Commissioners Neunder and Rainford win concession from owner of Sarasota Square Mall property to limit height of new residential structures to 65 feet

Stormwater issues also cited as primary concern of Pelican Cove residents during April 9 hearing

This graphic shows the Sarasota Square Mall property and locations of surrounding communities. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During an April 9 Sarasota County Commission hearing, the project team planning the redevelopment of Sarasota Square Mall agreed to limit the height of the residential structures on the site to 65 feet, responding to concerns expressed not only by residents of the surrounding area but by Commissioners Neil Rainford and Joe Neunder.

If offices end up going into part of the space designated for residential purposes, they, too, will abide by the 65-foot restriction, Charles D. Bailey III, of the Sarasota firm Williams Parker, told Rainford, who had asked about that.

Bailey had explained that the buildings housing up to 1,200 apartments would have been as tall as 80 or 85 feet.

The very first speaker during the hearing — Lino Cavalia, who lives on Palmer Ranch — had argued against six- and eight-story buildings on the site. “This is totally … incompatible with the surrounding residential neighborhood,” he stressed.

Having grown up in Palmer Ranch and having lived there for 35 years, Neunder told Bailey that the idea of structures standing eve five or six stories in height “is going to be woefully not appropriate for that area, in my mind.” Those buildings would not be compatible with the other single-family and multi-family residential structures and the Heron Creek assisted living development just north of the mall site, across Sarasota Square Boulevard, Neunder added.

Bailey did note that the Bay Village assisted living facility, near the Pelican Cove community on Little Sarasota Bay — west of U.S. 41 — has 12 or 13 stories. “It’s a stone’s throw [from the mall property],” Bailey added.

This photo on the Bay Village website shows the taller building to which attorney Charles Bailey III referred during the April 9 hearing.

When Rainford asked about the height of the structures already present at the mall, Bailey said that the Sears building has only two habitable floors, but it appears to be taller than two stories. Bailey explained that he had spent some time at the mall the previous Saturday, looking at the surroundings.

Rainford also sought clarification that the project team would provide a setback for each residential building over 35 feet in height, with a minimum setback of 25 feet from the street and as great a distance as half the height of the structure.

Bailey replied that that was correct. If an 85-foot-tall building were constructed, Bailey said, the setback from the street would be 42.5 feet.

That setback, he noted, plus the 80 feet of width of the four-lane Sarasota Square Boulevard, along with trees — including oaks — on the county right of way on the north side of Sarasota Square Boulevard — would provide for plenty of separation of the mall residential units from the Palmer Ranch residential buildings, Bailey added.

Yet, Rainford said, an 85-foot-tall building on the mall site “feels like a downtown environment. … Eighty-five feet is way too tall for me.”

This is the Binding Development Concept Plan for the project, including the 2.8-acre parcel. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In spite of the height concession, Rainford and Neunder cast “No” votes on all of the applications that the developer, Torburn Partners of Northbrook, Illinois, had submitted to the county, except for one seeking a Small Area Comprehensive Plan amendment. With a unanimous vote, the commission approved that amendment, which changed the future land use designation of an approximately 2.8-acre parcel from Medium Density Residential to Regional Commercial Center. Incorporating that extra property into the site brought the total area to approximately 94 acres, the county staff report on the mall redevelopment noted.

The county staff report explained that that parcel previously served as the site of a wastewater treatment package plant. As that facility no longer is in use, the report added, the site also could be used for development.

‘A snowball’s chance in Hades” to build up to 1,200 dwelling units

Although Bailey initially agreed to proffer the maximum height of 65 feet for the residential buildings, he ended up asking Chair Michael Moran for a brief break to consult with Bob Horne, a principal of Torburn Partners, who was present for the hearing.

“This is a really, really big deal to us,” Bailey stressed to the board members, indicating that the goal that day was to win their approval of the project.

(At one point, Commissioner Neunder had suggested that a continuance might be a good idea, given his and Commissioner Rainford’s opposition to the original height proposal.)

After a 5-minute break, Bailey returned to the podium to tell the commissioners, “We feel confident” about the potential of building as many as 1,200 dwelling units on the site even with the 65-foot height restriction. Torburn “would have at least a snowball’s chance in Hades,” Bailey added, of achieving that number.

This is an aerial view of the Sarasota Square Mall property. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In response to questions from Commissioner Mark Smith, Bailey said that none of the apartments is planned to serve as affordable housing; they will be priced at market rates.

Smith then asked Bailey, “Do you foresee any of the folks that’ll be working on this site being able to live on the property?”
The project team hopes to provide a full range of sizes of dwelling units, Bailey replied. Some of those may be small enough, he continued, to allow monthly rents that workers on the property could afford.

At various times during the hearing, project team members pointed out that Sarasota County Planning Division staff had stipulated that a minimum of 500 dwelling units had to be constructed on the site, to create what they considered to be a true mixed-use development. However, staff had asked the project team to consider as many as 1,200 units, team members added.

“Really,” Chair Moran said after closing the public hearing, “the applicant here, I think, is trying to keep the residential [buildings] as close to [nearby] residential [structures] as possible and still keep that mixed-use, multi-family, living/dining/entertainment experience. … I’m very optimistic about [the redevelopment of the site].”

Summing up the proposed changes

Altogether, as The Sarasota News Leader has reported, the Sarasota Square Mall property is “entitled for up to 1,002,983 square feet of commercial uses,” but Torburn plans to reduce the square feet of commercial and office uses to 692,457. The JCPenny and Costco stores — plus the Costco gas pump facilities — will remain, along with the AMC Theater.

Additionally, a Central Focal Area, which will be home to restaurants with indoor and outdoor entertainment, plus special events such as farmers markets and car shows, will be located close to the residential area. In working with residents of nearby communities, the project team also agreed that no outdoor entertainment would be provided after 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday or after 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The application originally sought Special Exception approval for outdoor entertainment until 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Further, an 8-foot-wide, multi-purpose path will extend from Pelican Cove, across U.S. 41, to the mall site, to increase safety for residents of that community who want to visit the new development. The project team worked with the Pelican Cove residents on that feature, Bailey told the commissioners.

“This is a very risky undertaking for us,” Horne, the Torburn principal, pointed out to the commissioners during the hearing. Nonetheless, he continued, the project team members believe they can create “a really vibrant asset” for the county. “We are getting very strong reception” from potential tenants, he added.

The mall, Horne noted, once was the place in Sarasota County. … We intend to bring it back to life [and] create tremendous tax base with this redevelopment.”

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger talked of having stopped recently at the site to look around. “There was not one person in the mall,” he said. “I wondered for a minute if I was in the Twilight Zone. … It’s really disappointing and disheartening to see what’s happening there.”

Of the 10 residents who participated in the April 9 hearing, only one — Chuck Treadway, who lives in the Park East mobile home park adjacent to the site — voiced full support for Torburn’s plans. He offered plaudits for the willingness of the project team members to meet with residents of the mobile home par. The Torburn group had answers for all of the residents’ concerns, Treadway added.

Threat of litigation

Along with the controversy over the residential building height, stormwater treatment was a primary focus of the April 9 hearing.

Jim Paulmann, a vice president of the Stantec consulting firm in Sarasota, who also was part of the project team, also took time during the hearing to explain that the mall site drains into the Clower Creek Basin. Given the fact that the mall opened close to 50 years ago — in 1977 — stormwater treatment regulations have changed considerably, he pointed out. The existing system, he said was designed for a 25-year storm event, whereas the improvements planned will be able to respond to a 100-year event.

Moreover, he said, although county regulations require the development to treat only the first inch of stormwater runoff, the team plans to treat 1.5 inches. That stormwater will be retained on site, Paulmann added.

Yet, a number of representatives of the Pelican Cove Condominium Association told the commissioners that the stormwater from the new development will harm the Clower Creek Basin.

“Clower Creek and stormwater runoff from upstream properties is our biggest environmental challenge,” Nanci Weber stressed.

This is the slide that Nanci Weber showed the commissioners on April 9, depicting how tidal flow can redirect stormwater pollution to Pelican Cove’s harbor. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Weber used a graphic to show that pollutants that flow west from the mall site to Little Sarasota Bay can be forced back into the creek and Pelican Cove’s harbor when the tide turns.

This is one of the Pelican Cove demands of Torburn Partners. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Anne Rutland of Pelican Cove complained that Torburn Partners notified the homeowners group on March 1 that it would not do anything to mitigate the pollution in the creek that the mall site fostered. Then, she continued, in a March 15 email, Paul Semenec , manager of the county’s Stormwater Division, sent the Pelican Cove association an email, explaining that “the creek is largely private and the county does not work on private property,” as noted in a slide she showed the commissioners. Therefore, Semenec had made it clear that county staff would not be dredging any sediment in Clower Creek, Rutland added. Pelican Cove would have to apply for private maintenance dredging permits from the county and the state, and possibly from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, her slide pointed out.

“To us,” she stressed, “that does not seem right.”

Ed Turanchik addresses the commissioners on April 9. News Leader image

Ed Turanchik, an attorney and a former Hillsborough County commissioner who rents a boat slip at Pelican Cove, threatened the commissioners with legal action over the stormwater issue with the mall redevelopment.

“Our property’s being polluted,” he said. “We’re going to enforce our rights.”

The homeowners already have retained the Tampa law firm Smolker Mathews, he added.

The county is supposed to restore contaminated sites, Turanchik continued. “If you don’t sense my indignation,” he emphasized, “you’re not reading me right.”

During his rebuttal, attorney Bailey told the commissioners that the project team had just learned the previous day that the Pelican Cove group was going to make such a presentation during the April 9 hearing. “We’re digesting it for the first time,” he added.

When Turanchik was still on the Hillsborough County Commission, Bailey said, “I’m sure he wouldn’t have appreciated … being ambushed.”

Then Bailey stressed that the Clower Creek Basin comprises 300 acres; the mall site takes up only about one-third of that. Moreover, he continued, the stormwater system operating on the site was constructed circa 1776-77. “It’s going to be completely redesigned … We are also exceeding the county’s treatment requirements,” Bailey pointed out, reiterating the earlier remarks of Paulmann of Stantec.

“I’m sorry they’re having issues with Clower Creek,” Bailey said, but “We’re going to make it substantially better.”

Finally, Bailey noted, his client did not buy the mall property until 2021, so Torburn has no obligation to “pay for someone else’s sins.”

When Commissioner Smith asked County Attorney Joshua Moye whether the board members could require Torburn to address stormwater issues created by the previous property owner, Moye replied that, typically, the board members would be limited to making stipulations  in regard to proposals related to a new development, though Moye acknowledged that he had not had any opportunity to study the information that the Pelican Cove group had presented that day.

However, Moye did add that any civil litigation would have to be directed at the previous owners.