Planners push for a shadier, more livable downtown
March 30, 2004
SARASOTA, FLA -- At the corner of Main Street and Central Avenue, a 16-story tower featuring street-level retail shops below offices and condominiums is taking shape.
One block west, at Main and Palm Avenue, a developer plans 17 stories of shops and condos. A similar mixed-used project is planned behind Sarasota News & Books, near the same intersection.
The three projects are signs of a transformation that city planners hope will spread along Main and Palm.
The idea is to make downtown an attractive place to live and work, with enticing storefronts and shaded sidewalks.
The city's planners want the City Commission to adopt a new zoning code this spring to encourage mixed-use developments and require street-level retail establishments with shaded sidewalks on Main Street, North Palm Avenue and Central Avenue.
The code would create new mixed-used development zones and set design standards for new buildings on all major downtown streets.
If approved by the City Commission, it could lead to the rezoning of more than 1,800 properties, and eventually change the look of downtown.
How much of that transformation should be regulated by the city -- and how much should be left to developers -- is the subject of some debate.
City planners are seeking "a degree of visual harmony" downtown, deputy planning director Michael Taylor said. "We don't want every building to look identical."
But some business owners and architects say the new rules will promote contrived, Disney-style design.
"They're playing architect and they shouldn't be," said Brad Gaubatz, past president of the Gulf Coast chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Andres Duany, a Miami-based planner the city hired several years ago to create a downtown master plan, called for a walkable city where residents could live, shop and work downtown.
In the code city officials are considering, that translates into rules governing building materials and the shapes of windows and rooftops for every new development on a major downtown street.
Ground-floor retail businesses shaded by awnings, galleries or columned overhangs would be required on Main, North Palm and parts of Central.
The amount of glass allowed on the outside of some buildings would be limited, and windows facing major streets would have to be vertical or square.
"If you're looking to create a retail environment, the thought is you'd like to have a covered street," Taylor said.
Gaubatz and other architects agree with the pedestrian-friendly idea, but don't want to be told how to do it.
"We're suggesting you say what you want to accomplish. You don't say how to accomplish it," Gaubatz said.
Duany's "smart growth," anti-sprawl plan includes a mix of residential and commercial development.
To help concentrate more intense development in one downtown core, the planners decided to replace the approximately 20 downtown development zones with four mixed-use zones.
Under the new zones, most of the area north of Fruitville Road would be designated for residential development, with height limits of three stories.
Along the bayfront, mixed-use developments of up to 18 stories would be allowed, while in the core of downtown, those developments would be capped at 10 stories. In a so-called edge zone, such as along Fruitville Road, buildings would be limited to five stories.
Robert Seth-Ward, who owns Churchills Furniture store on the north side of Fruitville at Lemon Avenue, is caught in the middle of the proposed zoning change.
Under the proposal, Fruitville -- a four-lane street now lined with antique shops, thrift stores, bank parking lots and assorted other commercial developments -- would become the dividing line between the center city and downtown neighborhoods.
Seth-Ward's property, purchased for $1.8 million two years ago, straddles the line between the two zones.
Seth-Ward said a prospective buyer knocked his offer down from $4 million to $3 million because of that. Since then, Seth-Ward said, he has spent $8,000 hiring an attorney and land planner to protest the new code. He's sure there are others like him.
"If they do it, it's unconstitutional; it's un-American; it's unfair," he said.
Churchills is not the only property that would change.
On the south side of Fruitville, one- and two-story thrift shops could eventually be replaced with 10-story developments. On Lemon Avenue, just north of Seth-Ward's land, antiques stores, a new coffee shop, a tire store and an auto repair store would be zoned residential.
If the code is adopted, planners are proposing to rezone all the properties at public hearings beginning this fall. Existing businesses like Seth-Ward's could stay on the land, but if they were to sell or expand they would have to be converted to residential uses, Taylor said.
"The idea was to paint a picture of change. That change would occur over time," Taylor said.
But Seth-Ward is not comforted by that promise. Like the architects who question the design standards, he wonders whether such a major revision of the zoning code is necessary.
"I don't understand why we need it," Seth-Ward said. "What is so broken right now?"
Lisa Rab can reached at (941) 363-5554.
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