The Next Battleground

By staff May 1, 2004

Sarasota doesn't take change lying down. Just ask the folks at Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co., the Miami-based firm that helped the city develop the new master plan that's meant to transform downtown into a pedestrian-friendly place where residential, commercial and retail development happily co-exist. After working in 250 different communities, members of the firm say Sarasota stands out for contentiousness and mistrust of local government and planners. "Sarasota's planning is dominated to an unusual extent by a small group of activists," asserts Andres Duany, who has spent hundreds of hours meeting with groups of officials and citizens here over the last few years.

Such activists-often well-heeled, well-connected and well-versed in political and business success-have figured prominently in a number of community debates in recent years, from the new Ringling bridge to the location for the downtown library and bus transfer station. Now a new group has gathered for battle. They're the residents of downtown's fringe neighborhoods, where property values are skyrocketing and the pressure for redevelopment and greater density is rising. With only 572 acres of vacant land remaining, the downtown core has run out of real estate, but the rush to live in or near downtown has not abated. So developers have started eyeing the neighborhoods on the outskirts of downtown as sites for new condominium projects. But many residents deplore the thought of multi-family, high-rise buildings in their friendly, low-key neighborhoods, and they've been flexing their muscle in several high-profile skirmishes.

Just how high is a high-rise? That's a relative concept, points out planner Joel Freedman of the Freedman Consulting Group. What's high in Sarasota-the 18-story, 263-foot-high Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, for example-would seem puny in New York or even Tampa. But in Bay Point Park, a long-established neighborhood next to Selby Gardens, the idea of a nine-story condominium rising nearby on Orange Avenue loomed large enough to galvanize residents into furious action.

Some who opposed the project had believed that the city does not allow tall buildings anywhere outside of the heart of downtown (or along the beaches, but that's a different story), but it's a little more complicated than that. When the Duany plan's new zoning codes are approved, probably sometime this summer, downtown's highest buildings-up to 18 stories, or as much as 256 feet-will be confined to certain parts of the downtown core. In the areas surrounding the downtown core, nine stories will be the limit, and that's only on a few sites-for example, on some properties along the busy North Trail. That's the plan, say city officials, and that's why people really don't need to worry about big high-rises pushing their way into family neighborhoods. "I see no will to change the zoning to allow for high-density development outside the city core," stresses city manager Mike McNees.

Still, developers can always ask to amend the comprehensive plan to allow zoning changes, a time-honored process in Sarasota and most growing cities. If they can make a convincing case, they may receive approval to build something higher and denser than the current zoning allows. The most desirable sites for developers are usually close to downtown, with water views, right on the fringes of single-family neighborhoods. And that, says Gary Hoyt, the architect for the proposed nine-story project on the edge of Bay Point Park, "is where the rub happens"-in transition areas between a high-density downtown and a low-key neighborhood.

Even if a site has the necessary zoning, a developer can't automatically receive approval for a nine-story building. The project must also comply with regulations that address traffic, environmental and other issues. And while some of the rules are quite specific and clear-cut (you must provide space for the necessary parking, for example) others are more open to interpretation-like the dictate that a building should be compatible with the character of the surrounding neighborhood. What if a new building is not in your neighborhood, for example, but you can see it from there, and you consider the sight jarring and intrusive? "Our city commission is sensitive to that," says Freedman; and therefore, you might convince the commissioners to reject the project.

That's what the residents of Bay Point Park and surrounding neighborhoods along Hudson Bayou hoped. The neighborhood's graceful single-family homes, many overlooking Hudson Bayou and with deepwater dockage for sailboats, now sell in the millions. U.S. Congresswoman Katherine Harris has made an offer on a house there, and several members of the influential Lindsay family, which for many years owned the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, live there, as do attorneys, doctors and business leaders. The neighborhood is off Orange Avenue, where, on the west side of the block between U.S. 41 and Hudson Bayou, Harry Rosenblum wanted to develop the modest, 1950s-era two-story Hudson Manor rental apartments into a nine-story condo. "It's a fantastic piece of property with protected deep water boating and a unique location close to downtown," says Freedman, who is part of the team working with Rosenblum.

But appealing as it might be to would-be downtown dwellers, would the project, which would require a rezoning to a higher density, ruin the character and livability of Bay Point Park? Residents Susan Chapman and her husband Jack Ewing think so. The new structure, which would rise 90 feet over a parking garage, would be "a disaster," says Ewing. The couple and other neighbors fear increased traffic along already busy Orange Avenue and have even asserted that the high-rise's night lighting would hurt the plants in Selby Gardens. "The city plan is supposed to give high priority to maintaining stable neighborhoods," Ewing says. "To put a vastly incompatible building in would have a jarring and negative effect on this neighborhood. People moved here with the understanding that there wouldn't be high-rises south of Mound Street."

But Gary Hoyt, the Hudson Manor architect, insists there's no reason a project like this "this can't be a nice transition project between the intensity of U.S. 41 and the neighborhood." In a neighborhood on the fringe of town, like Bay Point Park, he says, "the mono-culture of a suburb or golf course community is not what we want." Citing areas such as Georgetown near Washington, D.C., as a model, Hoyt defends the concept of high-rise, high-density dwellings at downtown's edge. "The city already designated Hudson Manor as residential multi-family, so how do you get density when your ground coverage is restricted by existing and new code?" he queries. "You can only go up."

Opponents argue that it's more important to protect the character of the city's neighborhoods than to change the rules so developers can make their projects viable. Former mayor Mollie Cardamone, who now does some land-use consulting, points out that in 1993, the city commission shifted its emphasis from business and development to "respecting, protecting and preserving neighborhoods." The commissioners created walk-to-town neighborhood designations and action plans for Gillespie Park, Park East and the Rosemary District, aimed at making them safer, more prosperous and more attractive to residents. "The time was ripe for rebuilding a viable downtown while still making it developable for business," she explains. And they also confirmed their commitment to established, upscale neighborhoods, including those along Orange Avenue.

The Bay Point Park neighbors heard about the plans for Hudson Manor in December, and they immediately plunged into action, organizing meetings, workshops and a Web site. They tapped into residents for special skills-a photographer took pictures of the homes now along the bayou, for example, and an architect drew a rendering of exactly how the new building would look. They also involved other nearby neighborhoods, even helping them to set up their own organizations.

They soon won the attention-and the respect-of the developers. By early spring, Freedman was emphasizing that the project had not yet taken its final shape, that the nine- story proposal "was going to go away," and they were holding discussions with the neighbors about "how best to redevelop the site."

Freedman also worked on another redevelopment proposal, Charles Githler's Whitaker Bayou Residences, on seven acres on U.S. 41 just north of downtown, the site of two former motels and an operating boatyard. The developer asked for a comprehensive plan change that would allow a strip of stores along the highway and a mixture of three-story townhouses and two nine-story condo towers behind that. Quiet streets of single-family homes are just across the bayou, and a coalition of nearby neighborhood associations strenuously objected to the development, saying it would loom too high over its neighbors. (A previous plan had proposed expanding the boatyard and installing boat storage racks, which the neighbors successfully fought-a victory that some disgruntled neighbors say paved the way for this project.) The project was rejected by the planning board and the commission; in March, Githler indicated he might drop his plans and expand the boatyard-something neighbors might find even less appealing than upscale residences.

Freedman also advised controversial redevelopment on Sylvan Drive, the southernmost street in the Indian Beach and Sapphire Shores neighborhood. Like much of Indian Beach, the heavily wooded street is lined by modest, single-family homes shaded by giant oaks and thick tangles of tropical trees and bushes. A former Bradenton couple who now live in New York wants to convert the first three buildings on the south side of the street, which overlook Whitaker Bayou and have been divided into rental units, into a new nine-unit complex comprised of three sets of three row houses, each with two floors of living space over a garage.

The Indian Beach Sapphire Shores Association also opposed this project. In an e-mailed message to her members, Jane Shea, president of the association, wrote: "The majority of the houses in the neighborhood were built in the 1940s and 1950s.This is a strong and vital neighborhood. It is not a neighborhood in transition; it is not a neighborhood of 'tear-downs.' It is a neighborhood to be protected.attractive housing can be built on those properties under this current zoning."

Although the planning board recommended against approval of the project, the city commissioners did not agree that townhouses would be unattractive intruders into the neighborhood; and on March 11, they approved the project.

Gretchen Serrie, an Indian Beach Sapphire Shores Neighborhood Association board member, laments, "We've all made our peace with high density downtown. But what's so shocking to us is that we thought the high-density urban core stopped at 10th Street."

A highly motivated group in Serrie's neighborhood forced the developers of the Houses of Indian Beach to go back to the drawing table many times before they ultimately gained the city planning board's approval to build 23 modernist single-family homes at Bay Shore Road and Corwood Drive on a site that now holds the ruins of an old house. Sensitive to the concerns of a vocal minority, the housing development will not be gated, will have only a two- foot, eight-inch wall along Bay Shore and part of Corwood and will not present a façade that appears to turn its back to the street.

Activism takes time, energy and passion-"obsession" might be more accurate, say some, citing neighborhood leaders who study stacks of land-planning tomes, sit through seemingly endless (and endlessly tedious) city meetings and send e-mails out around the clock. And eternal vigilance is the price of success, they add, since as soon as one project is defeated, a new developer can propose another. Nor can they take comfort from knowing that officials support their aims. After all, though neighborhood protection is high on the agenda of today's city manager and commission, tomorrow's officials may decide differently.

City planning and redevelopment are complicated, lengthy processes, often rife with unexpected consequences and outcomes. It's no wonder they spark debate; and while developers and neighbors are often on the opposite sides of issues, even activists don't always agree. Linda Holland, president of the Gillespie Park Neighborhood Association (Gillespie Park is bordered by U.S. 301, Orange Avenue, Fruitville Road and 10th Street), opposed the city's plans to allow mixed-use development there. After struggling for years to clean up blight, crime and neglect, her association feared today's "cute coffee shop" becoming tomorrow's "tattoo parlor," Holland says.

Mollie Cardamone counters that some commercial development in Gillespie Park would have added to the neighborhood's appeal and made it unnecessary for residents to cross Fruitville Road to get to stores. She says she loves the mixed-use redevelopment in her neighborhood, Avondale, where she can walk to Walgreen's on U.S. 41, Morton's Market and the Serving Spoon in Southside Village and Sarasota Memorial Hospital. "We had a chance to clean up some pretty bad stuff along those streets [in Gillespie Park] and allow people to realize a good investment," Cardamone says. "If bad creep destroys, what about good creep?"

And there's always the danger that a neighborhood can get so fired up about one issue that it ignores a bigger threat. When a group of Laurel Park residents sued the city for not including them in Duany's downtown master plan, they not only lost the fight but delayed the adoption of the plan, thus paving the way for approval of Kanaya on the corner of Orange Avenue and Laurel Street. That 180-foot condominium, which would not be allowed under the Duany plan, will tower over this neighborhood of one-story historic buildings, shops, homes and restaurants.

Like developers, some activists are well-intentioned and well-informed, and also like developers, others can be ruthless and unreasonable-or just naïve, like the woman who pleaded with the planning board to deny the Houses of Indian Beach project and turn the privately owned site, valued at several million dollars, into a park.

"Just because you don't like something doesn't mean you can stop it," says Freedman. "You have to have good and substantial reasons." He says effective activists study the issues and work with officials-and developers-to find reasonable, well-balanced solutions.

Urban planners say that activists' fears are often exaggerated. "Surrounding neighborhoods usually benefit when the city core is enlivened and rejuvenated," says Demetri Baches, director of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. More people will want to move into the neighborhoods, and whether or not old-timers like all the changes around them, if development is done carefully, their property values will almost certainly rise. "You can't freeze a neighborhood in time," says Duany. Just as developers must understand the importance of retaining neighborhood character, activists must understand that some change is inevitable.

An article in the January issue of the Sarasota Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) newsletter counsels that activists must work with, rather than against, good developers, those who are "soliciting the neighborhood's feedback, and more importantly, incorporating that feedback into development proposals." Maybe, the article suggests, the city is entering "a new, less adversarial approach to the development review process."

A cessation of hostilities and consensus on growth isn't going to be easy and it certainly isn't going to be quick. As Cardamone quips, "Redevelopment is hard. North Port is lucky. They can build from scratch."

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