City Commission action includes caveat of sunset extension for five years, in case form-based code is not adopted
It has led to only two projects thus far — and one of those is still in progress. Nonetheless, the Sarasota City Commission has given full support to the crafting of a zoning text amendment that would extend the life of an overlay district originally approved in May 2013 with the hope of spurring more redevelopment on North Tamiami Trail.
On a Feb. 5 motion by Commissioner Willie Shaw, seconded by Vice Mayor Liz Alpert, the board members unanimously approved the drafting of the amendment regarding the North Trail Overlay District (NTOD). It had been scheduled to sunset on May 6.
The motion initially included a timeline making the extension effective only until the city’s proposed new form-based code goes into effect, as staff had said the facets of the NTOD would be folded into a section of that code.
However, a friendly motion by Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch — to which Shaw and Alpert agreed — calls for the NTOD to remain in effect until May 6, 2023, if, for some reason, the City Commission does not end up approving the form-based code.
(On Feb. 22, the commission was set to hold its first public hearing on that code, which is a comprehensive revision of all the city’s land use regulations. That session would begin a months-long process designed to lead to the new code’s adoption.)
Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie initially objected to the amendment to the motion on Feb. 5, saying she felt it should call for the extension of the NTOD up to five years. Nonetheless, Alpert and Commissioner Hagen Brody pointed out that the board always could address the new sunset date before May 2023, if necessary.
During a presentation, Ryan Chapdelain, general manager of the city’s Planning Department, explained that work began on the North Trail Overlay District in 2009. It included a partnership of residents, as well as business and commercial property owners, along that stretch of U.S. 41 in the city: the North Trail Redevelopment Partnership. The goal was to make available an optional set of zoning standards to encourage development and redevelopment.
“One of the main objectives,” he continued, was to establish protections for residential areas, so the public would be assured of compatibility and predictability in projects proposed for the North Trail.
When the City Commission adopted the NTOD, Chapdelain said, “The market wasn’t the greatest. We were still coming out of the Great Recession.”
Although developers have utilized facets of the zoning standards only in a couple of cases, he noted, the NTOD is “still considered a viable tool.”
“What if the form-based code — worst-case scenario — takes another four years or is not adopted at all?” Ahearn-Koch asked. Had staff given any thought to seeking a five-year extension of the NTOD sunset date?
“That is one option,” Chapdelain replied. The commission also could extend the NTOD without a definite sunset date, he noted.
The NTOD and redevelopment in general
“What specifically does the overlay change?” Brody asked.
“There’s some parking relief in there,” Chapdelain responded. Additionally, a developer can pursue a project with buildings up to four stories. However, he stressed, the maximum density would remain 35 units per acre, which is the highest density outside downtown Sarasota.
In response to a question from City Attorney Robert Fournier, Chapdelain said of the NTOD, “It’s strictly voluntary.”
“We’re getting two new roundabouts in that area,” Commissioner Shaw pointed out of the projects planned at 10th and 14th streets. “What does that do to the premise of the overlay?”
“I think it only helps it,” Chapdelain told Shaw. The roundabouts will change “the character of the North Trail” and spur the type of redevelopment that has been sought, Chapdelain added, such as more mixed-use projects and those with walkability as a primary feature.
When Shaw asked about the two projects that have used the NTOD, Chapdelain explained that the Oak Ridge Apartments complex was created from a structure that had been a hotel. That developer used the parking option in the NTOD.
Additionally, Chapdelain continued, The Strand, a mixed-use condominium project in the Whitaker Bayou area — which is not under construction yet — used facets of the NTOD. The Strand is planned for the 1700 block of U.S. 41, according to material provided to the commission in advance of the Feb. 5 meeting.
Staff also has had inquiries about potential new development on the northeast corner of 14th Street and U.S. 41, he said.
“This was implemented five years ago to produce revitalization and redevelopment,” Brody said. “In my mind … it brought one development.”
Yet, Brody continued, “The community wants redevelopment. … As we move into these discussions about bringing more bureaucracy into our development process,” he added, referring to the form-based code, “there are a lot of parts of this community that need redevelopment, and we did not go, obviously, far enough to spur it [with the NTOD].” The economy is booming, he pointed out, but not on the North Trail.
Brody then said he would like to see the NTOD examined to determine if more options could be incorporated into it to make redevelopment easier, “not harder, which is what a lot of the chatter in the community is about. … This is a good example for people to see how we haven’t gone far enough.”
“We are so close to looking at the form-based code,” Vice Mayor Alpert noted. “It’s taking into account a lot of these changes. If the NTOD needs tweaking, she added, “let’s do it at that level.”
“It is a voluntary overlay, “Ahearn-Koch reiterated Chapdelain’s earlier point. “It doesn’t make people jump through any more hoops than they already have to go through right now. It has been very successful …”
The Strand, she continued, “is a huge project that is going to turn around the North Trail, and it would not have been possible without this overlay. … So [the NTOD] is not a burden.”
“I didn’t say [the overlay] was a burden,” Brody replied. Later, he characterized the creation of the NTOD as “a learning experience” for the city, adding, “My caution to this community … is increasing barriers to redevelopment … is not the direction we should be going.”
The North Trail Redevelopment Partnership supports the extension, Ahearn-Koch pointed out. Its board meets monthly to discuss strategies, she said.
The only person to address the commission on Feb. 5 regarding the extension was Jeff Oldenburg, a member of the board of that partnership and the owner of Indian Beach Plaza on the North Trail. He reported that the board had cast a unanimous vote, urging the commission to approve the extension of the NTOD.
“When somebody has nominal tools in the toolbox,” Oldenburg said, “every tool becomes exceedingly value. … [The NTOD] is a valuable tool.”
“The winds of change have begun to blow on the North Trail,” he added.