In making the case for a proposed 404-unit apartment development at 2211 Fruitville Road, Joe Barnette tried to sum up his argument simply: Sarasota needs affordable housing badly, and nobody else is stepping up to provide it.
“There are no alternatives,” Barnette said. ‘There's none — zip. This is a ready to go project.”
Barnette represented entrepreneur Harvey Vengroff at a public workshop Monday, the first step toward realizing Vengroff’s plans for an affordable housing complex on nearly eight acres of downtown-adjacent land. Those plans have been in the work for more than a decade, and although they’ve been scaled down from an original vision of as many as 800 units, Vengroff is determined to make it a reality.
The road to constructing the project, tenatively titled VW Village, would not be easy. Monday’s workshop was designed to introduce the public to a proposal that would require a comprehensive plan amendment, rezone and alley vacation before work could begin. Vengroff wants the property reclassified as Downtown Core — increasing the allowed density and height of a proposed project on the site.
The 404 units would be a mix of sizes, ranging from studios to three-bedroom apartments. The size of those apartments would be between 350 square feet and 800 square feet, with rents between $600 and $950. The apartments would be located in five separate six-story buildings on the property.
The other major change that Vengroff would need to obtain for this project pertains to parking requirements. Instead of providing one parking space per residence, the plans call for just 242 parking spaces. Based on the market these apartments are targeted toward, Barnette said many of the tenants will not have cars of their own. Furthermore, he added, adding more parking would make the development of small, less expensive apartment units economically unfeasible.
Basically, Barnette explained, they had to choose between keeping prices lower or adding more parking.
“I don't meant to be cavalier about the parking,” Barnette said. “But it sort of comes down to, that's what we have to work with.”
Those in attendance at Monday’s workshop questioned various aspects of the proposal, including the parking requirements, the definition of “affordable,” the impact of the development on the surrounding neighborhood and the management of the apartment complex itself. Several of those questions were unanswered, as the project is still in its early planning stages.
Still, one thing Vengroff heavily leaned on was his personal experience in the area. Vengroff owns approximately 1,500 residential units in the region, and has sought to target lower-income tenants. He said he was committed to keeping the units affordable, acknowledging an attendee’s argument that other proposed “affordable” developments eventually came with higher-than-anticipated rents.
“That's correct — but I didn't build those,” Vengroff said.
The project had many supporters, too, most of whom said the city was in desperate need of affordable housing and wasn’t in a position to reject a wholly private plan seeking to fill that void.
Although the required changes would eventually necessitate state review and City Commission approval, Barnette attempted to argue that the city and residents shouldn’t be too picky when considering the proposal — even if some questions lingered.
“There has to be a little bit of faith here on this project,” Barnette said. “Is anything in life that certain? No, it's not.”