Q & A

New Urbanism Luminary Andrés Duany to Sarasota: 'You're Not a Little Town'

“If you say, 'I like small-town Sarasota,' you're wrong. Get a suit and stop wearing short pants.”

By Kim Doleatto January 26, 2024

Andrés Duany

Image: Alan Cresto

Charismatic, opinionated, insightful and just plain funny, Andrés Duany, 74, took the stage Wednesday night at the Art Ovation Hotel in downtown Sarasota to speak to a room of roughly 500 city officials, architects and residents seeking his insight. The people who showed up wanted to know, during a time of rapid transformation for the city, where Sarasota is headed when it comes to development and design. And despite delivering some potentially controversial commentary, Duany likes what he sees. “I would live here,” he says.

A resident of Coral Gables who splits his time between there and France, the New Urbanist planner, architect, author and founding principal of DPZ CoDesign was hired by the City of Sarasota in 2000 to revamp its building code and downtown master plan. He’s considered one of the founders of the New Urbanist movement, which sidelines suburban sprawl and supports density, well-proportioned architecture and walkability. Some of his early ideas for the city have since come to fruition, like paid parking, a major grocer in the downtown area and a brick-laid Lemon Avenue with wide sidewalks.

Andrés Duany at Wednesday night's lecture

Image: Kim Doleatto

Duany’s Wednesday lecture kicked off the first of a four-part series—"Downtown Sarasota: Hindsight, Insight, and Foresight"—spearheaded by Architecture Sarasota. On the stage, he offered an overview of how Sarasota might better move forward with planning decisions, making some squirm in their seats and others look at one another with wide-eyed excitement.

After roughly an hour and a half, the public put forth questions, one about homelessness. His response? It “isn’t a real issue here," he said. "What other problems can we make up?”

Oh, and one more thing. “If you say, 'I like small-town Sarasota,' you're wrong," he said. "You're not a little town. Get a suit and stop wearing short pants.”

The day after Duany's talk, we caught up with him to delve into more about what he’s taken in, and what advice he has for our city. The following is a combination of points raised during his lecture and our interview.

On the failures of suburbia:

Duany points to a book he co-authored on the subject, ​​Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. Some of its key points highlight suburbia's tendency toward social isolation and the separation of commercial and residential sectors, which block a sense of organic community.

The book also argues that suburbia is too car-centric, and that sprawl leads to congestion, long commutes, expensive road maintenance, physical and mental health ramifications and ecological destruction. It also disenfranchises those who can't drive, like children, teenagers, those with disabilities, the elderly and the poor.

Duany and his co-authors note that suburbs can be fine, but that their development should be done with equal amounts of funding and incentives going toward urban infill projects and exurban and rural conservation. "They shouldn't compete with their own cities," he said.

Updates he'd make to the planning process:

“The NIMBYs [an acronym for 'not in my backyard'] have been in power, since one single condo can pack a city meeting hall and bore everyone to death with each person saying the same thing," he said. "It’s painful. But that’s not a true democracy. A true democracy needs a random sample to be effective. We only empower the neighbors to a given development, and they have a vested interest. But the concerns of the neighbors are separate from the concerns of the community."

Here are some of his suggestions for creating a more balanced development decision-making process:

1. Speak only to the neighbors of the proposed development and make a plan based on that.

2. Invite a random sample of people from outside the vicinity of the development to speak.

3. Ask planners what they think would work best. According to Duany, this is a question that would shock them, because they’re never asked and, even though they're the experts, they're often treated like a server taking an order.

4. At public meetings, let the youngest people speak first, and go in ascending order from there. Younger people tend to want to take risks, Duany said, while older speakers tend to say, “No.” By speaking first, the young set an ethos of “yes” and those who follow are less likely to say “no.”

5. Also ask: What happens if we do nothing?

Why nightlife isn't nefarious:

“If you don’t have a nightlife, you will lose the next generation to bigger cities," Duany said. "They need time and space to sample genetic material and find a life mate. Cities out there beg for nightlife because it keeps a place alive. I think young adults and singles are the hardest to keep, and that efforts need to be made for them.

"The Limelight District is perfect and would be edgy in two seconds, with bars, music and dancing. It's what I would call Field Urbanism, which sees 1960s windowless warehouses with pocket parking lots rather than a single, sprawling lot."

Why rooftops matter:

"Rooftops are wasted space, and there’s no reason we have to look down on ugly rooftops with machinery and air conditioning units. Every rooftop should be a rooftop garden—put it in the zoning code."

On making room for young developers:

"We’ve seen smaller builders disappear because permitting became so painful and expensive that only big builders could afford it," he said. "Remove the red tape for smaller builders. There’s too much 'brain damage,' which is developer-speak for too much regulation. And land values are so high it's hard for a younger developer to do stuff. We need to listen and enable young people to break into it. When Paul Rudolph was operating here along with other Sarasota School guys, they were younger."

On taking the downtown portion of Fruitville Road down from four lanes to two lanes:  

"Do it. Take it down to two lanes and add on-street parking. The street parking on the side protects walkers, and it’s the only thing that slows down traffic to 30 miles per hour. Signs don’t do that. It’s the driver's natural caution that sets in from being careful to avoid potentially opening doors [into other cars or bikers] that does it. These changes will make [the area] more walkable and connected to downtown living."

The biggest eyesore he's seen since returning:

"It needs a name, but it’s the swath between The Vue and Selby Gardens in downtown Sarasota, along the water," Duany said. "It's a mess. It’s one of the biggest missed opportunities here. You can see an industrial waterfront, you have expensive condos and then a hodgepodge of bad landscaping and bad parking along a fast highway. The whole thing should have been conceived as one.

"Also, the east portion of Main Street needs to be built up next."

On density and housing affordability:

Last September, the Sarasota City Commission voted in favor of new rules that say that if developers mark 15 percent of units in a building as affordable (defined as being available to households earning between 80 percent and 120 percent of the area’s median income), they'll be allowed to build four times the number of units typically allowed for downtown-zoned districts.

"The 15 percent is too low and it won’t work," Duany said. "It’s too late to be affordable here, at least downtown. It just has to be less expensive.

"Developers don’t do anything. They don't build, and they're not architects," he continued. "They’re negotiators. They negotiate with the builders and the sellers, and then the planning department from the public sector has to stand against developers who say they can't profit from building affordable housing. Density bonuses don't work when there's too much incentive to build large square footage, even though we need to see more studios and one-bedrooms.

"Mobile homes were a solution to affordability. But they have a cultural problem. So invite young architects to design them and have a competition. Cover the unused land zoned for multiple levels in them."

Inspired by the faux greenery wall near the elevator at the Art Ovation rooftop, he said, “Cover them in faux plant walls, which will protect them from the sun and make them look good, too.”

On controversies over building heights:

"Eight levels and over, it doesn't matter to the pedestrian, so there's no need to haggle between 12 and 14," Duany said. "The more important part is how the building meets the street for pedestrian life. It should be glass, so we can see inside, and commercial or retail on the bottom, with landscaping and parking to protect the pedestrian."

On cars:

"You won't eliminate cars," he said. "They’ll eliminate themselves eventually in the future because they're not efficient. We need more parking garages here for now, and when the time comes, convert them into residential use. It’s been done before."

On Sarasota in general:

As for his overall opinion on Sarasota, Duany likes it here. He noted that the breeze off the water seems able to penetrate downtown, unlike in Miami. And he added that Sarasota was lucky. "The long-term investment of [city planner] John Nolen and the seeds of your Sarasota School of Architecture are harvesting," he said.

Duany's invitation to Sarasota was especially timely. Newly poured concrete and cranes are changing the city's landscape, with many new projects in the pipeline. And, as seen in opinion surveys, longtime residents are concerned most about development and are mourning a quieter era—before a spike in migration brought population growth and development to the forefront.

Regardless of all the changes, Duany reminded us, “The waterfront doesn't belong to the boaters and the condo commandos." Like schools and the downtown area, he said, "It belongs to us all."

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