Administrative Review Important to Vibrance of Sarasota

Guest Correspondence

Administrative Review has become a hot topic in today’s news. The history of how and why it came to the City of Sarasota has been rewritten in an attempt to fit a narrative of convenience for those who want to see Sarasota frozen in time. 

In 2001, I was working in downtown Sarasota and it was a ghost town. Yes, we had homeless even back then and many of those who I see today, I saw back then. There was little to no complaint about them because they took refuge in the vestibules of the empty storefronts on Main Street. Other than the homeless, Main Street was mostly a ghost town at 5pm. 

Downtown needed redevelopment and reinvestment very badly. Business men and women were reluctant to invest because of the bad business climate created by government. Investment was very uncertain.

City staff has put together a power point of the history of how administrative review unfolded. Using that and the approved Downtown Master Plan, it is important to understand that administrative review was a concept born from the Downtown Master Plan, not in a challenge to it.

The Downtown Master Plan 2020 was written by a consultant/planner named Andres Duany. This would serve as an update to the downtown CRA plan. He was also contracted to write a zoning code as well. 

Over the course of several months, Duany’s firm met with business and neighborhood groups and inventoried the study area. On top of that there were 15 design charettes; city staff reports 80-100 people at each charette. 

A plan was unveiled and the public meetings continued to ensue. The Downtown Master Plan 2020 was finally adopted by the City Commission on January 22, 2001 with the concepts of administrative review contained within the actual premises of the plan:

  • The process of redevelopment should be made predictable, as much as possible, so that it consumes less of the public discussion and so that the investment of the private sector serves as the engine to build out the intentions of the plan.
  • Developers have certain vested rights according to existing codes and these rights, while not withdrawn, must be strictly enforced and shorn of bonuses.

The Plan also stated, “Future development is accurately envisioned by the Master Plan that, when coded, creates a predictable environment. Within it, developers who follow the rules can be guaranteed time-certain approvals, while residents can live in a city where surprises are minimized. A public discussion and assessment by elected officials need only occur in the event a variance is required.”

This was a plan that was interwoven with give and take and each part was dependent upon another part.

Nine days after the Master Plan adoption, the zoning code, which implemented the agreed principles within the Master Plan, was unveiled. But first, the Comprehensive Plan had to be changed before the code could be adopted. It was here where the City Commission decided to treat the agreed upon and heavily publicly vetted Downtown Plan like a cafeteria plan and things fell apart. The City Commission was abandoning the Master Plan principles of Administrative Review after adopting them.

A coalition of groups and property owners, including The Argus Foundation, administratively challenged the Comp Plan changes for a variety of reasons. A settlement was reached adding Administrative Review back. 

Today, as a result of that intentional certainty created, we have a beautiful and vibrant downtown. Empty storefronts are now not the norm and parking can, thankfully, be hard to find at times.

People want to live in downtown and we have more coming because of this great transformation. The certainty was created to invest in downtown.

We must not take our downtown resurgence for granted and completely abandon the principles of Administrative Review, which revived downtown Sarasota when it was on life support. 

Christine Robinson is executive director for The Argus Foundation.

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