Construction on first phase could start late next year and finish early in 2021

The future of Selby Botanical Gardens became clearer — and greener — with the official launch of a $92 million fundraising campaign for a construction project that will transform the 15-acre attraction on the Sarasota bayfront.

It could be the world’s first net-positive botanical gardens — meaning it would generate more energy than it consumes.

“This will make Selby Gardens and Sarasota an international leader,” says Jennifer Rominiecki, CEO and president of the botanical gardens. “We’ll be a demonstration site and international model.”

Selby already has raised half of the $42 million required for the first phase of the 10-year plan.

New buildings planned for the bayfront campus now bear the names of local donors.

Visitors will enter the Jean Goldstein Welcome Center, which will be next to the Steinwachs Family Plant Research Center, which will house the Elaine Nicpon Marieb Herbarium and the Nathalie McCulloch Research Library.

Construction could start late next year and the first phase could be finished in early 2021.

“We’re motoring ahead,” Rominiecki says. “I’d say we’re ahead of where we thought we’d be.”

Selby, which opened in 1975, is the only botanical garden in the world dedicated to the study and display of epiphytes such as orchids and bromeliads. Some older buildings such as the Payne Mansion will remain in the new master plan.

The most prominent addition to Selby will be the “Sky Garden,” a five-story parking garage draped with plants and topped by a destination restaurant. Instead of a concrete slab rising at Orange Avenue and U.S. 41, there will be the lush facade of a living museum.

“The walls are an opportunity to extend the gardens,” says Bob Shemwell, principal architect at Overland Partners. “We wanted to layer on different uses. Everything we do has different uses. Also, we’re trying to make it fun.”

Selby has begun showing a three-minute promotional video to garden members and donors.

Animated characters stride along landscaped walks. They enter sleek buildings inspired by the Sarasota School of Architecture. They leave all the greenery for a rooftop restaurant with a startling blue view of Sarasota Bay.

“What it does is make it seem real,” Rominiecki says of the video. “That’s going to get everyone really excited.”

Kimberly Bleach, a bank vice president in Sarasota, is a garden member who enjoyed a glimpse of the future at Selby.

The dramatic Welcome Center made an impression. Glass walls and a wooden ceiling that swoops and curves. Plants clinging to every nook and cranny.

Bleach thinks all of the construction near downtown could make the botanical gardens even more important to Sarasota.

“We need this kind of green jewel in the center of the city,” Bleach says. “That’s what I want Sarasota to be known for.”

Restaurant partner

Selby presentations also detailed a restaurant partnership with Michael's on East proprietors Michael Klauber and Phil Mancini, who already operate Michael’s on the Bay at the botanical gardens.

They will open a 200-seat, indoor-outdoor restaurant atop the Sky Garden, which will become the first in the world with a certified net-positive energy rating. The top of the building will have a 20,000-square-foot solar panel array, and there will be an adjacent edible garden.

“We’ve been blown away working with their design team,” Klauber says. “Every idea I’ve thrown at them, they’ve incorporated into the design. Lots of natural light. Lots of incredible water views.”

The restaurateur laughs when people ask what kind of food he will be serving in three years. It's a little early for that, though he has a few ideas.

“I know it’s going to be a lighter menu with fresh seafood and great vegetarian and vegan dishes,” he says. “It’s not going to be a steakhouse, let’s put it that way.”

Klauber doesn’t have a name for the restaurant, either, but he is open to suggestions.

“We’re going to be looking at all of those crazy things,” he says. “What’s French for sky?”

The word is ciel.

Waterfront challenge

Overland Partners, based in San Antonio, is also designing huge botanical gardens on 1,000-acre sites near Houston and Pittsburgh.

Selby is more like a pocket park on a peninsula in Sarasota Bay.

“This is a really unique project,” Shemwell says. “It has such fascinating parameters to it. You’re packing all of these things into a very small space. And this is ambitious. I think it’ll be remarkable.”

Early on, the decision was made to move garden buildings to higher ground near U.S. 41 and Mound Street. This will add more green space near the water. The brick surface of Palm Avenue will be preserved as a pedestrian thoroughfare.

Before the Selby project, Shemwell had never traveled to Sarasota or been to the botanical gardens. Since then, he’s gotten an education about its niche in the botanical world, and how to help share it with visitors.

“As we got into it,” he says, “this got more and more fascinating.”

‘Good neighbors’

Rominiecki notes that all plans for the botanical gardens depend upon zoning, permitting and fundraising.

Original cost estimates of $67 million have risen to $72 million. Selby also would like to increase its endowment from $3.5 million to $15 million.

Already, Selby has raised $21.8 million.

“What it shows is the community belief in Selby Gardens,” Rominiecki says. “The community understands that we need to sustain our future and preserve our past.”

The master site plan for the gardens hasn’t changed much in the last year.

Selby will be adding more room for turning lanes into the parking garage. After meeting with neighborhood advisory committees, it decided to widen sidewalks and increase public access.

“We want to be good neighbors,” Rominiecki says. ”Our neighbors will be able to walk the perimeter of Selby Gardens and connect with the public bayfront. It’s wonderful for connectivity.”