On 4-1 vote, City Commission approves land-use reclassification to make Bahia Vista Apartments project possible near Arlington Park

Ahearn-Koch opposes Comprehensive Plan amendment in supporting residents’ opposition to the development

On a 4-1 vote, the Sarasota city commissioners have approved a change in the classification of a 6.09-acre parcel located at 2750 Bahia Vista Street so an apartment complex with up to 250 units can be constructed.

The buildings would comprise four stories, and access to the site would be limited to Bahia Vista Street and Tuttle Avenue, according to the minutes of the Aug. 27, 2021 community workshop conducted on the proposal.

Thirty-five of the apartments would be priced as affordable housing for 30 years, Sarasota planning consultant Joel Freedman, who was representing the applicant — Bahia Vista Associates LLP — told the board members. The development would take advantage of a new zoning district made possible by the City Commission’s 2022 approval of Comprehensive Plan amendments designed to spur the creation of workforce housing.

Of those attainable apartments, Freedman said, six would have two bedrooms, while the other 29 would have one bedroom. William Russell, president and CEO of the Sarasota Housing Authority, has stressed that his No. 1 housing need is one-bedroom units, Freedman told the commissioners.

Additionally, Freedman said that 11 apartments would be rented at a level affordable to people making 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI) for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), 10 units would be priced between 80% and 100% of the AMI; and 14 units would have rents in the 100% to 120% AMI range.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sets the AMI every year for each Metropolitan Statistical Area. For 2022, the AMI for North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton was $90,400. In 2021, the figure was $77,200.

The relevant HUD chart noted that, for a four-person household, 80% of the AMI would be $69,050.

During his rebuttal to public comments on Jan. 17, Freedman also acknowledged, “This property is going to be redeveloped, some day.” The existing zoning, he noted, would allow for an assisted living/memory care facility that probably would be larger than The Pines of Sarasota. While the residents of such a facility would not be expected to do much driving, Freedman added, hundreds of employees would be needed, and they likely would have to drive to reach the site. That would lead to far greater traffic intensity, he indicated, than the apartment complex.

Nonetheless, all but six of the 19 people who addressed the commissioners — by count of The Sarasota News Leader — urged them not to approve the land-use change. The majority of the opponents were city residents living in close proximity to the site, especially in the Arlington Park neighborhood.

They voiced concerns about the increase in residential density for the property and expressed expectations — in spite of Freedman’s and city staff’s assurances otherwise — that the project would lead to much higher traffic volumes in the area. Many also stressed the incompatibility of the planned four-story buildings with nearby single-family homes.

Yet, during board comments before the vote, Commissioner Erik Arroyo said that when he takes his daughter to city parks on the weekends, he talks with other parents who tell him that the city’s No. 1 issue is workforce housing.

People who need that type of housing would be addressing the City Commission that afternoon, he continued, if they did not have to work.

He also has walked around downtown Sarasota, Arroyo said, and asked many of the working people he has encountered if they would be in favor of attainable housing even if it meant a higher density of units per acre. “The answer was predominantly ‘Yes,’ ” Arroyo told his board colleagues.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged, “There is no winning side to this.”

Nonetheless, Vice Mayor Liz Alpert said, “What a great use of that land on [Bahia Vista Street], because you can provide housing for 200 or 250 people in that space.” She added that the site is served by three bus routes, and it is within walking distance of five schools. Those factors, Alpert pointed out, will reduce traffic generated by the complex.

Commissioner Debbie Trice, who won her seat in the November 2022 election, noted that the major focus of her campaign was the city’s need for affordable housing.

Trice added, “I don’t think we should deny what looks like would be a really valuable development on the corner of a neighborhood rather than in the middle of a neighborhood.”

She also pointed to comments that Deputy City Manager Patrick Robinson and other staff members had made that day in regard to the traffic situation. Robinson explained that the Sarasota Police Department is working on strategies to resolve the problems of cut-through traffic in neighborhoods, including speeding of Sarasota High School students who cut through Arlington Park after classes end in the afternoons, as noted during the public testimony.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch cast the sole “No” vote.

“We have to go back to what we swear an oath to,” she told her colleagues, “which is [to protect the] health, safety and welfare [of the city residents].”

It has been stated, Ahearn-Koch continued, that when the board makes a decision, half the population will be angry while the other half will be happy. “But in this case,” Ahearn-Koch pointed out, “we have a petition that was signed by 75-plus percent of the neighborhood that’s going to be immediately impacted.”

If the commission approved the Future Land Use Map amendment necessary for the apartment complex to be built as planned, she said, Arlington Park residents “are going to be pretty unhappy for very real reasons,” mainly because of safety and traffic concerns.

City leaders need to solve the traffic problems, she stressed.

Because the Jan. 17 vote was on a city Comprehensive Plan amendment, a second vote will be necessary at an upcoming commission meeting to implement the change.

Supply and demand

The site where the apartment complex is planned is in the southwest quadrant of Bahia Vista Street and Tuttle Avenue, where Doctors Hospital of Sarasota formerly stood. The medical center was constructed on the property in 1967, the city staff report on the application said. Later, the hospital relocated to a site on Cattlemen Road in Sarasota County.

A structure remaining on the Bahia Vista property was converted into a medical office known as the Bahia Vista Professional Center, the staff report noted. Additionally, a parking garage with about 400 spaces is present; it will be refurbished and then screened with trees.

During the Jan. 17 public hearing, consultant Freedman said he expected to be back before the commissioners in March to seek the rezoning of the Bahia Vista Street property to enable the apartment complex development to go forward.

Formally, the commissioners on Jan. 17 authorized the change in the classification of the parcel in the Future Land Use Map of the Comprehensive Plan. Instead of Multiple Family-Medium Density, the new designation is Multiple Family-High Density.

The earlier Future Land Use Map allowed a maximum of 25 dwelling units per acre, according to documents in the commission’s backup agenda materials. The new classification will permit up to 50 units per acre.

Four commission votes in favor of the proposal were necessary since the property owner’s request entailed the Comprehensive Plan amendment.

During remarks at the opening of the Jan. 17 hearing, David Smith, the city’s long-range planning manager, told the commissioners that the proposal for the site would entail a mix of attainable and market-rate units.

A recent report about the rental market in the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton MSA, he added, showed that the market rate for apartments is about 17.48% higher than it should be. That study, undertaken by the Waller, Weeks and Johnson Rental Index, Smith noted, said the average rent in the MSA is $2,375 a month, but the market rent should be $2,006.35. That higher rent, Smith pointed out, could be a factor of the shortage of apartments in the city.

He did acknowledge that the proposed density of the apartment complex could be considered incompatible, in terms of the city’s Comprehensive Plan policies, with some of the neighboring dwellings, which are single-family homes located to the south, southeast and southwest of the land.

A slide presented to the commissioners made it clear that Arlington Park is to the south of the formers Doctors Hospital site, with the former YMCA, Alta Vista Elementary School and Sarasota High School to the north.

Smith also acknowledged that the nearest property with a Future Land Use classification allowing 50 units per acre is about 1 mile away.

Additionally, Smith explained that a traffic study had shown that the net volume of vehicles would be a minus 152.44 during the peak afternoon drive time, compared to other uses that would be allowed on the land.

Assistant City Engineer Dan Ohrenstein pointed out that the standard traffic engineering calculations used for such studies indicated a net reduction in vehicles from 262 trips to 110 during peak afternoon drive time. That results from changing the use of the site from a medical complex to apartments, he said.

Further, Ohrenstein noted that from 2017 to 20221, the traffic count on Bahia Vista Street in the vicinity of the site dropped 28%. On Tuttle Avenue in that area, he added, a 24% decline was shown. However, he did say he expected the traffic volumes on those streets to be higher again in the 2022 data.

‘Quality of exiting neighborhoods’

Among the speakers who urged the commissioners to deny the Future Land Use Map change, Marty Boutieller, who said she had lived in Arlington Park for 27 years, talked about the various chapters of the city’s Comprehensive Plan that focus on the goal of maintaining the quality of life in existing residential neighborhoods. Yet, she continued, “The city seems more interested in quantity, rather than quality,” in terms of housing units.

Having pointed out that she is a retired firefighter/paramedic, Boutieller said she had researched the starting salary for that position with the Sarasota County Fire Department and found that it is approximately $49,000. She noted that that figure “is at the very bottom range” of the 80% calculation of the 2022 Area Median Income.

“I personally know very few hardworking adults in this community who can afford even these affordable units,” she added.

Boutieller also reminded the board members that every ordinance they approve includes the phrase, “ ‘Now therefore be it enacted by the people of the City of Sarasota,’ not the developers, not the people with a bunch of money, the people of the city.”

“Please hear the voice of the people in this neighborhood,” Boutieller emphasized, and allow the developer to construct only 25 units per acre on the site.

Another Arlington Park resident, John Hanlon, reminded the commissioners that when some of them ran for office, they promised to be the voices for neighborhoods.

“One thing that is clear about this density increase request,” Hanlon continued, “is that the overwhelming majority of the voters in my neighborhood do not favor it. We’ve spoken, we’ve written letters, we’ve held meetings, we’ve attended … workshops, we’ve signed petitions, and this has been going on now for almost … three years.”

He added, “Our government only works when you commissioners do your job, and I feel your most important job is to listen to the voters, listen to the citizens, listen to the neighbors about what they want.”

Flo Entler, president of the Arlington Park Neighborhood Association, who said she was speaking just as a citizen that day, also cited various sections of the Comprehensive Plan to underscore its tenets in regard to maintaining neighborhoods that are safe and that provide a good quality of life.

Yet, city staff, Entler emphasized, has acknowledged that the proposed apartment complex would not be as compatible with the residential areas to the south, east and west.

Showing the commissioners a video of traffic that she had taken at the intersection of Bahia Vista and Tuttle Avenue, Entler further stressed, “This corner will be the most densely built property outside of downtown. The closest is at 10th and Cocoanut, which is surrounded by high-density zone districts.”

Entler added, “Four-story apartments across the street from one-story homes is not like facing like.”

Further, based on her experience with rental properties, she estimated that the development would add more than 400 vehicles a day to the traffic count at the Bahia Vista/Tuttle intersection.

‘Sarasota needs more housing’

Among the speakers advocating for the Future Land Use Map change was Russ Webb, executive director for the Bay Area Apartment Association, which represents apartment owners, managers and developers across the Tampa Bay region, including Sarasota, he noted.

“Sarasota needs more housing,” he emphasized. “Frankly, the more the better.”

Using CoStar Group data, Webb pointed out, he had learned that 798 apartments were built in the city in 2018, followed by 733 in 2019. “That barely covered the need.”

“Sarasota,” he continued, “has become a top destination for people relocating to Florida.” City staff has reported that in 2021, the Sarasota-Bradenton area “was the fourth most popular destination in the country for people relocating,” he said. In 2022, he added, Sarasota-Bradenton was tied for the sixth most popular relocation destination.

However, Webb pointed out, the supply of new apartments has not kept pace with the demand. Only 300 apartments were developed in 2021, he said, followed by 212 in 2022. Yet, he added, “Demand for housing has never been higher than right now.”

Another speaker, Darrin Rohr, a Sarasota resident who owns HH Staffing Services, talked about a multi-year study undertaken by the Florida Apartment Association, which is headquartered in Orlando, in association with another firm, HR&A. The results, Rorh said, were published on the website BuildFlorida2030.com. Although the data was not broken down by municipality, he continued, it showed that Sarasota County needs more than 4,500 housing units priced at 80% AMI today.

“We need a workforce,” Rohr continued.

Last year, he said, he had more than 100 heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) technicians turn down jobs in Sarasota “because housing was too expensive for them.”

Those jobs, he emphasized, pay $70,000 to $80,000 a year.

Then Rohr pointed to what he called “a very disturbing trend” only two weeks into the New Year: Electricians, he said, who are in as much demand as HVAC technicians and who make the same salary range, “are leaving.”

Mary Ann Bowie, a past president of the Arlington Park Neighborhood Association, who noted that she retired as a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners, also called for approval of the amendment to the Future Land Use Map.

“We need more housing choices that are reasonably priced,” Bowie told the commissioners. “Our Arlington Park neighborhood is redeveloping now lot by lot with million-dollar mansions … The good/bad news is that Sarasota looks like a paradise,” she continued. “Rich people want to live here and they can afford to live here. Some of us who are here today,” Bowie said, “own our own home, and we benefit from homestead and senior tax exemptions, so it makes no sense to move.”

Bowie asked the commissioners to approve the Comprehensive Plan amendment “to provide housing for the rest of the people who can’t afford a million-dollar house.” She characterized the site for the apartment complex as “very suitable and appropriate for multi-family development.”