How Does Your City Grow?



Who makes the best case about the process for approving major developments in Sarasota? At the most recent installment of SB2 Rumble, SRQ’s debate series, neighborhood and business leaders gathered for “civil bloodsport” and to argue the level of community input for decisions. Attendees ultimately sided with STOP Steering Committee members, who argued that public hearings should be held for all large-scale developments in the city, over a team of development advocates, who took a counter position.

STOP member Kate Lowman said the citizen input at hearings could ultimately benefit both land-owners planning developments and neighbors already living in a community. “That’s what public hearings are really all about,” she said. “They are almost never about stopping the project. Usually, they are about making a project fit better.” But Kevin Cooper, president and CEO of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, said the current administrative review process necessarily protects the rights of land-owners, including some 1,800 property owners who saw down-zonings with the approval of the Downtown Master Plan. “The other side of that was always administrative review, a simplified, stream-lined process,” he said.

Former Mayor Mollie Cardamone, arguing for the STOP position, said the city would best return to a time when major developments still landed at public hearings; otherwise elected officials often had to answer for projects approved without their input. In the past year, conversation erupted about major projects like The Vue without extensive conversation, a project she said was attractive but had too narrow sidewalks separating the building from the road. “There’s some problems I would take issue with,” the former elected official said. Chris Gallagher, a partner at Hoyt Architects, argued however that more positive developments came into place because of the master plan and administrative review, and that broader planning efforts like improved streetscapes and roundabouts meant more. “Public hearings for individual buildings do not lead to high quality walkable streets,” he said, while noting Sarasota’s WalkScore is the fourth best in America.

Slamming an eight-pound copy of the city development code on the table, former City Commissioner Eileen Normile, a STOP member, said asking the public to be constantly involved in public conversation about the broader city code wasn’t fair to citizens who simply want input on projects that could soon change their own neighborhood. She also said that praise of walkability downtown ignored that the community has been ranked as the 10th most dangerous for pedestrians. “Administrative approval of projects is not something any city is required to do,” she said. “It’s not a property right.”

Javi Suarez, a principal at Apex Studio Suarez, took umbrage at the notion developers didn’t share a concern for the community, and he said professional city staff involved in review provide the oversight needed to make sure projects serve community needs. “It cannot take away public input and allow the staff to make decisions,” he said. “What it can do is determine dimensional standards, building design standards and so forth.”

Attendees at Mildred Sainer Pavillion on Tuesday who voted on the issue before the debate favored the STOP position, but the winner of the debate was determined not just on raw support but by how many minds were changed. A tally at the end of the Rumble event showed that both those arguing for public hearings and against them won over some undecided attendees, and the STOP position drew more people to their side, securing victory at the event.

Photo by Wyatt Kostygan: Javi Suarez speaks during the SB2 Rumble.

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Sarasota, How Does Your City Grow?