The Arts and Cultural Alliance is one of several parties interested in bringing affordable housing to a county-owned site on the North Trail.
Since 2014, a coalition of artists, public officials and neighborhood leaders have expressed their excitement about the possibility of building an affordable live-work space for artists in Sarasota, but that excitement has failed to produce an actual project.
Jim Shirley, the executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, said he is hopeful that might change soon. On Monday, Nov. 16, Shirley appeared in front of the City Commission and asked the board to submit a letter of support for his group’s proposal to build a 64-unit artist housing project on a 6.2-acre, county-owned parcel at 4644 N. Tamiami Trail.
The Nov. 16 meeting came more than six years after resident Veronica Morgan helped bring Minneapolis-based affordable housing nonprofit Artspace to Sarasota to evaluate undertaking a local development. The nonprofit’s preliminary review identified five potential North Trail sites, one of which was the county-owned parcel on which the Arts Alliance is now focused. The Arts Alliance developed its proposal for the county-owned parcel in partnership with Artspace, which would serve as developer and property manager.
The City Commission voted 3-2 to issue the letter of support Shirley requested. After the meeting, Shirley said the community’s enthusiasm for an artist-focused housing project hadn’t dissipated over the years.
“It would be beautiful to help the development of the North Trail, and it would be great for us to retain artists, both young and old,” Shirley said.
The county, interested in developing the Tamiami Trail property as affordable housing, issued an invitation to negotiate for groups that wanted to pursue a project. The Arts Alliance was one of six applicants. The others were:
- Blue Sky Communities, the developer behind Arbor Village on Fruitville Road, which proposed a 92-unit project;
- Carrfour Supportive Housing, a Miami-based company that proposed up to 219 units;
- Falcone Group, a Boca Raton-based company that proposed a 156-unit project;
- Southport Development, a Tampa-based company that proposed a 134-unit project; and
- The Veterans Housing Coalition, a Sarasota-based group that proposed a 75-unit mixed-use project targeted at veterans.
The highest proposed purchase price came from Southport, which offered $2.8 million for the land, more than double the assessed value of the property.
A representative for the Bayou Oaks Neighborhood Association also spoke at the Nov. 16 City Commission meeting about the property at 4644 N. Tamiami Trail. Richard Harris, president of the neighborhood group, noted the county purchased the site as part of its parkland acquisition program. He presented a concept the neighborhood had devised for the property and expressed hope that development would be sensitive to those living in the area.
Although the City Commission ultimately agreed to show support for the Artspace proposal, some commissioners were hesitant about endorsing a specific applicant without knowing what other submissions the county had received. Commissioners Hagen Brody and Erik Arroyo cast votes against fulfilling the request.
“It’s not that I don’t 100% support our arts and cultural community or even this project,” Brody said. “I just feel like we’re stepping outside our lane a little bit because this is really a county decision.”
Commissioner Liz Alpert said a city endorsement did not preclude the county from selecting a different application. Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, who placed Shirley’s request for support on the board’s agenda, noted the city had previously invested in Artspace’s evaluation process. She said she supported the proposal because Artspace had a history of success as an affordable housing developer, because she thought it would be an economic stimulant for the North Trail and because she thought it could be an important investment.
“It does not solve all of the affordable housing problems in the world, but it certainly does meet a very specific need in our city,” Ahearn-Koch said.
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