Planning Board denies appeal, upholding city building permit for Woman’s Exchange

But the conflict between one of downtown Sarasota’s most historic neighborhoods and the growing nonprofit may not be ending anytime soon

The Woman's Exchange is on Orange Street in downtown Sarasota. Image from the website
The Woman’s Exchange is on Orange Street in downtown Sarasota. Image from the website

In a 4-0 vote on Jan. 20, the Sarasota Planning Board denied an appeal of the city’s issuance of a building permit to the Woman’s Exchange for a loading zone on Rawls Avenue. The Laurel Park Neighborhood Association and three property owners filed the appeal on Nov. 24, 2015.

The Planning Board’s vote upholds city staff’s approval of an addition that will include the loading zone as part of the site plan for a 3,524-square-foot expansion to accommodate furniture consignment.

But the conflict between one of downtown Sarasota’s most historic neighborhoods and the growing nonprofit may not be ending anytime soon.

The dispute began in April 2014, when the nonprofit announced its plans for creating extra capacity at 526 Rawls Ave., land it had purchased next to its existing building on the edge of Laurel Park. Jude Levy, president of the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association, told the Planning Board on Jan. 20 that, “regardless of how this goes tonight, an appeal to the City Commission is still a possibility.”

A day later, on Jan. 21, Kate Lowman, a member of the Laurel Park group, told The Sarasota News Leader that the organization’s board was “actively discussing it right now.” The board members planned to vote on whether to pursue the second appeal, which would necessitate the association paying the city a $1,597 fee. The financial aspect of the process is dictated by the Laurel Park Overlay District in which the neighborhood exists.

Kate Lowman. Photo courtesy Sarasota County
Kate Lowman. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

During the Jan. 20 special meeting of the Planning Board, legal counsel and representatives of the Woman’s Exchange said the loading zone is allowed under city guidelines.

“The Downtown Master Plan requires if we are going to have a loading zone that it has to be on the secondary street, which, in this case, is Rawls,” said Joel Freedman, a consultant for the nonprofit.

The Woman’s Exchange has worked with city planning staff on stipulations such as limiting daily delivery truck trips to the loading zone. “The maximum number by all types of vehicles shall not exceed 12 deliveries per day,” Freedman pointed out.

The Woman’s Exchange leadership also has emphasized the need for an expansion of the structure, which dates to 1926.

But residents have said they had hopes the consignment store’s management would consider another alternative, thanks to a request the neighborhood association made early in the planning process for the addition. The Laurel Park Association has long contended that the loading zone is not a compatible use on narrow Rawls Avenue and that it will mean more traffic, creating safety concerns.

“The neighborhood has been willing to work with [the nonprofit’s representatives] to lobby the city for adjustments if they come up with a creative plan that doesn’t have the loading zone on Rawls,” Lowman told the Planning Board members.

A question of compatibility

A number of people offered comments during the Jan. 20 meeting, which did not end until nearly 10 p.m.

An aerial view shows Rawls lane to the east of the Woman's Exchange building. Image from Google Maps
An aerial view shows Rawls Lane to the east of the Woman’s Exchange building. Image from Google Maps

“The Woman’s Exchange is great,” said Rebecca Dixon, who lives in Spanish Oaks Apartments across from the proposed loading area. However, she continued, “Their plan of where they want to put the loading dock is not so great.”

“The expansion should not be done at the expense of families that live there and are trying to raise their families,” said Brian McGinnis, a longtime Laurel Park resident.

“The only reason we are here tonight is because the continued effort to negotiate with the Woman’s Exchange has not worked,” noted McGinnis. “If we didn’t appeal this, we would never get a good plan out of the Woman’s Exchange.”

Consultants representing the nonprofit referenced a section of the city’s Zoning Code that describes Rawls as an urban street, and they showed the board a map indicating Rawls as the dividing line between RSM-9 residential zoning and Downtown Core zoning.

The Woman's Exchange website offers details about its consignment work and its arts grants. Image from the website
The Woman’s Exchange website offers details about its consignment work and its arts grants. Image from the website

Additionally, Brenda Patten, a lawyer for the Woman’s Exchange, voiced dissatisfaction about pedestrians’ inappropriate use of Rawls Avenue. Patten said she that when she leaves the Woman’s Exchange, she often drives to the nearby Sarasota County Administration Center, on Ringling Boulevard, for business purposes. “I’ve had to stop my car and wait for someone with their white, furry little poodle,” Patten told the board. “People walk down the middle of the street, and there is no sidewalk. There are plenty of streets with nice sidewalks in Laurel Park.”

City staff also supported the Woman’s Exchange, recommending denial of the appeal.

Tim Litchet, the city’s director of Neighborhood & Development Services, said the city allowed the Woman’s Exchange project to proceed after the nonprofit agreed to several conditions meant to alleviate residents’ concerns.

“I did not believe I had a firm legal basis to deny the building permit,” Litchet added.

Although the Woman’s Exchange’s proposed expansion may be allowed under the city’s Zoning Code, the organization is obligated, according to that code, to address compatibility issues, Lowman has told the News Leader.

Other developers — such as the builders of P.F. Chang’s and a townhome project at 1938 Laurel St., on the edge of the neighborhood —have worked with the neighborhood to address concerns, but representatives of the Woman’s Exchange declined to offer alternatives or collaborate on a compromise with the association, especially when it came to the location of the loading area, Lowman told the Planning Board.

“The Woman’s Exchange project has been unusual in that we have been unable to find any common ground,” Lowman said Wednesday.

Among other supporters of the nonprofit, Kathryn Vernon, executive director of Key Chorale, was one of several arts group leaders to address the board. “Like many arts organizations, we rely on the Woman’s Exchange as an important partner,” Vernon said.

The Woman’s Exchange has donated more than $1.3 million to local arts groups in the past five years alone, its leaders have told the News Leader.

The Woman’s Exchange, Vernon added, helps Sarasota remain the city for the arts in Southwest Florida.