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A Victory for Business?

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  • | 6:00 p.m. January 20, 2006
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A Victory for Business?

By Troy Schnelle

The Sarasota Observer

Three weeks have passed since the city of Sarasota's new downtown Andres Duany-influenced master plan became effective. But it's still not finished. The City Commission was scheduled to address about 20 proposed amendments to the plan at its Jan. 23 meeting.

Nearly four years in the making, the master plan has engendered plenty of opposition from downtown property owners and business owners because of its restrictiveness - going so far as to regulate the amount of tinting allowed on windows and the shapes of windows in the downtown core.

At one point early in the process, The Argus Foundation and a downtown property owner's group challenged the plan in a state administrative court. But the court rebuffed their challenge.

More recently, property owners in Burns Square prevailed in their opposition to the plan. They argued that the required rezoning of the downtown core and surrounding properties would have unlawfully taken away their existing use rights. When it appeared they had sound arguments, the city commission agreed to back off from some of the plans restrictions.

Now it appears architects and business may win another round. Going into the Jan. 23 commission meeting, the city staff, which spearheaded the specifics of the plan's design standards, was proposing amendments that actually would relax some of the restrictiveness in the code.

It took a lot of effort. Sam Holladay, president of Seibert Architects and director of the Gulf Coast chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said even though the commission accepted some of its recommended changes in December, the chapter still opposes the code's design standards.

"What it would do is really restrict creativity," he said.

Holladay said he and others talked to Duany, the urban planner who helped the city draft the plan, and were told the codes couldn't stop the worst building in the city from being built. "If it's allowing the worst," Holladay said, "then why does it make any difference at all?"

Sarasota City Commissioner Ken Shelin said he agrees the design standards should be loosened to give architects more creative freedom. "Design standards as a concept encourage mediocrity," he said. Less restrictive standards have a better chance of bringing award-winning architecture to downtown, he added.

The topic that has received the most attention from the public so far deals with arcades, structures used to shield pedestrians on sidewalks. Groups such as Save our Sarasota, Control Growth Now, AIA and the Sarasota Architectural Foundation want commissioners to eliminate arcades from the master plan and prohibit them on public rights of way. The most common complaint is that arcades will create a "tunnel effect" and replace the trees and open-air atmosphere downtown.

Mayor Mary Anne Servian said the city hasn't had the opportunity to see the new standards in action and would prefer to hold off on eliminating arcades altogether. She agrees that Main Street isn't the place for arcades because it's too narrow but said there are other places downtown such as State Street and Pineapple Avenue where they might work.

As with other standards, Servian suggests the commission revisit the arcade issue after the code is put into practical use.

Any amendments (see sidebar) approved by the commission at the Jan. 23 will move forward to a second reading.


Prior to the Sarasota City Commission's Jan. 23 meeting, the city planning staff compiled amendments to the city's new downtown building code.

The Review obtained copies of amendments, ordinances 05-4649 and 05-4650. Deciphering them would be a challenge to any expert land-use lawyer as well as the ordinance's authors.

As a testament to the city's themes of highly defined rules governing every detail of what is allowed - even to the degree of regulating tinting on windows, The Review reprints here portions of the proposed amendments.

Surprisingly, many of the proposed amendments would remove some of the city staff's previous rules governing design. If adopted as proposed, the ordinances would:

• Disallow any public street or right-of-way to be vacated for developers to build an arcade or gallery over them.

• Require that every part of a city right-of-way remain open and unobstructed from below the ground to the sky and no major encroachment will be allowed if the use is for arcades or galleries.

• Substitute an optional appeal to the planning board in cases where the director of planning denies a request for an adjustment for an automatic appeal.

• Allow any number of levels for parking structures that are surrounded by habitable space on all frontages;

• Clarify the maximum setback and minimum façade requirement on primary streets;

• Clarify the requirement that residential uses be elevated 2 feet above the sidewalk;

• Clarify that the height exception for towers is limited to one tower per building;

• Clarify that the method of determining the curb line and ceiling heights for awnings, galleries and arcades;

• Clarify the requirement that a building facing a primary street shall have its main entrance along a frontage line;

• Clarify the design standard for corner architecture;

• Clarify the amount of tinting allowed on windows;

• Clarify the design standards regulating the shape of openings and exterior finish materials

• Require that any arcades or galleries must be on private property only.

• Eliminate a requirement for a minimum of three and a maximum of nine townhouses in a single row to allow more redevelopment options.

• Eliminate the requirement that buildings on primary streets in the downtown zone shall provide a 20-foot minimum depth of habitable space for the full height and length of the first four stories;

• Delete the design standards for buildings on primary streets in the downtown zone relating to their facades, transition lines at the top of the second story; recesses for building frontages above the fourth story, pedestrian entrances, windows, shapes of openings, exterior finishes.


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