How Did Sarasota’s Massive New Vue Win Approval?

How Did Sarasota’s Massive New Vue Win Approval?
The new Vue condo project has caused an uprising.

BY SUSAN BURNS  5/20/2016 AT 9:46AM Sarasota Magazine

The grumbling began as soon as the $300 million Vue Sarasota Bay broke ground in September 2014. Some of the complaining can be chalked up to people’s discomfort with change—especially when that change is on a high-visibility, high-traffic vacant lot that had allowed glimpses of the sparkling bay and Ringling Bridge.

But as the construction continued, the concern heightened, until it seemed there was almost universal rage this spring when the huge skeleton of the Kolter Group’s two 18-story towers—a condo and a hotel set at a right angle to one another along U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue—came right up to the sidewalk, obliterating the sky and looking as though it could topple over into the street. Letters to the editor in the Herald-Tribune demanded to know how such a monstrous structure could have ever won approval. “Oh, you mean the No View,” said one land use attorney when asked about the project.

But the Vue’s size and positioning were predictable, given our zoning code. For many years, the site was home to a Holiday Inn (later Inn by the Bay) and a Denny’s restaurant. In 2003, developer Richard Zipes purchased that parcel and, later, an adjacent site along Gulfstream Avenue for $28.7 million, giving him 2.9 acres of prime downtown property. Zipes eventually submitted plans to build the Metropolitan, an 18-story, 144-unit condominium, which was perfectly within the permissible 18-story height and zoning of 50 units per acre. Then in 2005, the Kolter Group bought the property and Zipes’ plans for $40 million.

The project lay dormant during the recession. In 2013, Kolter resurfaced with a project that consisted of a 141-unit condominium and a 255-room, 18-story hotel. A May 16, 2014 city document states that the project received “Administrative Approval.”

That’s right. Administrative approval. The city commission held no hearings about the project, nor did they vote to approve it. That’s how the process now works. Under the City of Sarasota’s zoning code, projects within the city core and bayfront are reviewed by city staff for compliance with the code and then approved by Tim Litchet, the head of the city’s Neighborhood & Development Services. This process is the result of a long public debate about creating a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly city that encourages people to live, work, shop and dine downtown.

New Urbanism guru Andres Duany was hired in 2000 to help create the Downtown Master Plan 2020, a set of standards intended to help downtown transition from gawky adolescent to sophisticated young adult. Developers had complained that the city’s approval process had been too onerous and capricious, giving them little incentive to invest in downtown, which at that time lacked many of the condos, restaurants and shops it has today. The new plan, adopted on Jan. 22, 2001, encouraged new building by creating clear standards that developers could count on. The standards also protected citizens by ensuring that developers couldn’t build whatever they wanted, says Mike Taylor, who was a Sarasota city planner from 1982 to 2012 and is now retired and living in Michigan. But the plan did not mandate administrative approval for all projects that met those standards; city commission hearings were still an option.

Some developers, city property owners, Argus and the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange were unhappy with aspects of the new master plan and challenged it in 2003. To avoid costly litigation, the city agreed to make administrative approval a formal part of the zoning code. Under the modified plan, as long as developers follow the rules, city staff can approve the project, and the city commission has no say in the matter.

(Administrative approval is not a new concept. Single-family homes and smaller commercial structures in the city were approved by staff sign-off before the 2020 plan, says Taylor. Larger structures, however, had to go before the planning board and then the city commission for approval.)

The Vue’s claustrophobic position along U.S. 41 complies with one of the city’s design standards, which stipulates that buildings on primary roads must come right up to the sidewalk. The intention is to make pedestrians feel connected to the building and to give them something interesting to look at, like storefronts and offices, as they walk along city streets, rather than facing a blank wall. But because it’s on U.S. 41—a highway more than a city street—few pedestrians will be walking next to the Vue, which in any case, has no retail or office on the ground floor. There will be windows looking into a fitness center.

Vue westin uyukd5

A rendering of the Vue, minus the nearby traffic.

And that 255-room Westin Sarasota hotel on the property? Non-residential structures, like hotels, have no density restrictions. Kolter could have packed as many hotel rooms as it wanted on that parcel as long as it met the code, says Taylor.

Take one look at downtown today and it’s clear the master plan has succeeded in enabling new development. But it’s also made it difficult for citizens to stop projects. First, you have to register with the Office of City Auditor & Clerk to be notified about a specific project. But it’s a Kafkaesque predicament. How do you register to learn about a project that you have never heard of? (Alternatively, says Taylor, you can register to receive the staff’s monthly list of projects in the works; you can also attend their monthly project review meetings—although you’re not allowed to speak there.)

If you want to appeal, you must do it within 10 days after the project has received administrative approval. If you do learn about the project in time and decide you want to challenge the approval, you must spend $1,097 to file an appeal and put $500 more in escrow. The appeal goes to the city’s planning board. If the planning board upholds the administrative approval, the challenger again can appeal—for another $1,600—directly to the City Commission.

In the 15 years since the master plan has been in place, there has been only one appeal to overrule administrative approval. Earlier this year, the Laurel Park neighborhood appealed the approval of a new loading dock at the Woman’s Exchange. The neighborhood association won, but only after it filed a second appeal to go in front of the City Commission, which voted 3-2 to deny the dock.

Ritz-Carlton residents did challenge the Vue by hiring an attorney and commissioning a study that concluded the project would cause them traffic problems. That didn’t change anything. “We were told by the city that traffic considerations on Ritz-Carlton Drive could not be considered until after the building was built and the traffic was flowing,” says Eileen Normile, a Ritz condo owner and former city commissioner. But they never actually appealed the project’s administrative approval. “We were surprised by that,” admits one city staffer.

We’ll have more big buildings to get used to as other downtown condos, apartments and hotels rise after administrative sign-offs. Kolter recently announced another large downtown project. Called The Mark, it’s taking over another old project that never materialized, Isaac Group Holdings’ Pineapple Square. The Mark includes 157 units in 12 stories with 35,000 square feet of retail space and 11,000 square feet of office space on the ground floor. The rendering shows a structure that stretches almost an entire block just south of Main Street.

And despite concerns that the Vue will create gridlock at Gulfstream and 41, Kolter announced in April that it would be building an 18-story, 86-unit condo, called The Grande at the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Sarasota, near the Vue. It will be next to the existing Ritz-Carlton hotel.

Taylor notes that Sarasota is filled with projects that were hated at first. He recalls the outcry over the glass office building One Sarasota Tower across from the Vue, the condominiums 888 and 988, and The Ritz-Carlton, which took the place of the beloved John Ringling Towers.

“The Vue is something you’ll get used to,” Taylor predicts.

Others point out it may not feel like such a hulking monster when it’s completed and painted white with walls of windows. And a roundabout that’s scheduled to be constructed at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream in 2021 will create a wider buffer from traffic.

Meanwhile, administrative approval may be expanding beyond downtown. The city’s Urban Design Studio is three years into creating a new zoning code for the entire city called form-based zoning. The city has held meetings for citizen input, and the commission is expected to vote on the code this fall. If they approve it, it’s likely that administrative approval rather than commission hearings will be the norm for many projects throughout the city.

Read on line.

Blocking the Vue?

Blocking the Vue?

Harold Bubil April 21, 2016 Herald Tribune

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The Vue condominium, now going up on Gulf Stream Avenue in downtown Sarasota, has a lot of people craning their necks and scratching their heads. Staff photo / Harold Bubil; 4-19-2016.

The most-asked question in Sarasota today might be, “How did that condo tower get so close to the street?”

The tower is the Vue Sarasota Bay, part of the Kolter Group’s development on U.S. 41 at Gulf Stream Ave. Going up right next to it is a Westin hotel, and they are close to the highway, really close.

People want to know why.

The story has a lot of twists and turns, but it can be traced back to the city’s hiring of noted New Urbanist city planner Andres Duany in 2000 to come up with a plan to make the city more walkable, more urban and more modern.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Andres Duany visits Sarasota in 2013 and doesn’t hate it

As a result of his recommendations, downtown was rezoned in 2005. “As part of that whole master-plan process that was done with Andres Duany,” said Gretchen Scheider, general manager of planning and development for the City of Sarasota, “the concept is to have buildings closer to the street so that there is a more walkable feel with interaction with the building.”

The code for buildings in primary streets (those meant to be most walkable) calls for a maximum building setback of 5 feet at the ground floor, Schneider said. On secondary streets, there is no maximum setback, but it does allow properties to be built up to the property line.

Going up: A Westin hotel in downtown Sarasota. Staff photo / Harold Bubil; 4-19-2016.

Going up: A Westin hotel in downtown Sarasota. Staff photo / Harold Bubil; 4-19-2016.

 

 
“For a good portion of the building, they are required to have it up to that distance” from the sidewalk, Schneider said. “It does meet the code.”

She said the 5-foot sidewalk will be widened to 8 to 10 feet along the Tamiami Trail, and a landscape strip will be added to provide a “sense of protection for the pedestrians as they are walking down the street,” Schneider said.

As for the current outcry, Schneider said, “A lot of this happened so long ago that a lot of our current residents are not aware. A lot of this follows what Duany recommended for the city; the city adopted the zoning code with those requirements and limitations, but a lot of folks weren’t here then.”

Well, we are a big city now. That is what Duany said, when he suggested that we grow up, take off our shorts and put on pants, and that’s what we wanted. Now we are getting it.

Read on line.