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Harvey Vengroff
Sarasota Thursday, Sep. 20, 2018 11 months ago

Vengroff affordable housing project could be revived

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A city policy change may lead to a renewed effort to build a workforce apartment complex near downtown, but challenges remain.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

It turns out developer Harvey Vengroff couldn’t bring himself to give up on plans to build a workforce apartment complex near downtown.

Not yet, at least.

After publicly announcing his intent to abandon the project in January, Vengroff is returning to his plans to construct about 400 affordable housing units on an 8-acre site at 2211 Fruitville Road.

He’s discussed the project — and its obstacles — with city staff, and he thinks there’s potential to make the development financially feasible.

Vengroff has voiced frustration previously about the fees associated with building the project. Local governments charge impact fees to account for how a project will affect public services such as the transportation network or parks.

Vengroff said these fees hamper a private developer’s ability to build affordable housing units.

Although Vengroff is revisiting the plans for the apartment complex, he remains concerned about the fees. He’s received multiple offers to sell the land for $8 million, and he’s still uncertain the project will become a reality.

“How badly do we want to play?” Vengroff said. “I guess that’s the bottom line, isn’t it?”

The City Commission took a step Monday toward accommodating Vengroff’s quest to finally build the apartments. Following a 3-2 vote, the city will now waive certain fees for withdrawn development applications.

After Vengroff spoke with city officials, staff drafted a regulatory change designed to eliminate one potential stumbling block. Because the developer withdrew his application, he would have to pay some application and review fees associated with the project for a second time. Those fees totaled just less than $40,000, City Manager Tom Barwin said.

The proposed changes would eliminate re-application fees for one year after a developer formally withdraws plans from city consideration. If the developer makes any substantial changes to the plans, the city would charge fees to review those changes.

City Commissioner Hagen Brody, a supporter of the proposal, said he thought the plan was a fair way to allow a recently abandoned project to pick up where it left off in the city’s review process. As Vengroff revisits his plans for the housing project, Brody said the city should be vigilant about finding opportunities to make it easier to build similar developments.

“As we go along, I hope to kind of remedy some of the issues I see in our code that inhibit affordable housing,” Brody said.

Barwin pointed out that the city previously made regulatory changes designed to help Vengroff’s plans move forward. One of the biggest remaining challenges — impact fees — is largely under county control.

Barwin said the city has had preliminary conversations with the county about options for adjusting impact fees for affordable housing projects, but that process will be lengthy and complex. There are state regulations limiting local governments’ control over impact fees, Barwin said, and Sarasota officials intend to be thorough in their examination of options available.

“The impact fee discussion is another discussion that will take several months to see changes, if there are any,” Barwin said. “It has to be done carefully.”

The city and county are working with the Florida Housing Coalition on a broader study of best practices for developing affordable housing. Barwin said he expects a report to be ready toward the end of this year or in early 2019.

In the meantime, Vengroff will move forward through the city’s development review process before making a final determination on whether his company can build the housing project. For years, Vengroff has been critical of the regulations in Sarasota that he says have impeded his plans. On Monday, though, he expressed some hope those challenges may yet be overcome.

“Maybe with the city’s help and with the county’s help, we can actually provide affordable housing for somebody, for 400 families,” Vengroff said.

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