- May 18, 2023
During a conversation about affordable housing at the Sept. 22 County Commission meeting, Commissioner Charles Hines singled out what he envisioned as a new frontier for adding workforce residential units in the near future: shopping malls.
Hines said Sarasota malls struggling with a decline in retail activity could inject new life into their properties by redeveloping them as mixed-use sites with housing. He pointed to the redevelopment of the former Winter Park Mall into Winter Park Village, an Orlando-area complex with residences, offices and a Main Street-style setting, as evidence similar projects could work in Sarasota.
Hines said the county could consider a system of incentives that required some concessions from all sides to produce quality redevelopment that achieved community goals. In exchange for building some affordable housing on sites including Sarasota Square Mall, Hines suggested the county could offer increased height limits or permission to build additional market-rate residences.
“Maybe that doesn’t meet our exact code with regards to density, but we’ll work with you if some of those units are affordable and workforce,” Hines said.
The idea drew support from the rest of the board, which agreed to revisit the conversation. Commissioner Al Maio has previously suggested creating regulations to allow and encourage similar redevelopment of strip plazas.
As the county works to manage growth, Commissioner Christian Ziegler said adding housing to malls would help concentrate new residences on existing transportation corridors. “Every time I go to Sarasota Square, I hate to say it, but retail’s just leaving,” he said. “There’s so much more we could be doing with those large footprints that are in the areas people want to live already.”
Officials in the city of Sarasota have been having similar conversations. In March, the City Commission voted to allow residential construction on properties larger than 1 acre with a commercial general zoning designation.
Planning Director Steve Cover said his department intends to continue pursuing building regulations that could facilitate mixed-use redevelopment of shopping centers. Cover suggested concentrating density on these properties could be a way to create walkable communities with access to stores and restaurants.
In addition to bringing activity to struggling properties, Cover said replacing large swaths of surface parking with residential buildings could provide other benefits. That could include built-in provisions for adding affordable housing and opportunities for improved public transportation.
“If we undertook this and move forward with it, I think everybody wins,” Cover said.
Cover said staff would need to discuss the topic with property owners, neighboring residents and the incoming City Commission after November’s election before presenting any specific recommendations. Still, he was optimistic.
“It’s going to take a little bit of an effort, but I think it’ll be worth it,” Cover said. “I think it’s very likely down the road that we’d pursue something like this, pending commission interest.”
During the County Commission meeting, Hines anticipated the possibility of some pushback from residents concerned about adding housing and allowing taller buildings at mall sites. Hines said that, as long as people continue to move to Sarasota, the county needed to find ways to continue to address the needs of the public. He said concentrating housing around commercial centers on properties with built-in infrastructure was sound planning, and he encouraged the county to follow through with it even if opposition arises.
“When the community comes in and says, ‘We don’t want that’ — well, your other option is to have a big old nasty empty blighted building next to your home that brings nothing to you,” Hines said.