At-large candidate Jen Ahearn-Koch shares her thoughts on the key issues ahead of the March 14 election.
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Name: Jen Ellen Ahearn-Koch
Masters in international affairs, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University; BA in international affairs, American University of Paris; JAK Consults, Sarasota, founder and consultant marketing, planning, public relations, design 2001-present; Mattison’s Restaurants & Catering Sarasota, marketing, PR and design director, 2004-2016; city of Sarasota Planning Board, member, vice chair and chair, 2009-2015.
In a crowded field, what makes you the most qualified candidate for this position?
I offer a unique perspective of Sarasota and have the experience, the perspective and the passion for facilitating the city of Sarasota’s growth in a balanced and coordinated fashion. Because I grew up here, lived abroad where I witnessed different and new ways of doing things, chose to come back with my husband and young son Tobias to continue to build a family, start a business and help found a nonprofit. In addition, I have been heavily involved in local government as a neighborhood leader and for two consecutive terms on the Planning Board. My familiarity with the Ccty and my range of experience makes me a valuable asset to the City Commission, especially in bridging communication, which is my profession.
My roots run deep in Sarasota. I visited here as a child, went to high school here, left to study and work, and when I was offered the choice of where to return and raise my family, I chose Sarasota. I served six years on the Planning Board, including acting as the chair and vice chair. I was the co-founder of my neighborhood association and am the current president of the Tahiti Park Neighborhood Association. I have served as my neighborhood representative to the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations and other civic organizations including Bayfront 20:20, Citizen's Academy, Save or Sarasota Tree Canopy, and more. I am a founding member and on the Steering Committee of STOP!. I am a proud 25-year resident of Sarasota; I am a business owner and marketing consultant. I volunteer my time with a variety of nonprofit organizations, including GuitarSarasota.
Most importantly, I am building my family in Sarasota, as a parent of two boys — one who is a graduate of our city’s schools (Bay Haven, Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences and Booker High School) and currently attending University of Central Florida and the other, who had the same school path and is currently attending Booker High School — orients my unique perspective, not only to this generation, but to future generations. This leads me to offer something that is unique to this campaign.
If elected, what would be your top three priorities during your term on the commission?
1) Traffic / Administrative Approval / Sidewalks
2) Affordable Housing / Homeless
3) Parks / Trees / Quality of Life
How would you serve as a good financial steward of the city's budget?
A constant commitment to fiscal responsibility is an essential role for the City Commission, and taxpayers need to know the commissioners are investing their tax dollars wisely. With pension and other post-employment benefits in the city increasingly commanding a greater percentage of our annual budget, all future commissioners will need to show discipline and courage in making difficult decisions that put the city back on a road to relevance for taxpayers, where their investment is one that first and foremost goes into enhancing the safety and general quality of life of this city. This is my orientation and the direction where I hope to move the city. Any and all projects that come before the City Commission deserve careful scrutiny and attention, and being fiscally responsible is an essential role for the City Commission. The tax payers need to know the commissioners are investing their tax dollars wisely.
How do you believe the commission should strike a balance between maintaining an economically vibrant city and addressing concerns related to growth?
I support the public process and growth in Sarasota that includes the public’s voice. Currently, the public process is part of some of the city’s developments. However, just 14 years ago, that process was changed for the Downtown Master Plan area, and the city added administrative approval (I use the term “approval,” not “review,” because projects are “reviewed and then approved”) as a settlement to the threat of lawsuit. Downtown administrative approval means that even the largest buildings and super-blocks are approved administratively and involve no public input.
The community’s voice is a valuable tool in growth and in gauging a project’s impact, success and compatibility. Input from the public provides information for the whole development team and the city’s staff, especially insight about that area’s fiber, texture, history and essence. A successful community develops in a balanced, inclusive and coordinated way, with a plan and a vision. Without the public's input, you alienate the exact people you hope will embrace the project and participate in its eventual activation and success. The Downtown Master Plan area — where we have a mushroom of development — has no current public process, and there is no denying that people in the city — and region -—are not happy with the results. The community is outraged by the imposing mass of some of the buildings, especially when they are built “lot line to lot line” with no setback and with minuscule sidewalks.
People are nervous about the projects’ impacts on traffic, infrastructure and flooding — especially since the intersection where the Vue is located is already prone to regular flooding when we have summer storms. It is only putting salt in the wound for me to remind everyone that the city has not collected one penny of concurrency fees since 2011, and that less than one million dollars in impact fees has been collected from all this development. Guess who is paying the price now and in the future? The administrative approval process, especially for the very large projects like the Vue and the very intense projects like convenience stores or gas stations, is not a useful tool for development approval.
The current downtown projects underway now, including the 25+ already approved, did not hold a community workshop, Planning Board public hearing, or go to the City Commission for a public hearing. This was a missed opportunity for valuable discussion. So please, don’t blame your elected representatives — City Commissioners — when you are stuck in traffic staring up at the Vue wondering “how could they approve this?” Your elected officials never had a vote or a voice, and neither did the public. I support the public process for the whole city, not just a portion of it. our public process is our voice. The administrative approval process is a 14-year old failed experiment.
It must be pointed out that the city’s staff also has the ability to administratively grant adjustments to the code, and the language is vague. The application of Section IV-503 is vague and nuanced. The Vue, for example, had a number of significant adjustments to the code that were processed administratively, so in this situation, absolute compliance to the code was not the case. The Ccty adjusted the code at the developer’s request, but I am not sure what the community got in return.
The city has added a new way of alerting citizens of developments, which is great, but does not — and should not — be seen as a replacement for the public process. Under current administrative approval, this would put the onus and burden of proof on a citizen/neighborhood to appeal an already staff-approved decision. This puts the citizen/neighborhood in an immediate position of disadvantage: The citizen/neighborhood is not on even-footing in a quasi-judicial hearing. The citizen/neighborhood has 10 days to file a petition with a filing fee of $1,600, plus any additional legal fees or consulting fees. Middle- and low-income neighborhoods are again at a distinct disadvantage.
How will you evaluate the forthcoming form-based zoning code?
I have been involved and following the form-based code since the beginning and am still actively involved. As our neighborhood’s representative, I have walked our neighborhood a number of times with the UDS team, had them present at our neighborhood meetings, attended all the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations meetings where the UDS presented and have attended (too many to count) meetings at the UDS where they have actively engaged the public.
I am combing through the latest packet, which includes all eight articles. I am looking at this from the perspective of the neighborhood, the developer and the city. I have real-world experience with the definitions, terminology and application of the articles. The FBC will be a very important community discussion, one in which I urge all residents, businesses and interested parties to participate. Now is the time to give your input. Obviously, I am concerned with the increased thresholds which trigger administrative approval, so that is my immediate focus. There are a number of other concerns I have as well, but I hope the process is one in which the entire community will engage.
What role should the city play in the development of the 42 acres of city-owned bayfront land surrounding the Van Wezel?
I have been our neighborhood’s representative in Bayfront 20:20 as a stakeholder since its inception. In fact, Tahiti Park was No. 7 to sign up as a stakeholder in the 42-acre project. Like the Urban Design Studio’s Form Based Code, this is another example of a project which will indelibly alter our city. I am optimistic that between the open process Bayfront 20:20 has chosen and the guiding principles, mission and vision of the organization, along with the new Bayfront 20:20 Planning Organization, that this will eventually become a crown jewel for the city and region. But, the road is long, and conversation is — and should be — exhaustive and essential. The impact and potential of this project can not be underestimated.
This effort involves a number of our treasured, culturally and architecturally valuable nonprofit organizations and buildings, public land with bayfront property, and the entire community. I have confidence that bayfront 20:20 is off to a solid start because of their support from the 52 stakeholder organizations. But the community must be actively involved to ensure public land is retained for the public’s enjoyment, including the beautiful bay views, that the area is safely and easily accessible, that our history and culture are preserved, that this is sustainable economically, that we employ the most progressive, environmentally-friendly practices in the development of the area, that we proudly protect the natural vegetation and that we offer and invite this public amenity for the entire community (emphasis on that last point).
What steps should the city take to address homelessness and associated issues?
I support the federal and state official policies of Housing First, which the City has currently adopted. Expanding Housing First, in collaboration with governmental and other partner organizations, is the data-based successful program that begins a new life, with a home, for many previously homeless individuals. The program involves reaching out to homeless individuals, getting them stabilized, providing them housing, along with the essential wrap-around services to sustain their improved living situation. The city has hired a consultant, Susan Porcine from the Florida Housing Coalition, to evaluate the vast number of our area’s wonderful organizations offering services to help individuals and families get off the street and get permanent housing.
These organizations, like Jewish Family and Children’s Service, Salvation Army, Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness and many others, provide specific services that are often provide a path to self-sufficiency. Once we have a comprehensive evaluation of the homeless and support services, we can understand our network — i.e. where we are lacking, where we have duplication. This will be a tremendous help in solving the crisis. Housing First has been successfully implemented in other towns, like Austin and Orlando. Growing the Housing First program, as well as the wrap-around services, in an organized effort in collaboration with our network partners is something I support strongly.
What steps do you think the city should take to address traffic-related issues?
The city just voted on Tuesday, Feb. 21, to raise the multimodal fees to the maximum amount, so this will hopefully start to generate funds for us to invest in transportation facilities that are incremental traffic reliefs, like safe bike lanes, wider sidewalks, bus rapid transit, trolley systems, etc. The community is angry with the current traffic gridlock, and not just city residents, but residents on the islands and from outside the city who are also stuck in traffic. The specific conversation concerning the “road diet” on Fruitville Road is causing a lot of frustration and concern from residents, as this is one of our vital evacuation routes. Narrowing the road does not make sense in that context. Also, Fruitville Road is already at gridlock, so reducing its capacity does not make sense. As per the roundabouts: I think this needs to be taken in context of where the roundabout is located, what type of roundabout is being proposed (one-lane, two-lane, etc), and what the specific problem is that the city is hoping the roundabout will solve. I don't think roundabouts are a cure-all for every situation. Is it a pedestrian issue or traffic-flow issue? In general, studies show that roundabouts can, and often do, slow traffic while increasing the flow and volume of traffic. But, again, I think this depends on the specific location, design and volume of traffic at that specific roundabout.
For these and all other traffic-related plans, it is essential that the first step is for the city to conduct a citywide comprehensive traffic study that will provide accurate and current data that will be used when addressing traffic and transportation issues. The last network traffic study was conducted 20 years ago. I was here in Sarasota 20 years ago, and traffic was nothing like the traffic now. We have to know today’s numbers on where the traffic is coming from, where it is going, when, how often, etc. That is the absolute basic required information. Next, I would (and have) urged the city to create a Transportation Advisory Board. Also, I urge (and have urged) the city to keep concurrency as part of the Transportation Chapter as an alternative to multimodal fees. We can have both and collect the fee that offers the most money, which can be used in the best possible way on our transportation facilities, either directly in the area of the development, like a pedestrian- and bike-friendly street section (multimodal) or for a regional solution like the development of a park-and-ride or truck route (concurrency fee use). We need to maintain — and think about completing — our city’s grid, so we have alternate routes to navigate throughout the city. I would recommend we look into positive and negative sides of potentially de-designating certain state roads in the city, so we have control over their design and function. We need to review the current primary and secondary street designations and upgrade streets to primary streets where it makes sense. (Duany recommended we both upgrade the intersection and streets where the Vue is located, as well as potentially de-designate a portion of North Tamiami Trail so the city could design a highly functioning intersection — one of the most important in our city as it connects north to south, islands to mainland. For some reason, city did not do that.) Our mass transit system should be much more frequent, reliable, and efficient.
The city is hiring a planning director because we do not currently have one, I hope that we will have a Planning Department that includes a transportation planner along with a separate Neighborhood Department. I urge the city to invest in our current staff at the Department of Neighborhood and Development Services and to offer them the tools they need to provide the expected services.
How should the city encourage the creation of alternative housing types, particularly workforce and affordable housing?
We need to change our terminology: Affordable housing is seen as a burden when it needs to be seen as an investment, an investment in our community and our future. As we continue to grow, we need to think about the community we want to be, and that community should be one in which a diverse population has access to housing, jobs, parks, shops and a solid transportation network. How do we do this? We create innovative public/private partnerships. We change our zoning code to include a 20% affordable housing requirement when negotiating more height or density for developments. We require 20% affordable housing units and we hold them to it. Successful affordable housing needs to be clean, safe and legally defined as affordable. It is best in diversified neighborhoods – with mixed-use and supported with reliable public transportation, safe bike paths and walkways, and close to parks or with greenery.
How can the city do a better job of attracting and retaining young talent?
We need to start with affordable housing. The youth need to have affordable housing options along with supporting this with a variety of safe and reliable mass transit options and safe bike and pedestrian paths. Job opportunities and career development are an essential to retaining not only the youth, but also the middle-class and a diverse workforce. There are a number of growing industries where we can foster growth including sustainable / renewable energy and technology (including high-speed internet) areas which can grow small and medium-sized businesses along with offering new areas of skill training. The Legacy Trail’s expansion to the city is an incredible opportunity to connect the region, increase our quality of life options and has the potential to be an economic generator across a number of fields including tourism and sports (see below).
How would you attempt to work with the County Commission on issues of interest to both governments?
Frequent, healthy communication and interaction are essential to the success of the inter-local agreements the city has with the county and other organizations. The county has two new commissioners, so that is a great opportunity to build a solid platform of communication. One new county commissioner is well known for crossing party lines, so I hope this is a good indication of increased opportunity for positive and productive discourse.
1. County/city unity with Housing First: The city and county could, and hopefully will, join forces on the Housing First policy to tackle homelessness. This is the most important and urgent collaboration.
2. Legacy Trail: We need to support the efforts to connect this very popular trail to the city of Sarasota. This will allow residents of our south county to connect with the north county and vice versa in an emission-free way. This is an opportunity to not only build the sports, tourist and environmental area of our economy, but to boost our local legacy as well. The uniting of the trail represents a successful collaboration of county and city, which benefits the community and region at large. From Venice to downtown Sarasota, we all win. This is one example of how important it is to our city to be connected and to support our new parks director and parks/tree protection/green space/pocket parks. A robust, connected, accessible park system is a benefit to the community at-large.
3. Traffic solutions: This is a joint effort, and the county and city need to continue conversations about the metrics which measure our traffic. We need a comprehensive traffic network study. We need to start collecting concurrency and multimodal fees that can be used to introduce new transportation facilities and upgrade those we currently use, in the city and the region.
Do you believe the city should restrict the use of administrative review for development proposals?
Would you consider raising the general fund millage rate from its current level?
Do you support the creation of a paid parking system in the city?
Yes, but not necessarily parking meters
Do you support the role of Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 and the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization as the primary planning group for the redevelopment of the bayfront?
Do you support the use of downtown as a venue for large-scale, multi-day events?
Yes, in coordination with the city, merchants, and residents
Do you support the creation of a parks & recreation taxing district?
Do you think the city is growing too fast?
No, it is not receiving funds from developments which impact the City