1,479-unit residential development with 371 affordable homes on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Sarasota wins County Commission approval

Commissioners talk of need for Tuttle Avenue improvements and staff work on new recreational programs in affected area

This graphic shows the site of the proposed residential community. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Although three residents of the Newtown community in north Sarasota protested the plans, the Sarasota County Commission this week voted unanimously to approve several requests of developer Midtown SRQ to facilitate the construction of a residential project that will encompass up to 1,479 residential units and 20,000 square feet of commercial uses. The 113.81-acre site is located at 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Sarasota.

The principal of Midtown SRQ is Sarasota resident Eldon E. Johnson. He also is constructing a residential community on the former Rolling Green Golf Club property on Tuttle Avenue, north of the project site that was the focus of the Feb. 21 hearing.

The county still owns the land on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, but the county staff report for the board meeting this week noted that, on March 29, 2022, the County Commission approved the sale of the property to Midtown SRQ, provided that the firm constructs a certain percentage of affordable units there, along with a grocery store and a pharmacy. Staff members have pointed out that the area where the property stands is known as a “food desert,” which prompted the commissioners to stipulate the inclusion of the grocery/pharmacy on the site.

Formally, on Feb. 21, the board members agreed to a Comprehensive Plan amendment that will change the Future Land Use designation of the property from Moderate Density Residential, which allows between two and five units per acre) to High Density Residential, which permits nine to 13 units per acre; the creation of a master development plan that will “address the area-wide issues of a large-scale mixed-use development,” as the county staff report noted; and the rezoning of the site from two single-family residential districts with no more than 5.5 units per acre to multi-family residential zoning with 13 units per acre.

As required by state law, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) will have to analyze the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment and provide to county staff any recommendations regarding changes in it. After county staff receives the DEO report, a second public hearing will have to be conducted on the amendment.

Although the county purchased the property in late 2013 for use as a regional park, in December 2017, the commissioners began talking about the potential of designating the site for an affordable housing development. They ultimately agreed to declare the land surplus and directed staff to advertise for project proposals.

On Feb. 21, Sarasota attorney William Merrill III, a member of the project team, explained that up to 371 of the residences will be priced to be affordable. Of those, half will serve households making 60% or less of the Area Median Income (AMI) for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which is set annually by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Merrill and Kelley Klepper, vice president of the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota, presented the commissioners a chart showing that 60% of the 2023 AMI for Sarasota is $54,840 for a family of four; that amount would put the maximum monthly rent at $1,371, while the maximum mortgage, excluding down payment and closing costs, would be $150,881.

The other half of those affordable homes, Merrill noted, would be priced at 80% of AMI or lower. The 80% level in the 2023 HUD report is $73,120 for a household of four. The maximum monthly rent for that household would be $1,828, the chart said; the maximum mortgage would be $225,103.

This graphic shows more details about the plans for the new community. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The affordable units will be a mix of designs, Merrill also pointed out, including apartments, townhomes and villas.

The remainder of the residences will be priced at the market rate, he added.

However, the residents who addressed the board members during the Feb. 21 public hearing expressed concerns that the project will exacerbate the traffic congestion in the area, which is home to three schools, and that it will contribute to the gentrification of Newtown, which is an historically African American community.

Two of the speakers also stressed the fact that children and youth in the area have few recreational options.

Juanita Cherry told the commissioners that children “are on the streets [after school because] there’s nothing for them to do.”

She further emphasized the traffic problems, explaining that she lives in Newtown Estates, on Newtown Boulevard. In the mornings, Cherry said, she has to take Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way to leave her neighborhood, to avoid the worst of the traffic; in the evening, she has to take Myrtle Street.

Additionally, Cherry talked of speeding through Newtown Estates and an abundance of parents parking on the Myrtle Street median as they await the end of the school day, so they can pick up their children. Those conditions already make the area dangerous for children and teens trying to reach the schools, she emphasized, noting that drivers have difficulty seeing around those vehicles in the median.

Juanita Cherry addresses the commissioners on Feb. 21. News Leader image

Having been born in Sarasota and expecting to die in the city, she added, “I can tell you the history of Sarasota.”

“The population is growing; traffic is horrendous,” Cherry stressed.

Moreover, she pointed out that when the county purchased the property, Newtown residents were promised a regional park. Since then, Cherry said, the county “has done nothing for the kinds in that community.”

The second speaker, Reneadre Mosley, who said she grew up in Newtown Estates, told the commissioners, “Our zip code has the lowest income in the entire county.” If the affordable housing is not constructed, she added, and new residents move into market-rate homes, that will change the dynamic of the community’s representation in future elections. “It’s going to totally dilute our voice on the voting bloc.”

Mosley referenced the voting registration statistics for Precinct 103, which is at the Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Library. When she checked the figures, she found that whites numbered 1,082; Blacks, 926; Hispanics, 345; and others, 196.

In making the motion to approve Midtown SRQ’s requests, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger said he appreciated the speakers’ comments. Nonetheless, he added, “I am familiar with the developers here and appreciate the mindset that they have,” which is focused on sense of community, Cutsinger indicated

Cutsinger also emphasized, “It’s not lost on me — 371 of [the new units] will be affordable. It’s hard to get that level right now, with the cost of construction.”

He further noted, “I like the fact that the kids [who live in that new development] are going to be able to walk to school and [the Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Library, which stands at 2801 Newtown Blvd.].”

In seconding the motion, Commissioner Neil Rainford concurred with Cutsinger’s comments. Rainford added that, every day, the commissioners hear from their constituents and business owners about the great need for affordable housing stock in the county. “It’s a great location,” he said of the site. Referring to the project, he said, “It’s going to be a great project.”

“It will be,” Commissioner Mark Smith agreed with Rainford’s last statement. However, Smith pointed out that approving the requests will “put the onus on this commission to make the area better.” Newtown Estate Park needs to be upgraded, Smith added, and the county needs to deal with “the challenges that we have with traffic …”

Commissioner Joe Neunder praised the work of Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, and her staff. Perhaps, Neunder continued, Rissler and her colleagues could come up with ideas to improve the recreational opportunities in that area. He asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to work with staff on that.

Tuttle Avenue ‘a parking lot at certain times of the day’

The item was listed on the Feb. 21 agenda as a Presentation Upon Request, meaning no formal remarks would be offered about the application unless one or more commissioners asked for presentations. Commissioner Smith initially told Chair Michael Moran that he wanted a full presentation; however, Smith ended up agreeing just to ask questions of the project team and county Transportation Planning staff.

His biggest worry, Smith said, is that the project will increase the amount of traffic “a good deal” on Tuttle Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

“I have serious concerns about the safety of the kids walking down the street,” Smith added, referring to the students at the schools — Emma E. Booker Elementary School, Booker Middle and Booker High School.

Attorney Merrill and Kimley-Horn Vice President Klepper showed Smith a graphic to illustrate where the project team has stipulated that it will build a sidewalk beyond the project site, to the south of Newtown Estates Park, an effort to make students’ route to the schools safer.

Merrill noted that Midtown SRQ also will have to construct sidewalks along the project boundary, as required by county regulations.

The arrow on this graphic shows the general area where the extra sidewalk segment will be constructed by the developer. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Then Smith asked about the plans to improve Tuttle Avenue, Myrtle Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way. “Tuttle, especially, as you’re heading north,” he pointed out, “is like a parking lot at certain times of the day.”

He further noted that the roads already are operating at low levels of service (LOS), which are described by letter grades, similar to letter grades students receive in school: “A” describes a driver’s perception of smoothly flowing traffic, while “F” is assigned to roads with the worst congestion.

The county staff report prepared for the hearing showed that all the segments on those three roads that are associated with the project are functioning at a level of service of “D,” Smith said. By 2028, he continued, county staff expects Myrtle to continue to function with LOS D, but the other two roads would fall to LOS F.

This chart provides details about the level of service for the affected road segments. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Smith asked whether the county’s Transportation Planning staff has proposed plans to ameliorate those conditions.

Kwamena Sankah, a senior professional engineer with that county division, responded that the widening of Tuttle Avenue is not included in the Capital Improvement Program for the next five fiscal years, which the board members approved during a September 2023 budget hearing. Sankah did acknowledge that Tuttle is operating below its designated level of service.

Yet, referring to the county staff report, Smith noted that the new development is expected to add more than 9,000 daily trips to the affected transportation network, while the existing zoning of the site would be expected to generate close to 5,500 trips each day.

“Why don’t we have something moving forward?” Smith asked Sankah.

“Every year,” Sankah replied, “we assess our roadway network. … We do know [Tuttle is] failing.”

Smith told Sankah that he hopes his colleagues will support direction to staff to include improvements to Tuttle in the next Capital Improvement Program (CIP) list for county roads.

In May, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis pointed out, the commissioners are scheduled to consider changes to the CIP for the next five fiscal years. If the commissioners direct staff to put Tuttle on the list, Lewis added, staff will do so.