- March 7, 2023
Tackling the elusive issue of attainable workforce housing in downtown Sarasota is a tall order. But for now at least, one tool that might be unavailable for developers and city planners is an incentive for taller building heights permitted in order to include residential opportunities among the hundreds of existing and permitted million-dollar-plus condominiums.
The Sarasota City Commission spent five hours this week listening to staff, members of the public and themselves discuss an 18-point proposed comprehensive plan amendment to allow increased density in downtown and the urban edge to entice developers to include attainable housing, that which is affordable for service industry and public service workers, among others, in their plans.
Among those points were two new items added just before the meeting: a proposal to allow an additional one to five stories to buildings in downtown and one to two stories on the urban edge. Contrary to considerable public outcry regarding building height, the 18-story cap on the Bayfront remains intact. The increased building heights would allow for greater density only if that density is reserved for attainable housing.
Ultimately, a version of the ordinance was approved 4-1, with Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch dissenting, that carved out the building height provisions. A second motion to authorize staff to hold public engagement sessions regarding the building height controversy, which could be later amended into the ordinance, was unanimously approved.
The approval was not an implementation of the ordinance but instead authorized sending it to Tallahassee for state-level review. Official approval of any state-level modifications and more rounds of public engagement are still to follow.
A second point of contention surrounded administrative approval of the higher-density projects rather than going through the public process for review.
“I think that staff is fully capable of interpreting the zoning code after much citizen input and making those decisions as to either whether it fits the zoning code or it doesn’t,” said Commissioner Hagen Brody. “For me, density is the necessary condition here. … The height issue I just I think is a poison pill. We've already seen it. The messaging is going to get hijacked, the narrative is going to get hijacked, and it has the potential to kill this whole proposal. If we're going to do a height increase, then we have to have more of a conversation about it and the public has to be totally fully aware of what's happening.”
That summarized the essence of Brody’s successful motion to sever the building height issue, which followed Commissioner Liz Alpert’s motion to transmit the ordinance in its entirety, which failed by a 3-2 vote with only Alpert and Arroyo in support.
Alpert’s position was to keep the process moving forward, unsuccessfully attempting to assure Ahearn-Koch and others that adequate opportunities to involve the public still remained. Ahearn-Koch countered that once the ordinance has the state’s blessing — in whatever form it comes back — modifying the details becomes more difficult. Brody insisted the height issue and the lack of public understanding of it could stop the entire attainable housing effort in its tracks.
“Ninety-nine percent of the emails we got were against height specifically,” Brody said. “I know that there's been misinformation put out there on the issue, but that's just the reality we're dealing with, and so I think that staff needs to do the workshop that apparently was missed and we'll deal with it another time.”
Mayor Erik Arroyo said there has been plenty of public input before and during Monday’s meeting, noting 52 speakers during public comment periods, and the time to move forward is now.
“We've been putting this off for about 20 years,” he said. “I remember when I was in high school, and even then they were saying we're losing students. The principal at the time said it's because they're moving to Bradenton and North Port because the families just cannot afford to live in Sarasota. This is when I was in high school. … You know, this isn't an us versus them problem. It's not one side of the room versus the other. It's rather it's us as a community coming together trying to solve this. This this community problem.”
Ahern-Koch was the only commissioner to oppose both Alpert’s and Brody’s motions for the same reasons: concerns the ordinance’s many nuances were not discussed during Monday’s meeting and lack of public knowledge on the proposed height allowances and blanket administrative approval of projects, among others. She further suggested inclusionary zoning will begin to address attainable housing sooner.
“I think that if we're going to do this, we need to have a tool that is real and is an is something that we as a commission lead with the backing of the community,” she said. “It’s split. We don't have the support we need from the entire community. Everybody wants to address affordable housing. Staff has said this is going to take years if not decades, so it's not going to solve anything immediately. Inclusionary zoning, on the other hand, can be implemented pretty quickly.”
Several speakers during Monday’s meeting, particularly younger professionals and recent college graduates, told commissioners immediate action is needed because their peers won’t consider Sarasota because they can’t afford to live here, or if they do return after school or relocate they must live with their parents at least for the time being.
Arroyo said after decades of being priced out of the downtown area, the time for bold action is now, not just for the workforce population, but for the health of the city’s overall economy.
“We should really ask ourselves how much does rent have to go up before we can support something like this? Ask yourselves how many businesses owners need to tell you that they can't hire anyone before we can support something like this? How many restaurants do you have to go to where there's one server taking care of like 10 tables before we can support something like this,” he said. “We want to preserve the quality of life, but you know what? We're not doing anything.”
Vice Mayor Kyle Battie echoed the comments of speakers who said housing costs preclude young professionals and working class families from living in the city.
“We've heard people talk about living with their families, living at home with their parents, because they can’t afford housing, and how it's going to affect our economy,” he said. “How it's gonna affect the merchants — the servers, the bartenders, the policemen, first responders, whatever, that live in Arcadia, in North Port or Myakka or Parrish. Those are the very people that we’re going to need to service those 800 multimillion-dollar units that are going on the water.”