Officials want more community feedback on downtown projects, but there's disagreement on the best way to accomplish that goal.
When Chris Gallagher hears residents criticize the development that’s taken place downtown during the past 15 years, he doesn’t quite understand what all the fuss is about.
The growth hasn’t been perfect, Gallagher concedes. There are steps the city could take to improve the built environment, though Gallagher thinks that has less to do with zoning regulations and more with street design. But as an urban designer working with Hoyt Architects, he looks at the heart of the city and sees a vast improvement from where things stood in the early 2000s.
“We have an extraordinary downtown,” Gallagher said. “For a city of less than 60,000 people, it’s unbelievable.”
That’s why Gallagher attended Monday’s City Commission meeting to push back against a proposal from STOP, a resident activist group formed in 2017 to advocate for changes to city development policies. One of STOP’s core issues has been reducing the city’s use of administrative development review, a procedure that allows city staff to approve new projects without public hearings on the plans.
STOP proposed a zoning text amendment that would limit the use of administrative review in downtown zoning districts. The city expanded the scope of administrative review in a 2005 revision of the downtown code.
For most new projects, STOP advocated for a system that would require developers to hold a community workshop prior to filing plans. Before the city could formally approve a project, the Planning Board would hold a public workshop on the proposal.
STOP has argued the regulations in place unfairly limit public input. The group believes public hearings are the best way to incorporate that public input, calling its proposal a return to the pre-2005 regulations.
Although Gallagher thinks downtown has improved, STOP posits there’s broad dissatisfaction with the growth under current regulations. The group’s agenda has received endorsements from 17 neighborhood and condominium associations.
Other groups, including the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations and Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, have called for more public input on development, though they haven’t endorsed STOP’s specific recommendations.
“We’ve been doing this for 14 years, and people want it to change,” STOP steering committee member Kate Lowman said of the existing procedures.
Based on the conversation at Monday’s commission meeting, city leaders are open to change. The board unanimously directed staff to spend the next three to four months exploring options for adjusting the city’s development review processes.
Lowman was pleased the city is prioritizing this issue as STOP requested. But as staff sorts through possible policy changes, there’s still a spectrum of options for incorporating community feedback into the development process.
“I think everyone’s clear on the idea that more public input is better,” Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie said. “The question is: How do we get there?”
Andrew Georgiadis, a planner who helped draft a proposed form-based zoning code before leaving his position with the city in 2015, said he understands the angst that’s driving STOP to advocate for policy changes.
He thinks it’s important for the city to address underlying issues driving community concern. He believes the city can offer more opportunities for public input on proposed developments, particularly large ones.
But when it comes to the most effective way to address development-related issues, Georgiadis doesn’t see public hearings as a solution.
“With all due respect to my STOP friends, public hearings do not deliver better buildings,” Georgiadis said.
Georgiadis sees issues with the downtown code, but he still thinks the quality of development in downtown zoning districts —where administrative review has been in place — is better than the quality of development elsewhere in the city, which is more reliant on public hearings. That’s because he believes the regulations downtown are superior and that standards do more to influence design than public hearings.
When he hears residents clamor for more public hearings, he says it suggests professional planning staff is not capable of enforcing the standards in place.
“That concerns me,” Georgiadis said. “What is creating that level of distrust?”
He hopes the city could get to a place where public input is incorporated, but where residents believe staff is capable of properly applying the code when reviewing developments.
Georgiadis isn’t alone. In January, the city sponsored a lecture from planner Jeff Speck, a walkability expert who worked on Duany Plater-Zyberk’s 2001 downtown master plan. Speck also cautioned against a reliance on public hearings, instead suggesting the city should empower its staff to hold developers to higher standards.
“It’s not efficiently or better accomplished in the public eye,” Speck said. “I would trust a good city staff to do a better job of that than I would a collection of concerned citizens.”
Despite the pushback, STOP sees public hearings as a platform to elevate the voice of residents while holding developers more accountable.
“I’m not surprised a planner would make that argument, but I have to respectfully disagree,” Lowman said.
Lowman believes staff is often limited in its ability to press a developer to change the design of a project that technically meets the standards in the code but may have some elements the public would dislike. By holding public hearings, residents would have an opportunity to get their concerns on the record, which could give staff more leverage over a developer, Lowman suggested.
“It incentivizes the developer to look for that sweet spot where they can build what they want to build, but also it’s working for the larger community,” Lowman said.
At Monday’s meeting, two developers and one commissioner questioned the benefits of more public hearings.
Developers Jay Tallman and Andy Dorr said they would welcome a new regulation requiring developers to hold informal community workshops before filing plans with the city. They said public input often helps improve a project. But public hearings, held after official site plans have been drafted, come at a point in the process where developers have already committed significant resources to a specific layout, which means they don’t really want to change things.
Georgiadis agreed front-end public input is generally the most effective way for the community to influence a project.
“Residents would have more influence the earlier they are involved,” Georgiadis said. “When the plan’s already drafted and submitted, there’s much more resistance to modifying than when it’s all done with a pencil and eraser at the very beginning of the project.”
STOP also sees value in early community workshops, which is why the group incorporated the process into its recommendations. But even though city staff and the Planning Board would be applying the same zoning standards, the group believes community workshops alone are not enough to give the public its say on proposed developments.
Tallman questioned why the city would take decision-making power away from city staff and give it to the Planning Board, a group made up of five appointed volunteers.
“Who best to evaluate whether something meets the code or it doesn’t meet the code than a professionally trained staff?” Tallman said.
“Who best to evaluate whether something meets the code or it doesn’t meet the code than a professionally trained staff?” — Jay Tallman
Commissioner Hagen Brody echoed that sentiment. Like Georgiadis, he feared residents incorrectly saw public hearings as a way to stop the construction of buildings compliant with existing standards.
“The review process does not change that,” Brody said.
Lowman defended the merits of the Planning Board as the adjudicating body responsible for reviewing development proposals. She added that city staff would still have to prepare a report with its recommendations on a project ahead of a public hearing.
“When you look at the people who are on the Planning Board, for the most part, I think they put in some pretty serious time looking at the issues,” Lowman said.
As city staff begins its analysis of the review standards, it sees room for improvement. Tim Litchet, director of development services, said there are large projects that receive no public input and small projects that must go through the public hearing process.
Staff wanted to conduct a broad review of the processes in place to address issues on both ends of the spectrum. Although STOP was focused on holding public hearings for large projects, Litchet questioned whether a simple size threshold would be sufficient for determining what process to use for a project.
Planning Director Steve Cover said he’s seen both administrative and public review processes work, though he expressed more concern about potential pitfalls associated with public hearings.
At this point, staff has no specific recommendations in mind. Although public input is a priority, so is establishing reliable procedures.
“Hopefully we’re going to come back with a process we think is efficient, predictable and timely,” Cover said.