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Epoch Sarasota
Sarasota Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2019 4 months ago

Residents appeal downtown condo approval

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A coalition of residents living on Gulfstream Avenue and Palm Avenue are challenging a planned 18-story project in their neighborhood.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Although city staff determined a planned bayfront high-rise is compliant with all applicable building regulations, residents living near the project site are challenging that decision, arguing the proposal is fundamentally incompatible with its surroundings.

On Friday, a group of more than 20 residents filed an appeal contesting the city’s approval of the Epoch condominium development at 605 S. Gulfstream Ave. The city announced staff approved the site plan associated with the 18-story, 23-unit condominium April 12.

City spokesman Jason Bartolone said staff determined the plans met all applicable zoning code standards. But Dan Lobeck, an attorney representing the appellants, said the residents contesting the project believe it does not satisfy a provision in the code that states staff should consider “factors of compatibility” in considering whether a plan could be reconfigured to improve how a development affects the neighboring area.

Residents on Gulfstream and Palm Avenue have objected to setback regulations on the street that allow landowners to build out to their property lines when constructing new buildings. Lobeck noted the group of residents listed on the appeal include not just people living in the Royal St. Andrew building directly north of the Epoch site, but others from throughout the block.

Lobeck acknowledged the project complies with the city’s setback rules. Still, he said smaller building setbacks inherently conflict with the current character of Gulfstream and Palm. Residents will argue that is enough for the city to reject the building plans.

“Even though the developer claims to meet the minimum setbacks — in fact, slightly exceeds the minimum setbacks — what the developer and the staff are overlooking is the fact the city code very clearly mandates the application of the compatibility standard,” Lobeck said.

Patrick DiPinto, principle of Epoch developer Seaward Development, was not available for comment. Michelle Young, Seaward’s vice president of operations, said in a previous interview the company had attempted to respond to resident input in producing a final design for the project. She noted the main tower, which begins three stories above ground level, is set back more than 100 feet from Palm Avenue.

“We actually did quite a bit above and beyond what was required,” Young said.

Residents critical of projects in the city have frequently used the compatibility standard as a central argument. In 2016, Laurel Park residents successfully campaigned to overturn staff’s approval of a new loading zone at the Woman’s Exchange on the basis of compatibility.

Beyond that, however, city staff has stood behind its interpretation of the code despite any criticism. Planner Karin Murphy, who worked with the city for five years while drafting a proposal for a new zoning code, said compatibility standards weren’t meant to ensure a neighborhood remains homogenous — just to ensure that projects don’t radically alter the character of their surroundings.

“It’s not identical,” Murphy said in a 2018 interview. “It’s compatible.”

Lobeck also argued the Epoch project conflicts with the city’s comprehensive plan because that document references the 2001 downtown master plan, a portion of which discourages the creation of a “canyon effect.” The downtown master plan, written by planning consultant Andres Duany, stated that effect can be avoided “as long as the bulk of these towers, above the fourth story, is stepped-back away from the edge of the right of way.”

Lobeck said the approval of the Epoch plans spoke to larger issues with administrative site plan review. A group of residents has campaigned to reduce the use of administrative review downtown, a topic set for discussion at a May commission meeting.

Advocates for administrative review have said it streamlines the development process. Lobeck, however, said administrative review discourages the consideration of meaningful resident input, which he believes could have made the purported compatibility issues clear before the project was approved.

“This administrative approval process has proven problematic in the past, and it’s proving problematic here,” Lobeck said.

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