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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 26, 2004 17 years ago

Downtown Code: Scrap It

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If Sarasota city commissioners want to keep downtown competitive, theyid be wise to throw out the details in the downtown plan.

Downtown Code: Scrap It

If Sarasota city commissioners want to keep downtown competitive, theyid be wise to throw out the details in the downtown plan.

Keep it simple, stupid.

Itis a great clichE. If only elected officials and especially government iplannersi would live by it. (Better yet, all government planners should be axed from public payrolls; taxpayersi quality of life would soar.)

The keep-it-simple idea comes to mind in the wake of a Downtown Partnership breakfast forum two weeks ago at Kenny Barris Sports Page restaurant in Sarasota. The topic: iDowntown Code: The Final Chapter?i Speakers included Mark Hess, senior planner at WilsonMiller, on the new codeis impact on downtown housing; commercial real estate broker John Harshman on the codeis restrictions on commercial space; and Sarasota City Commission candidate Ken Shelin on isplit zoning.i

An aside: On the issue of split zoning, get this o the cityis new downtown code has some properties placed in two different zoning districts. Players Theatre, for one, would have one half of its property zoned at one density and use, while the other half would fall under different restrictions. This would apply to many properties on Fruitville Road, too. Talk about idiotic.

But thatis just one of many o no, make that MANY! o idiotic things in the new code. In fact, we could take up this entire space nitpicking the outrageous rules and details in this 2020 Downtown (so-called) Master Plan. And one day we probably should do that, just to inform you of what is about to be stuffed down property ownersi throats.

But hereis the larger issue: The master plan is a colossal mistake. The city commission should trash it.

No way, city commissioners and the town staff would argue. The city has already spent nearly five years and probably $1 million or more trying to adopt the plan it asked Andres Duany to create. That cost also includes legal costs expended to defend the plan against earlier challenges. So the cityis argument would be: Weive got so much sunk into this thing we canit turn back now.

Whatis more, you have city planners such as Mike Taylor, who attended the Downtown Partnership meeting, trying to argue that the working version of the plan is what ithe communityi requested. Taylor went out of his way at the forum to repeat numerous times that the master planis details are a result of icommunity inputi from hundreds of Sarasota residents who attended public hearings. Had he used the phrase icommunity inputi one more time, he might have been punched, it was so annoying.

Community input, my foot. In that crowded restaurant that morning, there wasnit a man or woman who supported this crazy piece of the master plan: that all ground-level building uses on Main Street and other downtown business district streets be limited only to retail o no office uses, no banking uses either. It was great when Realtor Carl S. Meyer vociferously challenged Taylor: iIill fight you on every level as far as a bank not being classified as retail.i

Hereis what has happened: The Sarasota City Commission adopted Andres Duanyis dreamy concept of a pedestrian friendly, inew urbani downtown code, which residents appeared to embrace. But then the commission instructed its planners to write the specifics. Thatis where the problems mushroomed. To employ another clichE, the devil is definitely in the details.

Sarasota city planners had a heyday writing the code, liberally interpreting Duanyis ideas into a complicated, nightmarish book of planning and zoning minutiae. Another clichE: Itis the land-use lawyersi full employment act, as well as the city plannersi full-employment act. To wit: Part of the plan requires rezoning every property on the accompanying map. Just think of the time and money every property owner must spend to find out how heill be affected by the new code.

The process has become so byzantine that the Downtown Partnership issued at its meeting a four-and-a-half page white paper on its recommendations for implementing the downtown code. Even reading that spins your head. Weid recommend that every city commissioner read it, as well as anyone who owns real estate near downtown.

Clearly, youill see in the Downtown Partnershipis paper, there are major problems with the implementation of the code (see box).

Thus the call to scrap it. Or at least stop the implementation of it.

If you look at the accompanying map, the different shades indicate where densities, heights and uses differ. The darkest areas, of course, are the high-rise condos and highest densities. As the shade lighten, the cityis densities and heights shrink. Put in the context of everyoneis desire to have a vibrant, diverse downtown area, the cityis codes will bring the opposite effects.

Whatis more, city commissioners might do well to think about how to make one of their core products o which is downtown o as competitive as possible with other regions in the two-county area, areas that are attracting jobs, businesses and housing at a faster rate than downtown. The world is moving east, folks. If downtown Sarasota wants to remain competitive, it must make it easy, or at least easier, for property owners and developers to be creative.

It was remarkably revealing when the question was posed at the downtown forum: What would happen to downtown, if, say, all of those shades were removed and there was no zoning code?

Mark Hess responded: iIf you go back to Andres Duanyis original recommendation, it was to eliminate the different zoning and create one large overlay district.i

Keep it simple.

Excerpt from Downtown Partnership white paper

iAdditional city resources have been required to address legal challenges, to conduct economic impact studies, and to rezone 3,000 properties. Significant consts have also been incurred by property owners, to understand their rights, to seek legal and other counsel on defending their rights, to change their development plans, and, in some cases, to launch legal action.

iAs the Planning Board starts to consider appeals against city-initiated rezonings, there is currently no way of telling how many additional public and private-sector resources will be required to complete the process. Some lawyers believe the city could also be subject to Bert Harris actions for etakings.i In addition, the new code requires the cityis planning department to take on additional responsibilities.i

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