Project opponents counter company assertions on a number of issues
In basketball terminology, it would be called a “full court press.”
On Sept. 25, Benderson Development Co. launched a new website and a Facebook page in an effort to garner public support for its proposed Siesta Promenade project at the northwest corner of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
The Facebook page also promotes a YouTube video about the plans. “Check out this video to learn more about the proposal to transform a former 300+ unit mobile home park, office building & contaminated gas station into a new, vibrant gateway entrance to the area,” a Benderson post says.
The YouTube video, it adds, may be found at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgVSZsL0d2c&feature=youtu.be.
On Aug. 23, when county staff members and Todd Mathes, Benderson’s director of development, conducted a county-required Neighborhood Workshop on the company’s plans, many of the approximately 400 attendees bombarded them with negative comments. A number of speakers focused on the expectation that the mixed-use project would exacerbate traffic congestion at the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road intersection.
Since Mathes unveiled Benderson’s revived plans for the project in June 2016, public comments have been predominantly negative. Along with the public transportation issues, residents of Pine Shores Estates — who would be Siesta Promenade’s immediate neighbors — have protested the proposed 85-foot height of the hotel next to their community of mostly one-story, single-family homes, and people have pointed to significant shift to online shopping, with many retail centers struggling to find tenants for long-vacant storefronts.
On Nov. 15, Benderson is scheduled to have its first public hearing on its petitions for a Critical Area Plan designation and rezoning of the approximately 24-acre Siesta Promenade site. The Sarasota County Planning Commission will address the proposal for the project that evening; its meeting will begin at 5 p.m. The County Commission has set aside a full day — Dec. 12, beginning at 9 a.m. — to consider Benderson’s applications.
The company has proposed 414 condominiums/apartments, a 130-room hotel and 140,000 square feet of retail and office space.
In a Sept. 25 press release, Mathes of Benderson Development, said, “For over a decade, Benderson has been listening and incorporating community feedback into plans to breathe new life into these underutilized land parcels in the commercial corridor.” He continued, “What began as a high-density mixed-use proposal was then redesigned as a retail-only scenario that can still be built today without any legislative decision by the County. However, we have again reconfigured the project as a right-sized mix of uses to maximize compatibility and reduce overall impacts, including 24 percent less traffic than the retail-only plan. We remain steadfast in our commitment to complement the unique quality and value of Siesta Key while balancing the varied interests of the neighborhood, development and community at large.”
Both the Benderson website and the Facebook page invite people to fill out an online form so they can send a letter to “County Officials,” urging the officials’ “strong support for the current Siesta Promenade proposal.”
The letter says, “Overall, this mixed-use project will create jobs, significant tax revenue and add value to the World Class destination that Siesta Key has always been. Please approve Siesta Promenade.”
Refuting the company’s assertions
Already, Mathes has faced criticism over his comments in the news release, including his assertion about the company’s ability to construct the “retail-only scenario” without the need of County Commission action.
Sura Kochman, leader of the Pine Shores Neighborhood Alliance, has provided a detailed rebuttal to that statement and others in the news release. She has been the primary community representative who has worked with Mathes extensively over the years in trying to reduce the potential impacts of the project on residents and businesses in the area surrounding the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road intersection. (See the related story in this issue.)
Kochman pointed out in her rebuttal that most of the 24-acre site slated for Siesta Promenade is zoned for a mobile home development. The County Commission would have to change that zoning to Commercial General to allow the “retail-only scenario” Mathes touted, she added.
The press release also includes this quote from Mathes: “This project is designed to make a significant contribution to the community, from the environmental remediation that has already been completed to the housing affordability and economic benefits it will bring for years to come. This project will create over 200 construction jobs and 250 permanent jobs, as well as more than $10 million in sales, real estate and TDT funding — that is 95 times more tax revenue than the property currently generates.”
“TDT” refers to the county’s 5% Tourist Development Tax, or “bed tax,” which is charged on rentals of accommodations.
In response to that comment, Kochman wrote, “This project will create 200 temporary construction jobs and 250 part time minimum wage jobs. It is highly doubtful that the ‘shop dine live Siesta’ moniker [on the new website and the Facebook page] will apply to those working at the restaurants, retail and the hotel …”
The affordable housing claims
On Benderson’s new Facebook page, criticisms point out that the project site would have been a good place for affordable housing. Benderson’s response is that “a portion of these residences will be designated as Affordable to 80% of [area median income] households.”
County Planning and Development Services Department staff has explained that Benderson would be required to make 15% of the condominiums affordable, if the County Commission approves the Critical Area Plan (CAP) designation for Siesta Promenade. The CAP would allow the company a density of up to 25 dwelling units per acre; the maximum density is 13 units per acre in Commercial General zoning districts.
In her rebuttal, Kochman pointed out that, by her calculations, using those county figures, only 25 of the 414 Siesta Promenade units would be affordable.
She added, “The project has done virtually nothing to improve housing affordability. The “25 deemed affordable [her emphasis]” means all housing costs — including principal, interest, taxes and insurance for home ownership or total rent inclusive of water and sewer utilities, and parking for renters — would not exceed 30% of the total income of a family of four at or below 80% of the Area Median Income of Sarasota County, she stressed. Those units would remain affordable, she continued, “for only 5 years [her emphasis again], and then they [would] revert to market rate.”
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the median family income in 2018 for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) for a family of four is $70,300.
Facebook page exchanges
During an Oct. 3 review of comments on the Facebook page, The Sarasota News Leader found mostly negative comments. Similar to the situation during the Aug. 23 Neighborhood Workshop, many people have criticized the plans because of the additional traffic the project would be expected to create.
For example, one person wrote, “One of the busiest intersections in the city and Benderson wants to add to the craziness! How is that going to help Siesta Key as you won’t be able to drive there to enjoy what was once one of the best beaches in Florida. Too bad that title will be completely gone!!”
A second person just posted, “NO!” A Benderson response asked if the writer would like to speak with a project representative to discuss Siesta Promenade in greater detail. The writer’s answer was the same as his earlier post: “NO!”
A Benderson response to one of the traffic criticisms on the Facebook page says, “[W]e understand traffic is one of the top issues of importance to the community. That’s why the latest revisions to the proposal result in 20% fewer weekday peak-hour trips and 24% fewer weekend peak hour trips with the proposed mixed-use CAP development than a potential development that could be built under Commercial General zoning standards. Please visit https://shopdinelivesiesta.com/mixed-use/ to learn more about the traffic improvements, connections to transit, shuttle service, shared lane pavement markings, and sidewalk installations this proposal will implement.”
A Sept. 26 post by Benderson emphasized the statement that the CAP designation for Siesta Promenade would result in “24% LESS traffic than a retail-only development …” The five people who responded to that post used the laughing emoji or the angry emoji.
A man posted the comment, “All this and super traffic jams too on Stickney Point Road. As long as Benderson makes the big buck, inconveniencing people means nothing. And to think Bendy & Co. suggested putting up traffic lights to alleviate the traffic. Huh?”
The company has suggested that a traffic light be installed at the intersection of Stickney Point Road and Avenue B and C. Mathes and representatives of the Kimley-Horn and Associates consulting firm in Sarasota, which handled the traffic analyses for the project, also have called for FDOT to re-time the traffic signals on the U.S. 41 corridor. FDOT traffic engineers have made it clear that while FDOT does re-time signals periodically, it would not take such action because of a specific project.
The News Leader did find three positive posts on the Facebook page. One from a woman artist in Sarasota said, “Beautiful Project. All aspects of it will enhance our town. Bring up property values and help push SRQ to be an envied place to live.”
A post by a man said, “Can’t Wait.”