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My View: The Dream Crushers

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  • | 4:00 a.m. September 8, 2010
  • Longboat Key
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Henry Walia has a dream. The Sarasota property owner wants to take the unusual triangle corner at Five Points where Patrick’s Restaurant stands and build an 18-story upscale hotel. It would be an instant downtown landmark and generate so much that is needed at the moment.

A hotel is exactly what many people have been saying for years that downtown lacks — it would bring tourists into the city core. As downtown struggles along with the rest of the area in the deplorable economy, it would generate hundreds of jobs. As the taxbase erodes, it would boost property taxes. And it would bring people with money downtown — a happy thought for the retailers along Main Street and Palm Avenue.
One would think the response would be universally positive to seeing such an opportunity for serious economic activity in the very heart of downtown.

But one would be forgetting the bane of free, creative people, not to mention a bustling economy: The Bureaucrat — and the small thinkers who empower him.

Apparently, Walia’s dream is not the dream of Timothy Litchet, the city’s grand planning poobah and chief dasher of hopes.

Litchet took out his veto pen and scribbled DENIED! across Walia’s dream. And we all just move on as if this were an everyday occurrence. Because it is.

Walia will appeal the decision. After all, it is his land, not the city’s. But it is Litchet’s letter to Walia’s attorney denying the project that is so revealing.

Walia’s hotel needs a height exemption from the city because a previous City Commission determined that the universal “we” don’t like tall buildings and it put a cap of 10 stories on all future downtown buildings, allowing for only two exceptions to be granted by the city. (For the record, this part of “we” actually does like tall buildings.)

So Litchet could approve or deny based on a series of judgment calls. He wrote in his letter of denial: “The proposed development of a 16- to 18-story international modern design building does little to transition in scale and design with a 3- to 4-story Art Deco building from the 1930s.”

So, tall next to short. Bad.

A new, intriguing and soaring structure could be built next to a shorter historic structure in the heart of downtown, triggering who knows how much spin-off development. But, apparently, the government gurus of appropriate citizenry buildings have concluded that “we” do not like that and it is a sharp point against approving the project.

It’s as if the Bureaucrat says, “Yes, yes, hundreds of jobs, thousands in tax revenues, a hotel finally downtown, economic development, yes, yes. But you see, we will have a tall building next to a short building. This cannot be.”

If it rhymed, I would think we were living in a Dr. Seuss book. The ridiculous factor is as high. The happy ending less likely.

Litchet questioned the “viability” of the hotel. But aren’t the financial risks up to the developer and his financiers? They are the ones putting their money at risk.

But the coup de gras of central planner insight: “Because only two buildings may utilize this additional height provision, we choose to reserve it for a building that we believe is truly feasible and can bring something to the downtown in terms of real economic development.”

You see, the central planner knows best. Yes, it is Walia’s land, not Litchet’s. But the city government has power to force him to pay taxes to keep his property and then deny him freedom to do what he wants with what he owns and pays taxes on. And we are just comfortable with that.

Property rights? That’s so yesterday. So Jeffersonian.

Litchet, with no money or property on the line, knows what is “truly feasible,” not the dude who actually owns the property and is taking the risks. And Litchet knows what is “real” economic development.

Apparently a hotel bringing thousands of fresh money-spenders downtown is not real. Perhaps he thinks another half-filled condo tower would be more “real” economic development.

Seriously, where was the master central planner when all these condos were approved, which apparently were not “truly feasible” or “real” economic development?

Walia will get a chance with the city planning board, and hopefully there will be some sane voices. But the episode, and complete acceptance of it, is so telling.

When will we as a society get a spine, and maybe just a hint of adventure, and say, “Enough! Let us build! Let us grow! Let us be what we once were — something more than little mamby-pamby ninnies who have to look, act and sound like what the Bureaucrat says we must.”

We come from stock that tamed a continent — even managed to make living in sub-tropical, mosquito-infested Florida attractive. But now we have to ask permission of some government wonk to look upward. And he said: No.

I don’t know Litchet. He’s probably a great guy and a nice neighbor (as long as you follow the rules).
But we’ve simply turned over to the Bureaucrat — and all he represents in our octopus government — too much dream-crushing power over our lives, our private property, our money, our choices. Way too much power.

Rod Thomson is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review. He can be reached at [email protected].


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