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Laurel Park calls Benderson plans for county building an 'incursion'

More than 100 residents voiced concern over Benderson Development’s land reclassification request for a corner of Laurel Park.

The orange block is the current parking lot for the Sarasota County government center and is the only portion of the site owned by Benderson Development that is within the neighborhood.
The orange block is the current parking lot for the Sarasota County government center and is the only portion of the site owned by Benderson Development that is within the neighborhood.
Courtesy image
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At the outset of Tuesday evening's community workshop about the redevelopment of the Sarasota County administrative building site, residents of Laurel Park were told all they would see were the colors on a map.

For the 100-plus attendees at the meeting held at the Selby Library, the issue was much larger than a blue-shaded rectangle that Benderson Development wants to change to brown as it prepares to file an application to amend the city’s comprehensive plan and to rezone some pieces of the 5-acre property off Ringling Boulevard bordering the northern edge of the neighborhood.

“We're talking about comprehensive plan amendments and rezonings and a lot of this is esoteric, so for anyone in the room that is disappointed that they won't see a site plan in front of them today, I sincerely apologize,” said Philip DiMaria of land planning consultant Kimley-Horn. “At some point in the future, you may see a site plan, but tonight is not going to be that.”

More than 100 Laurel Park residents filled a meeting room at the Selby Library to discuss Benderson Development's preliminary plans for redeveloping the Sarasota County administrative building property.
Photo by Andrew Warfield

Benderson acquired the office building and surrounding parking lots in 2022 and plans to redevelop the property shortly after county staff moves into its new space off Fruitville Road east of I-75 by the end of 2025. The workshop was the first public input session as the developer begins to prepare its application to change the future land use designations of some of the property, which would then allow it to pursue rezonings to create a mixed-use development of residential, office and a small amount of retail.

For the most part, residents had no objection to the proposed land use changes north of Morrill Street, which is where the existing building and some parking is located. They vociferously objected, though, to Benderson’s proposal to change the future land use of the parking lot south of Morrill Street — property within the Laurel Park neighborhood district — from Mixed Residential to Urban Edge, and the subsequent rezoning from RSM-9, a medium density residential zone, to Downtown Edge and Downtown Neighborhood Edge. 

DiMaria and Benderson Development’s Todd Mathes told the crowd the changes would provide more flexibility for a compatible transition from heavier urban uses to the neighborhood. The residents, though, were fiercely protective of the comprehensive plan and zoning status quo, and they are concerned that the changes would set precedent to be followed by future developers after this initial incursion into their historic single-family community.

Homes in the Laurel Park neighborhood are immediately adjacent to the Sarasota County Administration building property now owned by Benderson Development.
Photo by Andrew Warfield

The transitional step-up in height restrictions goes from the two stories of Laurel Park to three stories in Downtown Neighborhood Edge, proposed for a 100-foot wide strip along the southern edge of the current parking lot along Dolphin Avenue, to five stories in the remaining Downtown Edge portion of that parking lot.

“‘Transition’ is very squishy, uncomfortable language because we don't see it as a transition. We see it as a boundary,” said one resident. “What we're asking for is can you come to us with a plan that does great things, you make all the money you want — high-end condos, restaurants, etc.  — but why does it have to take away the neighborhood designation in that area?”

Live Local Act concerns

In addition to what residents called an incursion into the neighborhood, they are concerned about the densities that an inclusion of an affordable housing component might have, and how that may be exacerbated by the state's Live Local Act, which supersedes some local government control over height and density restrictions.

At its Aug. 7 meeting, the City Commission will hold a hearing over proposed density bonuses granted to developers who include affordable housing in their projects in any of the four downtown zoning districts. Those include the Downtown Edge and Downtown Neighborhood Edge zones sought by Benderson on the current parking lot site.

City staff is proposing a plan that permits an increase from 18 units per acre to 72 units per acre in Downtown Neighborhood Edge and from 25 units per acre to 100 units per acre in Downtown Edge, both zoning districts sought by Benderson on the subject current parking lot. Apply the state’s Live Local Act to those zoning districts and Benderson could develop — without city approval — height and densities of residential development that exist within a 1-mile radius of the site.

Laurel Park residents near the Sarasota County Administration building are concerned about Benderson Development's plans for the site.
Photo by Andrew Warfield

DiMaria conceded that would be permitted next door to Laurel Park, but with the requirement that 40% of units would have to be classified as affordable and remain such for 30 years, it wouldn’t be likely.

“All of our conversations and with all the proformas run it's understood that this site specifically probably doesn't make sense for Live Local,” he said. “I know there are other folks in the room who think that's exactly what's going to happen here. The reality is, if you need to provide parking or provide a high-rise building in any way, shape, or structure, the costs associated with building those structures far exceed the benefit of providing the 40% of attainable. You basically don't have the ability to make a return on the units that you do provide because 40% of your units are restricted.”

Benderson has received from the city a 60-day extension to file its applications, and Mathes pledged to use that time to meet with the neighborhood association board, hold planning charrettes with residents and work to develop a preliminary site plan that hopefully would be acceptable to the community.

Proposed comprehensive future land use and zoning changes for the Sarasota County administration property owned by Benderson Development.
Courtesy image

An amendment to the comprehensive plan requires a 4-1 supermajority for approval following a legislative public hearing. Rezoning approval requires only a simple majority following a quasi-judicial public hearing. Both processes, DiMaria said, encourage input from the community. 

Before those hearings begin, DiMaria said there will be at least a partial plan to provide a vision for the site after further neighborhood engagement.

“Everything that is a concern we're going to have on the table, and we're going to flex and we're going to see what opportunities there are to address those issues,” he said. “We're going to, we're going to sincerely bring to the table every single opportunity we have to address those issues. So the intention is at the end of that process to come out with a plan. It might not be a city specific 50% design site plan, but there will be a concept plan — height, setbacks, densities, all of those things will be vetted out.”

What about the building?

The current county office building won't be razed, Mathes said.

“What we intend with the existing building is to reface it, essentially,” Mathes said. “It will go down to the steel and possibly mixed uses inside the building, but to keep that primary structure and with the height of the building staying the same.” 

The structure was built to physically accommodate an additional three stories, he said, but going more vertical is not currently in the plans.



Andrew Warfield

Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

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