $57M plaza, affordable housing project

Florida Studio Theatre's Arts Plaza will include new theater space, a parking garage and housing for downtown arts workers.

Florida Studio Theatre's Arts Plaza will include three new performance spaces, a three-level parking deck and apartments for arts workers and guest performers.
Florida Studio Theatre's Arts Plaza will include three new performance spaces, a three-level parking deck and apartments for arts workers and guest performers.
Courtesy image
  • Manatee-Sarasota
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What began in 2018 as a plan by Florida Studio Theatre in downtown Sarasota to build a parking structure has morphed into an expansion to accommodate the recent growth of FST and secure its long-range future.

If all goes as scheduled, thanks in part to a new $4 million challenge grant from Ed and Susan Maier, work will begin by the end of the year on what is now a gravel parking lot on First Street next door to FST to build the Florida Studio Theatre Arts Plaza. The plaza, a $57 million project, is planned as a multi-use theater, parking and residential complex.

The Maiers seeded the campaign to name the Arts Plaza in honor of longtime patrons and Sarasota area philanthropists Dennis and Graci McGillicuddy. Dennis McGillicuddy is also president of the FST Board of Trustees.

Dennis McGillicuddy, Susan Maier, Ed Maier and Graci McGillicuddy.
Courtesy image

The building was originally planned to be named for mega-patrons Patrick and Mary Mulva, who are now relocating to Texas but are leaving behind their $6 million gift for the plaza. They also donated the naming rights of the building back to FST.

In all, FST has received donations and pledges totaling $35 million toward the project. A campaign has been mounted to raise the $4 million for the match.

“We're in a pretty good shape,” FST CEO Richard Hopkins says. “The gift has given us a huge boost.”

More cabaret

Planning to replace and expand the parking began pre-COVID, and the resulting delay prompted FST to look further into the future than its parking needs. First came the prospect of consolidating its visiting actor housing program into one building above a parking garage. Over the years, FST has acquired 18 houses scattered throughout downtown to house the performers while in town.

“They're all paid for. They’re nice little houses,” Hopkins said. “They’re for visiting actors who are coming in for six weeks to six months. Ones with two bedrooms and two baths have two actors in it, three actors in a three-bedroom and so forth. It's pretty expensive and very difficult to maintain, very difficult to operate. The good news is they have grown in value.”

That’s a boon for FST because the organization intends to sell those properties to help pay for the Arts Plaza. The building will offer 18 two-bedroom, two-bathroom units and 39 studio units. The studios will accommodate visiting actors for up to six months. The two-bedroom units are for arts workers.

“We're building affordable housing for our staff as well as first staff members of other arts organizations downtown,” Hopkins says. “We can rent below market value to our full-time, year-round employees and to other arts workers who are looking for a place to live downtown that is affordable.”

Florida Studio Theatre is planning a $57 million expansion to its current facilities with construction scheduled to begin in December 2024.
Photo by Andrew Warfield

With parking and residences included in the building plan, FST further examined its future performance space needs, noting its cabaret theaters were selling out as popularity grew at an exponential rate.

“This year will be the last year we're able to add any new subscribers to that program,” Hopkins says. “It’s already over 14,000 subscribers. Those are beautiful little cabaret theaters that seat only around 100 people, so those cabaret shows are running 20 weeks at nine shows a week. That's all fantastic news for us, but we said ‘Well, let's build another cabaret theater.’”

Make that two. And while they’re at it, how about a second mainstage theater?

Main stage

The combination of growing ambitions and post-COVID construction costs more than doubled the anticipated $28 million 2018 price to the $57 million price tag. 

The Arts Plaza will be built in phases, addressing each of FST’s needs in order of priority. The first phase will include the entire structure with only the parking and residences opening by mid-2026. The two new cabaret spaces will open one year later and, by mid-2028 the new mainstage theater.

“The primary reason we can't open it all at once is because we can't manage it all,” Hopkins says. “We have to grow the organization and grow the staffing. It is going to be a big new management task for us to manage all of the housing. We’re accustomed to managing the housing, but the difference here is we're literally going to be running an apartment complex and then we're going to operate the studios as a hotel.”

The garage entrance will be accessed from an alley behind the current facility between First and Second streets, the garage ramping and the mainstage theater designed to work in harmony. The ramp up to the third level will form the ceiling shape of the theater.

“The mainstage is built on an arc and the stadium-style seating can be lower on the north end but it has to be higher on the south end in order to get vehicles to the third floor.”

When complete, FST will add a second mainstage theater and two new cabaret theaters occupying the first two floors below 150 new parking spaces with three floors of residences above that.

Hopkins says the project is currently working its way through the city’s administrative approval process, with one possible exception request for signage.

“We’re a theater organization so we love our signs,” Hopkins says. “Otherwise, everything is passing administrative muster so far, so we don't see any problems.”

This article originally appeared on sister site



Andrew Warfield

Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

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