Multiple Gulf Coast downtowns are going through renaissances — or are at least amid a major recession recovery.
New condo towers, hotels and even some office projects dot landscapes. At least $2 billion in construction is in some form of development in Tampa, for example. And more than $500 million in new investment is in the works in Fort Myers.
These projects, while trumpeted by officials from each area, also have a resistance factor: residents worried about growth who also want their city to focus on maintaining the small-town character and charms that made it so charming in the first place. “Some of the objections tend to be around. 'Will this building be too tall?'” says Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson, a vocal cheerleader of that city's projects. “But there seems to be less opposition this time than during the last boom.”
Downtown Sarasota faces similar challenges, particularly in building height and project scale. Sarasota bills itself as a place where “urban amenities meet small town living.” Some residents wonder if that slogan is no longer true.
“I think it's fair to say the quality of life that I associate with Sarasota — that I think a lot of people do — is threatened by certain aspects of the building going on,” says Kate Lowman, a leader of the resident-activist group STOP!.
City staffers in Sarasota are drafting a new form-based zoning code, which gives residents concerned about growth an opportunity to voice their opinions. But even if the city were determined to slow growth, a series of projects that haven't yet broken ground are still on the way.
Two of the first major projects completed post-recession, the One Palm hotel and apartment complex and The Jewel condominium, are 10- and 18-story buildings, respectively. Both capitalize on the maximum height the city allows in each building's neighborhood.
Much of the work going on downtown follows the same trend. Along the bayfront, three 18-story projects are underway. In the downtown core, another three projects under construction are built to the 10-story maximum height.
That holds true for the second wave of building, headlined by the Sarasota Bayside project on the former Quay site. There, on 14 acres along the bayfront, Sarasota Bayside developer GreenPointe Communities has proposed a large mixed-use project that includes nearly 700 condos, 189,050 square feet of retail, 175 hotel rooms and 39,000 square feet of office space.
Even if the city stopped accepting development applications tomorrow, plans for two other 18-story towers are in the pipeline. In total, among major downtown projects that haven't broken ground, there are more than 1,300 residential units, 290 hotel rooms and 286,000 square feet of commercial and office space planned.
Sarasota City Attorney Robert Fournier says any effort to rein in the growth would have to acknowledge the current entitlements property owners have. The city couldn't unilaterally change existing height, density and setback regulations.
Fournier says the city could offer incentives in exchange for, say, a lower maximum building height. In 2004, the city eliminated an 18-story cap in the downtown core in exchange for a new development review process that let city staff approve proposed project.
Possibilities like that give Lowman hope her efforts will pay off.
“Trust me, I would not be investing the huge amount of time that I put in — nor would the others — if we thought it was an exercise in futility,” Lowman says. “What we want to see happen is for all of us to move past the stage of just saying, 'Gosh, we're upset with this,' and move to the point where we can start really talking about how we fix it.”
David Conway is a writer for Observer Media Group.