STOP: Sept 22 Town Hall success by SHT

Thursday Posted Sep 22, 2016 at 11:02 AM  Sarasota Herald Tribune

STOP! aims to pitch new building codes for Sarasota.

By Zaacchh Muurrddocckk Staff Writer

 

SARASOTA — A group of downtown development critics is calling on Sarasota to consider four changes to its regulations to better control growth in the heart of the city.

The group, called STOP!, has drawn its ideas from the Vue condominium project at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue, which has drawn relentless criticism for its size and proximity to the street. The group’s changes are based on critiques of the city’s Andrés Duany-inspired, “new urbanist” downtown zoning code that was adopted in 2003 to promote a more urban and pedestrian downtown area.

The code included, among other changes, a requirement that buildings sit only a few feet from the streets they are built on. City planners may approve developments, no matter their size, without a series of public hearings if they meet downtown zoning codes. Both are pivotal to how the Vue buildings were approved and constructed so close to U.S. 41.

Sarasota group wants to stop developments like the Vue condo

“It’s really thrown into relief with the Vue because the Vue is such a huge project the problems are really evident,” said Kate Lowman, a Laurel Park neighborhood leader and steering committee member of the group. “We are not a no-growth group. What we want is to figure out how the city can grow and still allow us to retain our quality of life, which is what brought us here.

“Nothing is going to guarantee that, but we have some very specific code changes that we think are going to improve our odds,” she said.

The four specific changes STOP! will advocate are: Requirements for wider sidewalks, improvements to local traffic studies, no administrative approval for large-scale or high-density developments, and no expansion of administrative approvals outside the downtown area.

Lowman, former city commissioner Eileen Normile, bicycle and pedestrian advocate Mike Lasche, and former planning board member Jennifer Ahearn-Koch led presentations about each of those changes at the group’s first meeting Thursday night in a Selby Library auditorium packed with more than 200 people.

At the root of the problems with the Vue is that the downtown zone district requires it be built within just a few feet of the lot line without particular requirements about expanding the sidewalk and bike lanes, giving the building its imposing posture over U.S. 41, Lowman and Lasche said.

But because the project met downtown zoning codes, it was approved administratively without any public hearings for residents to raise concerns about that setup, Ahearn-Koch said.

“When you’re stuck in traffic angry, you don’t even get the privilege of blaming your elected commissioners,” Ahern-Kosch joked. “They didn’t even have the chance to vote on it … Pure administrative approval alienates the public and creates suspicion.”

Suspicion has fueled a great deal of critics’ arguments about development downtown and whether some projects have undergone the scrutiny they deserved.

Traffic has been a particular point of contention and Normile presented a white paper study she recently completed examining the standards traffic engineers and city planners use when considering new development’s impact on already congested roads.

The number of vehicular trips is determined using a national, standardized manual. Even seasonal traffic conversion factors created by the Florida Department of Transportation are based on data from four counties — and the one based in Sarasota is not downtown, Normile said.

STOP! hopes its proposed rule changes can be incorporated into the city’s ongoing transition to a type of zoning known as form-based code that is being developed by the Urban Design Studio.

That code is proposed to include administrative approval for project citywide, so the group also hopes to reel back that expansion.

The group plans to bring at least some of its concerns to the City Commission at its meeting Oct. 3, when the board is expected to consider an update to its long-range transportation plan, leaders said.

“We’ve bitten off a big bite, and unless our commissioners hear from a lot of people, it’s going to be a long haul,” Lowman said. “But we’ve made a good start tonight.”

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