A rendering of the proposed Bath & Racquet Fitness Club development.

Earlier this year, the Sarasota City Commission approved plans to replace the old Bath & Racquet Fitness Club at 2170 Robinhood St., Sarasota, with a mixed-use project that would include 207 residential units and 119,000 square feet of commercial space. On Wednesday, the Commission voted 4-1 to revisit those plans, approving changes that will give the investor who ultimately purchases the project the flexibility to replace the commercial square footage with up to 70 more residential units.

All other elements of the project—including a 48,000-square-foot park, a 1-kilometer walking path and a playground that will be open to the public—will remain the same. Developer Mark Lucas, who bought the 13-acre site last year for $5.5 million, was not present at the meeting, but the request was presented by Michael Halflants, the project's architect.

People who opposed the rezoning cited concerns about traffic, but Halflants says the change may actually reduce the number of vehicles coming and going.

“When you switch to residential, it generates less traffic," says Halflants. "You might have one or two cars for one condo in one day. For an office space, you can get 12 trips an hour. And commercial spaces require more parking." Bath & Racquet is located just east of Trader Joe's on Tamiami Trail, near a bustling intersection.

The flexibility of being able to increase the number of residential units adds value for potential investors.

“We’re promising a lot," says Halflants. "To rebuild the Bath & Racquet club and create a public park that doesn't exist, a 1-kilometer walking trail and attainable housing—that costs money. And we’re doing it without municipal funds. As we look for an investor, the package needs to work for them. Due to Covid, investors are less interested in commercial than residential space right now."

Sarasota resident and former City Commission candidate Martin Hyde took issue with that claim on Wednesday, calling the switch a “major change” and “the ultimate bait and switch” for residents who were OK with the previous plan.

City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch echoed the concerns of Ron Collins, who represented 12 other area residents, saying a site plan should have been included in the change.

“The fact that an investor is interested in more residential units is not part of the standards I have to consider," said Ahearn-Koch. "I can't consider this change without a site plan. A lot of the community supported this, but now that community sees that it's different. It's not what was agreed to. For me, it's a question of process. I would support us sending it back to the planning board and-or having a a site plan with this proposal."

"Bath & Racquet is failing and something is going to happen with that site," said Mayor Hagen Brody. "This is a plan to keep that asset in our community. Investors are going to have to make money to make this thing feasible." He added that proximity to the new Bath & Raquet site could benefit residents by increasing the value of their homes.

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