Observer September 15, 2016 by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor
Resident activists are turning an unpopular downtown project into a rallying cry for changing the city’s policies on new development.
When construction crews assembled the skeleton of the twin 18-story buildings that comprise the Vue Sarasota Bay development along U.S. 41, Eileen Normile started hearing her neighbors ask the same question again and again.
“‘How did this happen?’” Normile said. “‘How could the Vue have been approved?’ That’s all you hear.”
Normile, a former city commissioner, wasn’t alone. Other residents who have taken an active role in local governmental affairs got the same treatment. Criticism of the Vue, which includes 141 condominium units and 255 hotel rooms, has been loud as the city deals with the effects of an ongoing construction boom.
In May, those resident activists began to discuss the best way to act on the growing interest in development and traffic. Now, they’ve banded together as a formal advocacy group focused on four key growth-related issues.
The group, called STOP, currently consists of a 10-member steering committee and 25-member board of advisers. Its first public event is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 22: a town hall called “Sarasota, The Vue and You.”
The group has seized on the unpopularity of the Vue as a galvanizing force. Throughout the city, residents were wondering how such a large project in such a crucial location actually got approval from city leaders.
Like most downtown projects, the Vue was subject to the city’s administrative review process. That means city staff reviews the plans to determine whether they meet the appropriate regulations. If the right boxes are checked on the application, staff approves the plans without a prolonged period of public review or City Commission approval.
Downtown administrative approval began after new urbanist planner Andres Duany led an overhaul of the downtown code, a process finalized in 2003. As the Urban Design Studio works on writing a new citywide form-based zoning code, STOP wants the city to reduce the number of projects that qualify for administrative approval.
Even if the Planning Board and City Commission decided the Vue was up to code, former Mayor Mollie Cardamone believes negative feedback at public hearings could have produced higher-quality plans.
This is at the core of STOP’s argument against administrative approval. Staff may be perfectly qualified to apply the text of the code, but the public can provide valuable input — for everyone involved, not just residents.
“When a project goes in right near your home, there’s actually a lot of local knowledge and expertise about the situation,” said Laurel Park resident Kate Lowman. “We’re not trying to say city staff are bad people, but they don’t live there. They don’t necessarily know the things that the citizens that live there know. Without public hearings, you don’t get that exchange of ideas.”
What’s the fuss?
If you ask city staffers how the Vue got approved, their answer is simple: It objectively meets standards outlined in the city code.
Tim Litchet, the city’s director of neighborhood and development services, dispels any perception the administrative approval process isn’t thorough. Multiple staff members from five departments analyze proposals for issues ranging from traffic impact to internal plumbing.
Litchet said Karin Murphy, the director of the Urban Design Studio, has considered issuing notice to residents within 500 feet of a proposed development when plans are filed. He’s open to inviting more public comment on projects subject to administrative approval.
Murphy said the new form-based code wouldn’t expand administrative approval to other parts of the city without public buy-in. That doesn’t mean she believes there’s a problem with the administrative review itself — she just thinks the code has to be tailored to produce the type of development residents want.
The code can carve out exceptions that require public hearings for specific building types or particularly large developments. Murphy offers up the example of a hardware store. Built near an urban residential neighborhood, a large Home Depot-style big-box store would likely rankle people living in the surrounding area.
Her goal is to hone in on the issues at the heart of controversial development. The idea of a shop selling tools isn’t the problem — it’s the scale and the layout. Therefore, a “hardware store” could be subject to administrative approval, but a big-box store could require a public hearing or be prohibited altogether.
“Our intent is to build in a lot of compatibility,” Murphy said. “The more we can code that, so you get it every single time, the better.”
Andrew Georgiadis, a private planner who formerly worked with the city’s Urban Design Studio, thinks the Vue is an architectural failure — but it’s built that way because of how the current code is written.
“Those rules were on the books for more than a decade,” Georgiadis said. “Any professional could have seen what the outcome could have been before the building was built. I really think we have to pay attention to writing really good rules.”
He rattles off a series of changes to the code that would reshape the Vue’s design. Many residents highlight two issues with the Vue: the height and its proximity to the sidewalk. Georgiadis doesn’t see either of these as problems.
His concerns include the width of the project and the low-quality frontage along Gulfstream Avenue and U.S. 41. He suggests a regulation requiring slender towers for buildings above a certain height and a mandate for engaging architecture on the lower levels of streets with heavier pedestrian activity.
Officials at the Vue did not answer a request for comment.
He, too, sees increased public feedback as a good thing — but he said an overly involved public review process can scare away even well-intentioned builders.
“Don’t put the developer through the tortuous process of public hearings,” Georgiadis said. “Public input should be in writing the rules.”
Considering the ongoing level of development, STOP members aren’t moved by the argument that public review is too onerous for builders.
“They want to be here, don’t they?” Normile said. “Sarasota is worth it. If they don’t think Sarasota is worth it, they might want to buy somewhere else.”
But the group is careful to say it’s not anti-growth. Its website, forqualityprogress.com, speaks to a belief that public review would create a better all-around product. Developers don’t want to build a project their neighbors loathe. Tourists don’t want to visit a bloated city.
Right now, most residents don’t hear about an administratively approved development until building is underway. STOP sees this as a major issue for concerned citizens who don’t know — or don’t have time to keep up with — the intricacies of the city’s development review process.
“When you have administrative approval, you’re alienating people from the process,” Tahiti Park resident Jennifer Ahearn-Koch said. “When citizens are excluded from that, the frustration is intolerable.”
That’s why the group is making its public debut with a town hall meeting on a subject that’s generating widespread interest. Despite skepticism from planners — and likely opposition from builders — STOP believes it can form a coalition of residents determined to give the public a louder voice when it comes to new development.
“That’s maybe the biggest service we can perform, is to try to take these very complicated ideas and present them in a way that’s understandable,” Lowman said. “And with some solutions that are understandable, so people have something to hold onto.”