A set of construction codesintended to establish some predictability about Sarasota’s future, for the moment, has caused varying levels of heartburn and anxiety among policy wonks. On the one side, many in the business of making buildings fear documents that could restrain the ability to forge ahead with dynamic projects, while slow growth advocates worry about whether changes in rules could allow major developments to alter the landscape with little community input.

City officials remain hopeful that when a final draft of proposed form-based codes goes before City Commissioners for review, the whole range of fears will have been appeased—or at least addressed, as Karin Murphy, director of the city’s Urban Design Studio, acknowledges no system will ever create a unanimous opinion of so controversial a subject as development. “This is the community’s code,” she says.


Defining Form

Form-based codes have been a major part of development in Downtown Sarasota since the implementation of the Downtown Master Plan, which was based on the work of consultant Andres Duany and completed in 2001. Basically, form-based codes regulate land development to produce high-quality public realms by focusing on the acceptable and optimal forms of buildings. By setting firm restrictions on what cannot and cannot take place on land in the city limits, such a set of rules should offer predictability both to neighbors with concerns about what could built down the street and for developers considering what to build in the city.

In practice, of course, the codes haven’t completely eliminated controversy when it comes to construction in town. Perhaps most notably, a massive project like The Vue on US 41 has significantly impacted the city skyline, but was approved by city staff without the project being forced into a public hearing or being subjected to a vote by Sarasota City Commissioners.

Groups like the STOP Coalition, a group of city activists worried about whether the city’s infrastructure can keep up with growth and upset about the fact that major projects can get the green light through administrative review, have greeted the work of the Urban Design Studio with skepticism. “This would expand administrative review outside of downtown, and that’s something we would very much be opposed to,” says Kate Lowman, one of the founding members of STOP.  Murphy, though, has worked over the past four years to ease some of the concerns of residents about the process. The goal of the codes, she says, will be finding that place where desirable development embraced by the bulk of the community moves ahead smoothly, while potentially contentious plans rightfully undergo appropriate scrutiny. She notes administrative approvals don’t mean every proposal will be rubber stamped at city hall, just as public hearings don’t need to be viewed as a death knell to any proposal, no matter how bold.

Standing in a room full of colored maps of Sarasota and photographs of structures from around the globe, she describes the process as a promotion of transparency. She points out how geographic information system (GIS) databases have been developed through the coding process that provide neighbors and residents more information than ever before on what can and cannot be constructed on every parcel of land in the city limits. That information also allows fine-tuning of the code; while the Duany plan developed large transects of the city to transition from hi-rise development at the city core to suburban densities around the urban edges, form-based codes allow transects smaller than a block to transition from commercial development on a major corridor to single-family homes a couple address numbers down the road.

Neighborhood activists for the moment acknowledge the intense amount of data available—to the point where there’s a degree of information overload. But the most important questions, Lowman says, still need to be answered. “The nature of zoning codes is all about the details,” she says. “Basically, no one has asked the city to change the zoning in their neighborhoods; maybe it’s happened in a couple isolated cases. But it is incumbent on the city to make it really clear how things would change.” The thresholds that would force a major project in Downtown Sarasota to be forced to public hearing can’t be the same as those for projects that disrupt a neighborhood of large lots and single-family homes. One of the efforts underway with the codes right now, Murphy says, is making sure that when small lots get combined, appropriate setbacks go into effect so that massive homes don’t ride up to the next property line.

But as officials address the fears of unfettered development within the electorate, business leaders’ anxieties simultaneously grow, fearing that restrictions will turn every plan into an impossible project.


Rounding Out Details

The debate has architects in Sarasota drafting fresh resistance to regulations they worry could stifle creativity in the field, specifically the lengthy process of revising architectural standards. It’s an issue that has come up before during the nearly four-year process of revising the city’s building rules. The Urban Design Studio has carefully looked to update the form-based codes, implemented in the city core as part of the Downtown Master Plan, to better ensure both developers and residents can predict the sort of growth that will be allowed in the community. That includes architectural standards, but, especially in the birthplace of the Sarasota School of Architecture, that matter has for some time stirred uneasiness in a sector of the industry most focused on innovative design.

Javi Suarez, president of the American Institute of Architects Gulf Coast Chapter, says his organization doesn’t oppose form-based codes entirely but wants to make sure rules don’t encroach too much on the ability of architects to design good work. “When they try and regulate what type of material, what shape and proportion of openings are allowed or the slope of the roofs, those are things we feel are best left to architects,” Suarez says.

Murphy says the intention of the codes, though, isn’t to hamper vision, just to define when architects can work without intense scrutiny in public settings. 

At a meeting with architects in late August, Murphy pulled up a picture of the Prahran Hotel in Melbourne, Australia, where large round windows create the illusion that guests inside are sitting in wood-lined tubes. The architecture may not fit easily into any parameters of code but won praise from around the world. Then Murphy pulled pictures of less impressive round windows, flat openings that appeared more like punch holes than portals. The goal of form-based codes, she said, was to make sure that when round windows go into Sarasota buildings, they look gorgeous, not grungy.

She noted the city’s plans for architectural standards at the moment allow for extreme creativity in a category for “iconic structures.” It’s just that those types of plans will need to be publicly vetted. “I don’t want to limit creativity,” she says. The goal of the codes, she says, is to create a system that allows for creativity in design, but also for public assurances. She points at pictures of the famous Amazon Dome in Seattle, a geodesic dome in the middle of a city plaza downtown. No form-based code would allow for the structure—at least not automatically. But the building has become a landmark and a part of the city fabric the same as the glass pyramid atop the Louvre in Paris. Murphy doesn’t want to prevent the same sort of project to happen here, but it darn sure better go through the public hearing process.

For architects, the process can spur difficult reminders of the harder aspects of implementing the Duany plan. That code eventually included a provision that allows architecture invoking the Sarasota School, but parameters were never firmly established as to what that means. After controversial drawings were considered two years ago to provide a roadmap to good architecture, a concept as anathema to architects as a paint-by-number canvas might be to a master painter, the AIA raised complaints about standards. Then, the Design Studio pulled back on that effort, and architects thought the worst was past. But as the long process of developing city-wide form-based codes finally winds down, Suarez says the fact that architectural standards once again seemed up for discussion has put the industry on alert. “It’s no longer just downtown,” he says. “This is about any building city-wide.”

Murphy hopes a collection of photographs of buildings already in town or generally agreed upon as desirable will help illuminate the standards, both for professional architects and residents who wonder what a structure built next door a decade from now might look like. It will still be about eight months before City Commissioners make a decision on the codes. Murphy continues the process of dissecting every word of existing ordnance and massaging every concern raised to the studio into a final product.

At the very least, the process should boost the transparency in the city about what’s already allowed in code today. She pulls out a packet of every development approval in the city and their respective proffers, those conditions often placed on developers at final public hearings as part of winning final approval on plans. Until now, all those development proffers existed only in the piles of individual ordinances, making enforcement difficult and any comprehension of the big picture effect of developments in a single neighborhood nearly impossible.

Professional and neighborhood groups have met with Murphy and her staff at the Federal Building countless times since the Urban Design Studio opened in 2013.

Now, she plans to host meetings at the Selby Public Library on Oct. 27 and 28 to get feedback from the public. It won’t likely be the last time city staff fishes for input. Only when all of that gets incorporated into a final draft code will the plan land in front of commissioners for a public hearing of its own. Until then, anticipation builds—largely unmitigated.