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Amid building boom, leaders grapple with Rosemary District density

The Rosemary Residential Overlay District effectively spurred redevelopment in the area — but has it run its course?

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  • | 6:00 a.m. June 8, 2017
  • Sarasota
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The challenges facing the Rosemary District today are not the same challenges facing the Rosemary District five years ago.

The neighborhood, just north of downtown and east of the bayfront, was once a symbol of unrealized potential. Officials, businesses and residents brainstormed ways to spark redevelopment, but nothing seemed to take hold.

Today, the Rosemary District is a symbol of a period of prosperity. More than 1,100 residential units are being developed. The first major project to break ground in the area, the CitySide apartment complex at 700 Cocoanut Ave., added 229 apartments this year. Ninety percent of those have a tenant lined up already.

Many stakeholders have welcomed the growth, but it comes with questions about the district’s ability to accommodate the needs of all the new buildings and residents.

There’s a simple turning point in the story of the neighborhood. In 2014, the City Commission approved the Rosemary Residential Overlay District. Before, zoning allowed projects in the area to have 25 units per acre. The overlay tripled the permitted density in the area, giving developers 75 units per acre and setting the stage for a boom of apartment and condo projects.

To a certain point, at least. The Rosemary Residential Overlay District — RROD, for short — comes with a provision that caps the number of new high-density projects. While individual projects could have 75 units per acre, the overall residential density of the district couldn’t exceed 25 units per acre. This meant, under the overlay’s provisions, builders could only add 1,775 residential units.

Hitting the cap

Adding the approved projects to the existing housing stock, there will be more than 1,500 residential units in the district — 85% of that 1,775 unit cap.  The ceiling of the RROD is drawing close. City officials and Rosemary District stakeholders aren’t certain about how to proceed from here.

Should the density revert to 25 units per acre now that the neighborhood got the jolt it needed? Should the density get permanently bumped to 75 units per acre? Do the regulations need to be more nuanced, with incentives woven in to create more affordable housing and green space and anything else the Rosemary District is lacking?

There’s no clear answer. If the goal was to kickstart redevelopment in a languishing neighborhood, those who have invested in the area say, mission accomplished.

“If you go back, it’s not too long ago where the words on everybody’s lips were, ‘Rosemary District: homelessness, lawlessness and economic wasteland,’” said Michael Bush, president of the Rosemary District Neighborhood Association. “That’s been removed from people’s vocabulary. It’s now focused on development and vision, and everything’s positive. That’s an amazing step forward.”

But it has not been an experiment without flaws. On Monday, when the city discussed the future of the neighborhood, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch cast the RROD in a much less-favorable light.

“We don’t have parks,” she said. “We don’t have trees. We have tiny sidewalks. I’m not totally thrilled with the way this has happened. Yes, it was successful in spurring development. But was it successful in creating affordable housing? I don’t think so.”

“Yes, it was successful in spurring development. But was it successful in creating affordable housing? I don’t think so.” — Jen Ahearn-Koch

Right now, developers could still build about 225 new units in the Rosemary District before hitting the RROD cap. There’s time for officials to study the issue before locking in a plan for the neighborhood. And in the not-too-distant future, the city’s Urban Design Studio will present a proposal for a new zoning code for the entire city, including new regulations for Rosemary.

Neighborhood stakeholders want to capitalize on this moment for inquiry. The Rosemary District Strategic Planning Initiative is a grassroots effort to steer the future of the area — including addressing the needs the explosion of growth has created. People in the neighborhood have identified park space, parking and a lack of defined vision as future challenges to tackle.

Howard Davis, a Rosemary District property owner leading the planning effort, said questions about density can be folded into the process. Davis and other property owners are advocating for a community-driven approach to planning, rather than letting the commission hand down an edict.

“Out of that input, we can say, ‘If we were to make any attachments to (the density increase), what are the things we want to secure?’” Bush said.

There are strong advocates for increasing the density throughout the district to 75 units per acre. The increased density, combined with the height limit of five stories, gives developers an incentive to build smaller units. Those units are inherently more affordable than the multimillion-dollar condos downtown.

“What we’re creating in the Rosemary District is unique,” said CitySide developer Bruce Weiner. “People from all walks of life — and, to some degree, all income levels — are living there.”

Affordable housing — by what standard?

Karin Murphy, director of the Urban Design Studio and author of the forthcoming zoning code, echoed Ahearn-Koch’s concerns about the overlay. She supports the intent of the RROD, and said the city should create a more diverse housing mix.

When she’s talked to residents about the future of the neighborhood, though, they’ve pointed to the same flaws. The rents are still relatively high. You’d have to pay $1,151 per month for a 572-square-foot studio apartment at CitySide, the cheapest option available there.

There’s no parkland within the neighborhood, despite the impending addition of thousands of new residents. The new building hasn’t been attached to any transit planning, which means there’s less incentive for people to ditch their cars.

She’s come to a similar conclusion as the planning initiative: There needs to be more discussion before making a long-term adjustment to the regulations in the Rosemary District.

“What we’ve heard from the residents, when we have the community discussion, is let’s assess it before we decide what to do next,” Murphy said.

“People from all walks of life — and, to some degree, all income levels — are living there.” — Bruce Weiner

Murphy is writing a revised density bonus system into the new form-based code. Rather than allowing developers to build more units by right, the code would give projects more density for affordable housing units, or if they paid into a parkland fund or provided transit upgrades.

The City Commission is operating on a similar wavelength, particularly when it comes to affordable housing. The board directed staff to come back with new regulations that would tie any increased density to the creation of affordable housing.

The next wave of building in the Rosemary District is still murky. Before builders reach the overlay district limit, all parties involved are working to make the future of the neighborhood clearer.


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