Many architects, as anyone who holds a license will tell you, consider themselves a kind of artist. Blueprints are the sketchbooks that hold their early vision, steel beams the ink pens that frame their images, concrete the paint that finally colors the canvas to bring the art to life. Yes, these are the painters of city landscapes—the brilliant, the mad, the genius. And artists don’t like anyone telling them what would make the art better. But planners—well, planners are paid to tell them just that. If architects work their entire careers trying to make new buildings stand out, planners spend as much effort making sure those buildings blend in. It’s a delicate craft, and one that brings little glory compared to most. Indeed, the rewarding experience for a planner is not when the public stops to awe at their work, but when they don’t notice it at all and end up moving through city streets effortless moving from storefront to restaurant to public space to condominium lobby without being disrupted.

SOUTH TAMIAMI TRAIL, MULTI-MODAL TRANSFORMATION LAYOUT WITH TRANSPOSED IMAGE OF ARTISTS RENDERING OVERLAY OF COMMUTER RAIL.

Perhaps it’s no surprise—and indeed to some it was the inevitable expectation—that a years-long visioning process to bring form-based codes out from Sarasota’s city core and into every part of the maturing metropolis would meet its harshest criticism as soon as the words “architectural standards” appeared on paper. The Urban Design Studio has been chugging along for two years conducting neighborhood audits, evaluating sign ordinances and plodding through such contentious issues as public housing, density and downtown parking—matters, mind you, that have cost politicians their jobs—but faced the most uproar when the planners got on the bad side of the American Institute of Architects.

ARTIST RENDERING OF THE FREDD ATKINS MARTIN LUTHER KING WAY TRANSFORMATION AT SUNDOWN.


“It’s not all sexy work, but it’s crucial to completing the other aspects of city code.”  — Karin Murphy, former city planner


Certainly for Sarasota, a community known throughout the world for its architectural creativity and for nurturing legends who mastered their craft by breaking all of its rules, the conflict has been predictably ferocious. And it has had casualties. A high-profile consultant, the man who wrote Bradenton’s lauded form-based code, left City Hall in October with no intention of checking the rearview on his way out. The UDS continues its work, with a contract running another year, but will finish the task understaffed and under scrutiny.

No, artists don’t like being told what to do.

The story of the UDS started in 2013, when City Manager Tom Barwin looked at new ways to update the city codes with the goal of a final product that made life easy for the development community, amenable for neighbors and comprehensive in its approach. Karin Murphy, a former city planner who has worked on planning issues in the region for decades, was hired to run the Urban Design Studio alongside Andrew Georgiadis, a consultant with Dover Kohl and Associates who brought form-based code plans to life around the state.

A workspace since then has been in operation inside the Federal Building, where Murphy on most days can be found surrounded by city maps, building renderings and stacks of draft code ordinance. In early October, she was trying desperately to catch up on neighborhood walk workshops delayed all summer by heat or rain.  “It’s not all sexy work, but it’s crucial to completing the other aspects of city code,” she says. On one section of the wall, she has color-coded every zoning district in the city, then colored in every city block within the municipal boundaries. The goal is to make zoning through the city make sense as one moves along every street. Zoning decisions over the course of decades are often made piecemeal, or with the directly adjacent properties in mind but what’s happening a few blocks away separate from the discussion. “There are approvals I never knew about,” Murphy says as she thumbs through piles of research.

For Murphy, the enterprise of running the UDS is more than a land-use debate. This is about figuring how the city eventually finds a place for low-income housing, or for the expected-someday expansion of a county jail. As code gets updated, it should lay a path for the future—many paths, actually, so the community can chart its own course when the time is right.

Today, she works across the table from an architecture graduate student who recently was promoted to full-time status. That’s useful, but there is still plenty of work. The short-term goal in early October was just making sure a chapter of city code would be ready to put in front of city commissioners in time for an early November meeting. Get one chapter set to approve, and then the ball would really start rolling.

Murphy, of course, has seen planning disputes get ugly before. She worked at the city when New Urbanism legend Andres Duany came in the early 2000s to envision a downtown master plan. People tend to talk about that as a grand and spectacular process today, but Murphy remembers the hardships as well. Putting architectural standards in place drew the ire of architects then, with a group filing suit to block regulations from going into place. But Murphy also helped negotiate such landmark projects downtown as the Whole Foods/Five Points development and the design of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune building. She convinced people to work within the constraints of the Duany plan even before adherence was legally required.

But you can sense there was skepticism about jumping into standards again. Refining the standards wasn’t a requirement for the UDS from the start. And she cautioned Georgiadis when he decided to take the task on.

Georgiadis, though, says there had to be an examination. “It would make this process more palatable to decision-makers,” he says. And besides, the standards needed an update. The Duany plan in many ways came out of New Urbanism 1.0, the early days of a philosophy now widely embraced by urban planners but then greeted with skepticism. It was baby steps, and Geogiadis feels that in fact the standards were done in way that put neighborhood comfort in high regard. He felt the standards needed to be opened up a bit so that more different types of buildings appeared throughout the city. But bringing those standards out of downtown re-opened a wound not every architect had forgotten was there.

James Piatchuk, a private architect who has worked in Sarasota roughly 20 years, still recalls the Duany days, when plans were put out that seemed to celebrate a Mediterranean Revival in the land where Paul Rudolph became famous for building roofs flat and eschewing unneeded shingles.

“That was the start of all of this,” he says of the Duany-led planning process.

So he was worried when the UDS was created, then stunned as it expanded its reach. He describes the surprise he felt when the State Street garage went through a rancorous approval process last year, then at the last possible moment, UDS offered a façade for the structure as part of a compromise plan for the lot. Neither Murphy now Georgiadis is a licensed architect, so it seemed inappropriate to suddenly have their renderings put in front of city commissioners. A similar process would take place as the exterior of the new lift station at Luke Wood Park was selected. Georgiadis, of course, defends the UDS involvement. And while he doesn’t currently hold a license because he isn’t a practicing architect, he reminds that he studied architecture in college, not planning, and in fact has been a faculty member at the University of Miami teaching architecture to students who hold licenses today based on that instruction.

The issue of architectural codes can divide the professional community. Michael Halflants, a principal at Halflants and Pichette, said he isn’t opposed to having a clear code. In fact, having parameters written in black and white can eliminate the subjectivity that comes later when building officials must sign off on plans for buildings. “I want a staff member reviewing something to have some simple, clear metrics,” he said.  Especially as conversation drifts toward acceptable styles of architecture, he wants as little left to interpretation as possible.

But to Piachuk, this was the encroachment of a force intent on normalizing architecture throughout Sarasota. He was part of a fight to ensure modern architecture was even allowable in the city, pushing to have language in the code approving of structures derivative of the Sarasota School. “How is this happening in Sarasota?” he asks.

But as the UDS updated standards, Georgiadis said rules had to be defined. You can’t simply say a relation to the Sarasota School exempts buildings from the rules without defining what that style encompasses. Georgiadis put in specifications that acknowledged a horizontal orientation of building windows, the mixture of wood in concrete structures. The code was written to allow flat roofs or nonsymmetrical pitched roofs, ones with deep overhangs and cubist composition.

But turning these attributes into code allowances also felt a betrayal to many. Piatchuk says by codifying many of these attributes, it restricts an evolution of architecture, a continuation of the Sarasota School mentality destroyed by restricting architects to only duplicating what had been done before. 

Halflants remain optimistic that updating the code will ultimately be good for architecture. “There are good things in the current code, and the code put in place by Duany,” he says, “but there are some issues, mostly because he (Duany) has a vision of a city with very traditional architecture.” He was optimistic an update would make some contemporary styles more acceptable.

But the issue seemed to become only more controversial as time passed. The AIA Gulf Coast Chapter, reported publicly that a growing number of architects started becoming concerned with the direction of the standards, and the organization sounded the alarms. A special meeting was hosted where concerns were bandied about. Architects didn’t want creative restrictions, but would live with reasonable regulations. The standards as written, though, were too much and would hamper the craft, they said.

Architects in those meetings stressed that the use of illustrations as a part of the city code would in and of themselves create restrictions on creative minds. Neighbors and growth opponents would demand there be no deviation from Georgiadis’ illustration, or architects would suddenly find themselves in competitions based on taste, trying to convince neighbors the structures coming out of professional offices were in fact more attractive and better enhancements to the community than the water-color paintings setting expectations within the city code.

Ultimately, the architects were invited to offer notes on all drafts of the ordinance, but that did little to quell skepticism. “Architectural standards, as put forth so far by the city, will not advance architecture in the city,” Piatchuk says.

Georgiadis disagrees fervently with the notion the UDS standards would quash creativity. “This has been cast as some way to increase regulations and decrease freedoms for architects,” says Georgiadis, “when in fact, the exact opposite is true.” By Georgiadis’ description, the codes in fact open up a variety of uses. Right now, for example, you can’t build a gas station near many neighborhoods, zoning put in place to appease fears that an old-school gas station with pumps and an ugly parking lot will tarnish the streetscape of a neighborhood. Under the new codes, you could build a gas station if the parking was put in back and a convenience store front that was pedestrian friendly is all you see from the road.

Ultimately, Georgiadis was spending so much time on the architectural standards he stopped working each day in the Design Studio and instead started working in the Neighborhood and Development Services offices, where permits are actually issued and plans for specific projects are reviewed. That didn’t last long, though, and in September, Georgiadis put in his notice. He left City Hall at the end of October, and expressed no interest in returning. He acknowledged the growing concessions to architects led to the decision. “I would like to have been able to have controlled the quality of the document,” he says. “I was not able to lead the whole project. I’d be glad to do a form-based code for a community, but only as leader of the project.” That was the role he played in Bradenton. It was not the role he played in Sarasota.

Murphy, who says she would have been fine leaving the standards out, now says she doesn’t want all the work put in the project to go to waste and will pick up the project. Hess and the architects working with AIA will be heavily consulted on the final language of the document. The UDS itself just signed a contract with the city to stay in place for another year. By that point, the entire process, Murphy says, should be complete and everybody can move on. And hopefully, they can move ahead with rules in place that are best for the community, even if a final product that pleases all parties seems out of reach.

Glossary

  • Form Based Code Land development regulations prescribing predictable physical forms for construction in a community.
  • Zoning  Designations on land that specifies what sort of use is allowed, such as residential, commercial, etc.
  • New Urbanism  A design movement rooted in the 1980s which focuses on walkability and keeping residential and commercial uses close together.
  • Sarasota School of Architecture  A regional style of modern architecture that arose post-World War II, incorporating accommodations for tropical weather and conditions.

Proposed Standards on Modernist Architecture

On buildings deemed to be exempt from traditional design standards, inverted double-pitch roofs would be banned unless an overhang is combined with specific window forms. Walls shall not be clad with traditional clapboard, or if they are must not have a corner board. Walls must be built of Stucco, exposed concrete blocks, wood slats, sunscreens, stone, brick, mosaic block or corrugated metal. Columns with traditional bases are not allowed unless they taper inversely or have anthropomorphic design. Colonial shutters are banned, as are windows with small lights or panes. Small windows are only allowed if in particular patterns. Balconies with visible supports are not allowed. Cantilevered balconies and balconies that exist as indentations in a building’s façade are allowed.