Laurel Park gets a reprieve on downtown development

Laurel Park residents have been worried about how to keep high-rise buildings from surrounding their homes in downtown Sarasota. Photo by Norman Schimmel

There were white-knuckle moments for Laurel Park residents Monday afternoon during the regular City Commission meeting. The historically designated neighborhood is surrounded by downtown zoning that allows very tall buildings next to bungalows.

The neighborhood association opted out of the downtown planning process during the period when nationally known urban consultant Andreas Duany was working with local officials, and it has been fighting to avoid a consequence of that decision. The so-called Duany plan seeks – within certain guidelines – to encourage development in the downtown core area. One of the tools that emerged from the plan, designed to encourage builders, was called “administrative approval.”

If a developer meets all the requirements of the building and zoning codes, he can skip the “agony” of public comment before the Planning Board and City Commission, which would have the ability to kill the project for the flimsiest of reasons. For developers, “administrative approval” is a means of quietly achieving a “done deal” without a lot of clap-trap from affected neighbors.

Since Laurel Park is surrounded on three sides by downtown zoning, and it already has one 10-story building (the Kanaya) soaring at its border, the neighborhood association has struggled to have the city establish a requirement that it be notified of any development on its edges, and that the “administrative approval” process be suspended within 100 feet of its borders.

While the issue is arcane, it drew powerful and lengthy testimony Monday afternoon. The key issue: Should the city pay for an expedited inclusion of the concept into the city’s comprehensive plan and zoning code?

Neighbors weighed in, as did the pro-business Argus Foundation and a lawyer for mega-Realtor Michael Saunders. When the rhetoric cleared, the commissioners approved a $50,000 budget item to pay for the staff’s time to pursue the idea. It will take more than a year to move the matter towards final resolution.

“Should neighborhoods participate in the development review process?” asked Laurel Park resident Kate Lowman later. “It’s a possible campaign issue.”

Next spring, city voters will choose two at-large city commissioners who will probably vote on Laurel Park’s request.