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Proposed density increase in Newtown criticized as 'ghetto'

The Sarasota Housing Authority seeks higher density for new developments. A city Planning Board member says doubling the number of units at the Bertha Mitchell community will burden Newtown.

Sites 1 and 2 are 1442 and 1456 22nd St. Site 3 is the location of Bertha Mitchell homes, which Sarasota Housing Authority is seeking to redevelop into a public housing community of up to 50 units per acre.
Sites 1 and 2 are 1442 and 1456 22nd St. Site 3 is the location of Bertha Mitchell homes, which Sarasota Housing Authority is seeking to redevelop into a public housing community of up to 50 units per acre.
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There's a consensus that the need for affordable and attainable housing in Sarasota has reached crisis proportions, but opinions over solutions remain subject to debate.

While a zoning text amendment to offer incentives to developers for including a comparatively small number of attainable units in mixed-use projects in commercial centers and corridors slowly works its way through City Hall, the Sarasota Housing Authority is working to build 100% affordable housing developments.

But not without some resistance from one Planning Board member who characterized a request by the SHA to double the density as building a "ghetto" in the heart of Newtown.

During a Feb. 1 special meeting, Planning Board members debated SHA's request for a recommendation for approval of a comprehensive plan amendment for a new development on two small parcels at 1442 and 1456 22nd St. and a redevelopment of the Bertha Mitchell complex, an aging collection of duplexes on some 14 acres surrounded on three sides by single-family homes.

The two-part proposal is a request to amend the Future Land Use map from Multiple Family-Medium Density to Multiple Family-High Density for those parcels. The second part is to amend the Housing Authority Overlay District to increase the maximum building heights from 35 feet to 45 feet and to increase the maximum density on properties designated as Multiple Family-High Density on the Future Land Use map from 25 dwelling units per acre to 50.

It was those increases that prompted the Planning Board to recommend removing the two smaller parcels on 22nd Street from the amendment, keeping the future land use there at 25 units per acre, and for member Terrell Salem to argue against the ZTA to add height and doubling density for the future redevelopment of Bertha Mitchell.

“If the goal is to destroy the neighborhood, then we will be supporting this,” Salem said, calling the increased density of 25 units per acre to 50 units per acre detrimental to the Newtown community. “Is it OK that we just place all of the low-income housing in the middle of the historic Newtown that is already plagued with economic challenges? Is it the responsibility of the Newtown community to disproportionately provide the supply of affordable housing for the city of Sarasota?”

Chairman Michael Halflants echoed the majority board opinion that the redevelopment of Bertha Mitchell, even at 50 units per acre, if well designed would be a benefit to the neighborhood.

Salem countered the SHA can redevelop it now at 25 units per acre, but adding that amount of density of low-income residents would be a detriment.

Currently, at 84 units, the density of the duplexes that make up Bertha Mitchell is 6.4 units per acre. Salem argued under the existing zoning, SHA can build 365 units there. Doubling the density would permit 731 units with “all of that traffic traversing through those residential streets.”

“My position is it’s doubling the number of people of low-income economic means in one concentrated area,” Salem said. “It's just creating a ghetto.”

Because the SHA accepts federal dollars to help fund its projects, the units must be occupied by households averaging 60% or less of area median income. In Sarasota County, that means household incomes of $43,077 or less. Affordability is defined as housing costs at no more than 30% of income, which at 60% AMI means rents and utilities totaling $1,076 per month.

William Russell, president and CEO of the SHA, told the Planning Board the future redevelopment there, which remains years away, would not present an opportunity to mix the population with higher-wage earners. He also told the Planning Board the waiting list for public housing in Sarasota numbers in the thousands.

With bonus density and other incentives for developers yielding a small percentage of affordable units in new projects, board member Daniel Clermont said he sees higher-density redevelopment of Bertha Mitchell as a “potential missed opportunity.”

“We keep talking about the crisis,” Clermont said. “We have workshops. We have articles in the paper. Everybody talks about this. Here we are with the Sarasota Housing Authority saying 'We want to do 100% of this in the attainable range,' and we're going to say no to that? That just flies in the face of us trying to solve the problem.”

Because of a conflict of interest, member Daniel Deleo was recused from the discussion and vote. Alternate member Douglas Christy joined Clermont and Halflants to approve amending the future land use map, excluding the smaller 22nd Street parcels, with Salem and Shane Lamay opposed. A motion to recommend ZTA approval of the height and density in the Housing Authority Overlay District was approved 4-1 with Salem opposed.

Both the comprehensive plan amendment application and Housing Authority Overlay District ZTA will go to the City Commission for consideration.

“This is going to the commission,” Salem concluded. “We’ve got five members over there. We're going to see how they feel about the citizens of Newtown.”



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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