Sarasota officials unveil $21.5 million in improvements to Siesta Key Beach

SIESTA KEY -- After several years of planning and $21.5 million spent on construction and renovations, improvements to Siesta Key Beach that include a sun deck, new concession stand, playground and historical pavilion will be finished Saturday.

Most improvements were already finished Tuesday, except the historical pavilion, which officials hope will be done by the grand opening. The grand opening starts at 9 a.m. Saturday with speeches from Sarasota officials, entertainment and activities that take advantage of the park's new assets.

"It has improved access from the parking lot to the park in and of itself, lots of new picnic shelters, a brand new playground, enhanced concession area, beautiful new safety buildings and an improved and refurbished historical shelter," said Carolyn Brown, director of parks, recreation and natural

resources for Sarasota County. "We'll have outstanding weather, I put in a work order for that already."

Bill Waddill, senior vice president of Kimley-Horn and Associates, who oversaw project design, said they wanted the improvements to reflect Siesta Key, which TripAdvisor named the best beach in the United States in 2015.

"You think about, 'What is Siesta?' And it's beautiful, white sand and turquoise and blue water," Waddill said. "So we tried to make a lot of the design elements sort of reflect that."

The park was outdated and needed some enhancements, Brown said. Some elements are brand new, while others are simply improvements to old facilities. Initial conversations about improvements started in 2007 and 2008.

The playground looks decidedly beachy, with a tower that looks like that of a very large sand castle, a flag that says "Siesta Beach #1," varying shades of blue and designs that resemble shells and waves. A 15-foot-wide pedestrian esplanade, which runs east and west across the park so people can move around the space easily, was designed with barefoot beachgoers in mind, using lighter bricks to avoid the pathway getting too hot.

"We actually tested the paver color with our own bare feet, because you have a lot of folks come here in bare feet and it can get very warm in the summer, as you know, and we originally designed more dark colors and we made it more light colors," Waddill said.

The sun deck will likely be a crowd favorite. In order to comply with new code requirements, Waddill said they had to make the concession stand 19 feet off the ground. A huge bonus was the great view over Siesta Beach.

"We thought, 'How can we make an opportunity out of a challenge?'" Waddill said. "And we actually got a lift truck to come out, and we got up above the coastal vegetation, and realized the view was unbelievable."

Waddill imagines that space now as a relaxing eating spot as well as a great view, and also referred to it as the Sunset Deck, saying it would be one of the best places to watch the beautiful sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico.

They added 143 parking spots, bringing the total number of parking spaces to 980, and made it easier to navigate the parking lot by designing it similar to a mall lot.

"Improved and additional parking was one of the key elements," Brown said.

They also brought in about 1,300 palm and canopy trees, most of them native to the area, to replace old pines. That adds a sustainable and natural element to the design, Waddill said.

The Historical Pavilion combines the old and the new, restoring an old pavilion originally built more than 50 years ago for about $55,000, according to Jerry Sparkman of Sweet Sparkman Architects. That pavilion is now used for bathrooms and shade by the beach, right next to a larger shelter by the old concession stand and a new building that will serve as a station for the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office and lifeguards.

"They've probably got the best office in Sarasota County," Sparkman said.

"This was all overgrown. You couldn't see the beach from here, so you couldn't see much of the pavilion either way if you're on the beach or standing here," he added. "So the idea was to bring the historic pavilion back to a state of its legacy and then to add to it ... and connect the two."

The Sea Turtle Pavilion is a familiar sight to those who frequented Siesta Key before the construction began; a similar pavilion used for entertaining stood in the same spot years ago. The new structure mainly serves as an update to the old one, as well as providing a ramp so it's handicapped accessible. Green space and picnic tables surround the area around the pavilion so beachgoers can plan parties and family gatherings in the large space by the beach.

"Really, one of our key sort of vision elements was trying to make it a great user experience from the second you turned into the park to when you finally got to the beach," Waddill said. "We made it not only safer but much more intuitive."

Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby