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Sarasota Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020 7 months ago

Following Bath & Racquet Club vote, officials mull policy changes

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The rejection of a contentious residential project after two years of planning has raised concerns about how the city handles development proposals.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

During a question-and-answer session on sprawl and growth in Sarasota on Jan. 28, urban planner Andrew Georgiadis called the site of Bath & Racquet Fitness Club one of the city’s most logical for dense, multifamily housing.

Georgiadis, who previously worked for the city during a failed effort to write a form-based zoning code, acknowledged people often see higher residential density near their homes as problematic. But he said the fear is misguided and that denser development in the right space can be beneficial.

He said concentrating housing near amenities, such as schools and grocery stores, helps reduce driving. So does building housing in a smaller urban space, rather than a more sprawling suburban setting where residents will likely travel into town anyway. And he said it was logical to put multifamily housing near a commercial corridor, transitioning from more-intense business activity to lower-density housing.

The Bath & Racquet Club, located near Trader Joe’s southeast of U.S. 41 and Bee Ridge Road, ticked all those boxes.

That’s why, when the City Commission voted Monday to reject a proposal to build 207 residential units on the Bath & Racquet Club property, Georgiadis offered a harsh assessment.

“It says: ‘Please don’t invest in Sarasota,’” Georgiadis said. “‘Please go away. Please take good quality development elsewhere.’”

Monday’s commission meeting marked the end of more than two years of planning on the Bath & Racquet proposal, which had drawn opposition from residents near the property who said the project was a bad fit. The public hearing showcased a number of divisions: between neighbors and Bath & Racquet Club members, between city planning staff and the city’s Planning Board and among the commission itself.

In a 3-2 vote, a majority of the commission voted in favor of advancing a comprehensive plan amendment to change the future land use designation of Bath & Racquet Club, at 2170 Robinhood St. But because such an amendment requires a supermajority, the proposal failed and rendered a proposed plan unbuildable.

After the vote, commissioners on both sides were critical of the city policies that led to Monday’s four-hour hearing and said they were interested in exploring ways to fix a system they aren’t satisfied with.

“I think it’s a flawed process,” said Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch, who voted against the plan.

“I don’t know what the process should be, but I think we’ve got to make a change to it,” said Commissioner Liz Alpert, who supported the proposal.

Clashing philosophies

Much of Monday’s meeting centered on the project’s compatibility with its surroundings.

Although city staff determined the project was appropriate for the site and recommended approval, neighbors argued it was not. Despite staff determinations that the project was less intense than what is allowed under existing regulations, residents who owned single-family homes remained concerned about traffic, building height and density.

“We’ll be living in their shadows,” resident James Guttridge said. “They’ll be looking from great heights, 60 feet away, into our swimming pools, living rooms and bedrooms, completely removing all privacy that we have had.”

Ahearn-Koch said those concerns were legitimate.

“I do not believe that it is in any way, shape or form compatible with our neighborhood chapter,” she said.

She thinks it’s a red flag when a developer requests a series of changes or exceptions to regulations, such as a comprehensive plan amendment and a rezoning. Generally, she believes the city should stick with its adopted plans and deviate primarily when officials deem appropriate at designated times for amending planning documents.

“I would like to see development happen in the way where you have a piece of property, and you buy it and say: ‘Here’s the rules. Here’s what I bought. Can I do what I want to do in that?’” Ahearn-Koch said. “And if I can’t, maybe it’s an indication I shouldn’t buy it.”

Alpert supported the proposal and found staff’s assessment of the project compelling. She disagreed with Ahearn-Koch’s philosophy and stated the city should be empowered to make land use decisions it feels are in the community’s best interest.

“That’s what you want to look at: What is the best use, rather than something someone 10 or 20 years ago thought would be a good use for it?” Alpert said.

“Here’s the rules. Here’s what I bought. Can I do what I want to do in that? If I can’t, maybe it’s an indication I shouldn’t buy it.” — Jen Ahearn-Koch

Although she understood residents’ objections, she doesn’t think neighborhood concern alone warrants rejecting a proposal. Georgiadis suggested city leaders should be hesitant to give too much consideration to resident opposition because urban planning principles often run counter to instincts. He said density is one of the least useful metrics for judging the quality of a project and how it will effect its surroundings.

“I believe that we should stop claiming expertise in areas in which we do not have expertise,” Georgiadis said. “Just like I would not presume to tell an oncologist how to attack a form of cancer, I think there’s a lot of weight given to people who do not understand the complexities of the built environment.”

Cathy Antunes, a resident who has been critical of growth management in Sarasota, was the host of the Jan. 28 Q&A with Georgiadis. She, too, thinks there’s an issue with local conversations about growth. She is sympathetic to resident worries and thinks problematic development tendencies in Sarasota have soured people on projects proposed near where they live.

But Antunes agrees that urban infill projects like the Bath & Racquet plan point to a more sensible, sustainable way to manage the future of the community. She believes neighborhoods can be convinced of the benefits of smart urban planning, too, if the right case is made.

“It’s complicated, but it isn’t when you really bring it back to people’s experiences,” Antunes said. “This is about your kids being able to stay in Sarasota. This is about being able to age in place with dignity.”

A better way

Alpert noted Bath & Racquet Club had been working since 2017 on the proposal, holding voluntary meetings with residents and scaling down the plans in response. She asked the commission to acknowledge the effort by not outright rejecting the plan.

After her appeal failed, Alpert offered a pessimistic assessment of the city’s development review procedures and the commission’s consideration of privately initiated community outreach.

“I think people should never bother to go and work with the neighborhoods,” Alpert said.

Ahearn-Koch disagreed, but she also thinks the system as-is isn’t working. She has begun researching policies in other communities and spoke to city staff about the possibility of making changes in hopes of avoiding more drawn-out development fights. After Monday’s meeting, Alpert told City Manager Tom Barwin she was interested in holding a commission workshop on the same topic.

Both Alpert and Ahearn-Koch said they didn’t have any firm changes in mind, but they suggested it would be good if a developer could gauge the commission’s interest in a project earlier in the process before spending considerable time on a proposal that may be denied.

“I don’t know what the process should be, but I think we’ve got to make a change to it.” — Liz Alpert 

One challenge, Ahearn-Koch said, is that compatibility means different things to different people, leaving final judgement in the hands of elected officials. As officials consider potential changes, would it be possible to create hard metrics assessing whether projects meet a compatibility standard, giving everyone involved a better sense of what’s acceptable?

“That’s the million dollar question,” Ahearn-Koch said. “I think it’s worthy of a discussion, but I’m not so sure it is.”

Asked how he would address the issues he sees with the city’s development procedures, Georgiadis offered a recommendation: Adopt a form-based zoning code with well-written subplans for specific areas of the city. He believes updated rules using new urbanist principles could help define compatibility, giving officials an authoritative document for managing growth going forward.

Although the city abandoned its efforts to adopt a form-based code in 2019 after more than five years of work, Alpert said she was open to revisiting the concept. She's may not be alone: In September, Commissioner Hagen Brody said it might have been a mistake to move away from the form-based code effort.

Whatever the solution might be, there’s a growing sentiment that the status quo is not tenable in the long term.

“There must be a better way to do this, because I just think it’s not fair to anybody,” Alpert said.

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