In addition to objections from the Arlington Park neighborhood, some Sarasota officials want to see affordable housing built on commercial properties.
City Commissioner Hagen Brody wants residents to know he doesn’t think density is a dirty word.
The prospect of increasing the residential density of a property at U.S. 41 and Bahia Vista Street was one of several points of contention at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting. The city was considering a zoning text amendment that would allow residential and hotel construction on some commercially zoned sites larger than 1 acre.
The owners of the 7.5-acre Midtown Plaza property, which once housed a Winn-Dixie grocery store, initiated the proposed change at the city’s request this year. About 20 residents of the nearby Arlington Park neighborhood showed up at the meeting to protest, holding signs reading “No high density.” The amendment would allow construction of up to 25 residential units per acre.
Although the commission Tuesday directed city staff and the Midtown Plaza owners to meet with residents before it considered officially adopting the zoning change, Brody took issue with the criticism from neighbors. Brody said he found the broad opposition to increased density disturbing, calling density necessary to provide more affordable housing in the city.
“You can regulate on top of that, and you can tweak the zoning code to get what you want,” Brody said. “But to be against density, per se, is to be against creating the housing inventory that we need.”
Arlington Park residents said they were worried about the effects of permitting multifamily residential construction near their neighborhood. Speakers raised concerns about traffic and building heights. Members of the group Preserve Arlington Park said they had collected 275 signatures on a petition opposing the zoning change in the past week.
“You are adding more people,” resident Nathan Wilson said. “We have a traffic problem now.”
Wilson and resident Robert Grant took issue with a perceived lack of outreach to the neighborhood. Although the amendment would affect 10 properties in the city, they felt city officials or the Midtown Plaza owner should have met with residents.
“The problem we have is these changes seem haphazard,” Grant said. “There’s been no planning of our neighborhood.”
Representatives for Midtown Plaza said the proposal went through the standard procedures for a citywide zoning text amendment. They noted the change was initiated at the City Commission’s request, and they heard no objections from the public in front of the Planning Board in July.
Joel Freedman, a planning consultant representing Midtown Plaza, thought the neighborhood had mobilized against this proposal because they were already working in opposition to another project. The Preserve Arlington Park group formed after a developer filed plans for a 233-unit apartment complex at 2750 Bahia Vista St., near Tuttle Avenue. That project, which Freedman is also working on, seeks 50 units per acre.
Commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Shelli Freeland Eddie said they were concerned the proposed zoning text amendment did not incorporate language regarding affordable housing. City staff members said they did not include an affordable housing provision because of a recent state law limiting the ability of local governments to mandate the construction of affordable housing without providing an incentive to developers to totally offset associated expenses.
City Manager Tom Barwin suggested permitting residential construction on commercial properties represented an incentive that increased the value of the land. City attorney Robert Fournier expressed some optimism the city could include affordable housing provisions in the amendment, though it would have to be carefully considered to ensure compliance with the state statute. Midtown Plaza representatives said they would welcome an affordable housing mandate.
In a 3-2 vote, the commission advanced the zoning text amendment to a second public hearing. Before that public hearing, though, the board directed those involved with the proposal to meet with residents and to add an affordable housing requirement.
Brody, Mayor Liz Alpert and Planning Director Steve Cover said allowing mixed-use zoning on sites including the Midtown Plaza property was in line with urban planning best practices.
“This is U.S. 41,” Brody said. “There couldn’t be a better corridor for mixed use.”