Missing the Economic Boat

Guest Correspondence

BY CATHY ANTUNES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY SEP 27, 2014

As a military wife, I coordinated many moves for my family. I would travel to our new assignment ahead of time, looking for a home that would meet our desired criteria. Great schools were at the top of the list. We also wanted trees in our neighborhood, sidewalks, the ability to walk to the grocery store, a restaurant, a park. A short commute and the opportunity to taking the bus, ride a bike or walk to work was also high on the list. We preferred neighborhoods where the houses didn’t all look the same. Today urban planners call this “walkability.” At the time, I was simply choosing neighborhoods that could provide a high quality of life, and perhaps eliminate the need for a second car. We paid more for housing to live in those neighborhoods, but we knew we were saving money elsewhere (like commuting costs) and eliminating stress and windshield time.

Real estate studies show walkable communities are in demand. A 1999 study by the Urban Land Institute of four new pedestrian-friendly communities determined that homebuyers were willing to pay a $20,000 premium for homes in them compared to similar houses in surrounding areas.  A 2012 Milken Institute study shows strong correlation between walkable urbanism, educated residents and local GDP.  According to their findings “The six highest-ranked walkable urban metropolitan areas have an average GDP per capita of $60,400." GPD per capita in walkable urban metros is 38 percent higher than the average GDP per capita ($43,900) in the 10 low-ranked walkable urban metros.  Incorporating this information into our local planning policy is critical to our economic vitality.

While the County has concentrated on changing the 2050 plan to facilitate development outside our Urban Service Boundary, the County has not implemented policies focused on enhancing walkability and development inside the Urban Service Boundary. This area—west of I75—is home to most of Sarasota’s existing neighborhoods.  

One 2050 policy calls for the creation of a County/Municipal Coordinated Planning Program. The program is intended to strengthen existing communities, provide for a variety of land uses and lifestyles, and balance jobs with housing. What a shame the County has never made good on its policy to create this program, one with with accountability for ensuring the value and economic well-being of existing neighborhoods.   

Likewise, the County 2050 plan requires the County to expedite infill development and redevelopment. Redevelopment and infill brings new commercial and residential projects to existing neighborhoods, enhancing value and economic opportunity for residents. County 2050 policy required establishing streamlined processes shortly after the 2050 plan was adopted, yet they ignored their own deadline. Take a drive up and down US 41—witness the empty lots and blighted commercial areas. The missed opportunities are everywhere.

Focusing on infill and redevelopment west of Interstate-75, within our Urban Service Boundary, would benefit so many in Sarasota it ought to be a no-brainer and at the top of the County’s list. Instead the County has focused on facilitating growth beyond the USB. Why? The relentless lobbying and campaign financing of a few rural developer/landowners east of I75 has our County Commission designing policy to support their increasingly outdated business model: greenfield subdivision development.  Rather than challenge Mr. Neal, Jensen and Turner to deliver a product in step smart community planning, the Commission is weakening standards to permit the same-old, same-old product.  The public will be stuck with the long term costs of surplus infrastructure, the attendant traffic, and worse: the missed opportunity for high quality growth.

SRQ Daily columnist Cathy Antunes serves on the boards of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations and Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government. She blogs on local politics at www.thedetail.net

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