Ahearn-Koch and Trice continue to advocate for mandatory community workshops for proposed projects
After approximately 60 minutes of discussion among themselves and with staff members, the Sarasota city commissioners this week unanimously approved an ordinance that will allow for residential density bonuses if developers are willing to provide attainable housing units in downtown Sarasota.
Although Commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Debbie Trice continued to express a desire for mandatory community workshops regarding any projects proposed to take advantage of the new regulations, instead of voluntary sessions, they both agreed to support the measures that staff had modified based on comments during the board’s Aug. 7 public hearing.
The Sept. 5 hearing was the second and final one necessary for the zoning changes to go into effect.
During the discussion this week, Commissioner Erik Arroyo pointed out, “Let’s remember that for years, we tried to incentivize workforce housing, and the incentives didn’t work before.” The proposed changes, he continued, are “what we believe to be the ‘Goldilocks zone,’ the perfect mix between workforce housing and density bonus incentives that will actually be used and actually yield a positive result for the community.”
Although the commissioners last year approved amendments to the city’s comprehensive plan — which guides growth in the community — to provide attainable housing incentives, Planning Director Steve Cover explained at the time that details about implementing those incentives would come in the form of zoning text amendments.
Among the changes the board members officially agreed to last year, buildings in the Downtown Core (DTC) zoning district — which, as the City Code of Ordinances notes is “a very dense mixed-use urban area” — are restricted to 50 dwellings per acre. However, a developer could construct up to 200 units if at least 15% of them are priced to be affordable. The following provisions will apply to the Downtown Core zoning district:
- At least one-third of the attainable units “must be available to households having incomes at or below 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI) of the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determines the AMI each year for the MSAs. No more than one-third of the units may be available to households with incomes ranging from 100% to 120% of the AMI.
- An Affordable Housing Agreement between the developer/landowner and the city must be recorded “in the Official Records of Sarasota County prior to the issuance of site plan approval [of a project],” to ensure that an attainable unit continues to be priced for sale or rent at an attainable level for at least 30 years.
- The exterior of all buildings with attainable units — including the entrances — “shall be indistinguishable from [those for the] market rate units.”
If the attainable units are to be owner-occupied, they must be interspersed throughout 50% of the other owner-occupied units, and they must have a common entrance with the market-rate units. The same standards for entrances and interspersing units applies to rental dwellings.
- The maximum height of a building in the Downtown Core zone with attainable units is 10 stories, unless it includes a minimum of 25 public parking spaces; then, it can have 11 stories. That is a reduction from the 50-space standard, Ryan Chapdelain, general manager of the Planning Department, noted. That provision would “make [the inclusion of public parking spaces] more attractive to use,” he said.
Additionally, the gross floor area of that extra story may be up to two times the gross floor area allotted to the city for public parking. The public spaces have to be in addition to the minimum number of spaces that city regulations require for the project, and they cannot be used for valet purposes.
The commissioners stipulated in the motion they approved on Sept. 5 that those spaces would have to be available for the same hours as spots in the city’s downtown parking garages.
- Further, a developer would be eligible to receive an 11th story in the Downtown Core zone if the project provides a sidewalk system with a minimum of 8 feet for a pedestrian zone, plus a 6-foot amenity zone, which could include canopy trees, as well as benches and utility poles; and public parking spaces.
“Wider sidewalks is a desire within our downtown,” Chapdelain pointed out.
Disagreement over voluntary community workshops
During the first reading of the zoning text amendments, on Aug. 7, David Lough, president of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association (DSCA), urged the commissioners to ensure that developers of attainable housing projects in downtown Sarasota hold community workshops about their plans.
During the Sept. 5 hearing, Richard Harris, president of the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations of Sarasota (CCNA), reiterated that request.
“The impact of a multiplier on the density, the number of people, cars, services, activity is huge,” Harris stressed. He called the requirement for a community workshop a matter of “being a good neighbor.”
During her comments following the public remarks, Commissioner Ahearn-Koch noted that the board decision on Aug. 7 was to provide for voluntary workshops. Yet, she continued, if a developer under routine circumstances is seeking an increase in density, a community workshop is mandatory. The situation with the attainable housing construction is comparable to that, she said.
“If you’re going to increase the density, just allow the community the ability to participate in the conversation,” she added. People “want to feel like they have that impact on local government.”
Later, she referenced public concerns about the proposed 18-story, approximately 340-foot-tall Obsidian condominium project on Palm Avenue, which would be the largest building in the city because of the developer’s interpretation of city regulations regarding how high a story can be.
Because that development application was submitted in accord with guidelines that give city staff the final say — not the commission — on whether it can be built, Ahearn-Koch stressed, members of the public who oppose it are very frustrated.
However, Commissioner Arroyo said he saw no reason to require workshops for the attainable housing developments.
Vice Mayor Liz Alpert told her colleagues that everyone who had made an argument to her about the need for public workshops had talked about the increase in density, the potential for “400 people moving next to them …”
A workshop will not prevent a developer from increasing the density, as long as the developer complies with city regulations, Alpert stressed. “I don’t care how many public workshops you have; the public can’t force the developer to not produce as many units.”
Ahearn-Koch countered that she had attended two recent workshops on projects, and the developers ended up thanking the residents who had attended those sessions for offering comments that would improve the designs of those projects. Residents have institutional knowledge that can be helpful, she noted.
Further, community workshops provide an opportunity for residents to meet the consultants working the for developers, along with others on the project team and even, possibly, the developers themselves, Ahearn-Koch pointed out. The workshops allow for communication between the developer and the neighbors of a proposed project, she added.
When Ahearn-Koch asked City Attorney Robert Fournier whether it would be possible to modify the zoning text amendment in the future to require workshops, he responded, “You could add [that provision] later.”
Preventing the use of ‘poor doors’
Yet another concern that Commissioner Arroyo raised this week was the potential of a “poor door” for occupants of the attainable rental units.
‘For example,” he said, based on how he had read the language in the proposed zoning text amendment, “You can have an entire floor of workforce housing and have a separate entrance to that workforce housing floor.”
City Manager Marlon Brown responded that a building could have a separate entrance for all of the rental units and another entrance for all of the owner-occupied units.
Then Chapdelain explained that owner-occupied, market-rate units would have a separate entrance from the rental units.
Planning Director Cover reminded Arroyo that the attainable units — whether rentals or owner-occupied — have to be mixed in among at least 50% of the market-rate units.
Still, Arroyo said, he did not want the entrance for any of the attainable units “to be in the alley in the back or something of the sort.”
Senior city Planner Briana Dobbs told Arroyo that she believes the language staff has proposed regarding the “exterior appearance of fixtures, finishes and building entrances” will eliminate the possibility of any so-called “poor doors.”
Then City Manager Brown suggested that the Affordable Housing Agreement that a developer of a building with attainable units would have to sign could specify that entrances to owner-occupied units and rentals have to be on the same frontage. That way, Brown added, the developer could not include an alley entrance.
Vice Mayor Alpert said she had not read the zoning text amendment as Arroyo had. Because the developer will have to intersperse the attainable units among the market-rate units, she pointed out, “There’d be no incentive for a developer to put the door on the alley for his market-rate units. He’s going to want his market-rate units to look really as good as any owner-occupied unit. … I think the way it’s written now is very clear …”
Mayor Kyle Battie concurred with Alpert’s view.
Moreover, Alpert said, developers routinely provide separate entrances for rental units and owner-occupied units.
Developers market rentals differently from the for-sale units, she added.
Chapdelain pointed out that if a developer mixed rentals and for-sale units, the developer would have financing challenges.
Arroyo also asked how staff was going to ensure that the attainable units remained attainable. “How are we going to audit this?”
Chapdelain explained that the city has “annual reporting requirements that have to be adhered to by the developer. Those requirements include … income verification.” However, staff will allow someone in an attainable unit to remain there if the household salary goes up no more than 20%, he added.
The auditing requirement will be part of the Affordable Housing Agreement that the developer will have to sign, Chapdelain said, noting that the attainable pricing provisions must remain in place for at least 30 years. “If there is a future owner,” he continued, “they will be put on notice they’ll have to adhere to these requirements.”
Vice Mayor Alpert ended up making the motion to approve the ordinance on second reading, and Arroyo seconded it. When City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs called the roll of the board members for their votes, they all responded, “Yes.”