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Harvey Vengroff hopes to make the property that currently houses Bob's Train restaurant and Sarasota Fitness and Fight Club the site of 800 apartment units.
Sarasota Thursday, May. 22, 2014 3 years ago

Entrepreneur pushes for affordable housing

by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

After scrapping his plans to move to Central America, entrepreneur Harvey Vengroff is focusing on a more local endeavor — pushing for an 800-unit apartment complex on Fruitville Road near Lime Avenue.

Vengroff, the owner of the most rental units in the city, said there’s a shortage of affordable housing in Sarasota. He thinks his proposed project would help address that shortage, and he already owns the land and is eager to move forward. The only thing that’s missing, he said, is permission from the city to undertake such a project.

That might prove to be a substantial hurdle. The 8-acre property at 2211 Fruitville Road, purchased for $1.9 million in 2002, is currently zoned as Downtown Edge. Under the current city code, that classification allows for developments with a density of 25 units per acre. To offer more affordable units — starting around $600 per month, Vengroff said — the project needs to have a density of 100 units per acre.

The city has recently shown a willingness to consider density adjustments for desired projects. A proposed overlay district, currently making its way through various government entities, would allow for certain properties in the Rosemary District to have a density of 75 units per acre, rather than the 25 units per acre for which the land is zoned. The Rosemary Residential Overlay District was proposed to allow for the construction of a roughly 450-unit apartment complex.

Vengroff said that city leaders interested in courting entrepreneurs and business owners needed to show a commitment to developing affordable housing units. Without a place for working-class people to live, Vengroff said, it would be difficult to attract major businesses.

“You can’t just keep inviting rich people to come here and then have no place for them to have workers,” Vengroff said. “If you invite a businessperson to come down and open a plant here or a business of any sort, he or she has to have a place for workers to live. There is none.”

Andrew Georgiadis, principal urban designer with the city’s Urban Design Studio, said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of Vengroff’s proposal because he hasn’t seen any designs yet. Still, he said the project offered some exciting opportunities that would align with the studio’s forthcoming citywide form-based zoning code.

One of the most intriguing options would be for the apartment complex to link up with expanded public transit options, Georgiadis said. With a lack of emphasis on parking options for residents, increased bus service — and the potential use of the railway in close proximity to the site — could go hand in hand with the housing units, which is something that interests the Urban Design Studio. If everything lined up properly, Georgiadis said, it could be an attractive option worth the increased density.

“This is sort of the holy grail,” Georgiadis said, “land-use planning coordinated with transit planning.”

Unfortunately, he said, it’s difficult to comment on how the project would play out without knowing more specifics. He said the principles behind a form-based code focus less on coefficients, such as density, and look more at how a project fits in with its surroundings.

“We really pay attention to how to make density palatable to its surroundings,” Georgiadis said. “We look at how to make it charming and at a scale that doesn't thwart other goals, such as livability.”

As the project begins to evolve beyond the proposal stage, Vengroff said it was an opportunity for the city to show its dedication to providing a variety of housing options.

“Everyone in Sarasota bitches and moans about affordable housing, but nobody seems to really want affordable housing,” Vengroff said.

Contact David Conway at [email protected]


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