For nearly a decade, Marty Rappaport has been wary of restaurants.
In 2005, the St. Armands Business Improvement District hired urban retail planner Robert Gibbs to study St. Armands Circle. Rappaport, the organizer and chairman of the BID, said Gibbs praised the Circle as a shopping destination. Still, Gibbs said there was one looming problem that could derail its success.
“He said the tenant mix was way off,” Rappaport said “There’s too many food and food-related tenants for a commercial tourist district.”
After that study was conducted, the BID suggested restricting restaurants from occupying the first floor of buildings; that effort was unsuccessful. Rappaport thinks the problem has only worsened since then. He estimated that 55% of the retail space on the Circle was used for food or food-related purposes, up 10% since 2005.
On Tuesday, the BID held a joint meeting with the Downtown Improvement District (DID), to revisit the possibility of limiting the space restaurants occupy on the Circle and in downtown Sarasota.
Even though city attorneys warned there were a host of legal issues involved with restricting land use, Rappaport said it was a cause worth pursuing.
“If downtown or St. Armands turns into a giant food court, they’re going to lose their vibrancy,” Rappaport said.
Members of both boards agreed, voting to put out a request for proposal that would bring in a consultant like Gibbs to investigate whether the number of restaurants within the BID and DID was problematic.
Putting in the restrictions that these boards would like to see is far from simple. Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly said the city would be opening itself up to lawsuits if it restricted the constitutionally protected rights of property owners. Under Florida’s Bert Harris Act, business owners may seek compensation when government regulations place a liability on their property rights.
Connolly said it would be easier to create incentives for ideal retailers than it would be to shut out unwanted ones. If the city were to install restrictions on restaurants, it would first have to create an overlay district throughout the BID and DID with new zoning regulations. Additionally, any limits on land use would have to be deemed to protect the health, welfare or safety of the public.
Even if a consultant says there is a problem, there needs to be public support. Tim Litchett said he’s seen well-conceived plans carried through to the City Commission, only to be defeated when nine out of 10 public commenters opposed it.
DID President Ernie Ritz, the only board member at the meeting to say he doesn’t believe a restaurant problem exists, questioned whether that support could be found.
“I’d like to know who’s complaining,” Ritz said. “I don’t hear anyone complaining about too many restaurants.”