Sarasota mayor, vice mayor debate ‘worst-case scenario’ of proposed zoning regulations for attainable housing projects on commercial corridors

City Planning Board to conduct Jan. 24 hearing on draft amendment

This map shows, in green, the areas where the Urban Mixed-Use Future Land Use classification applies. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

During a Jan. 8 review of an attainable housing zoning text amendment that will come before the Sarasota Planning Board members on Jan. 24, Sarasota Mayor Liz Alpert and Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch ended up engaging in a debate over what Ahearn-Koch characterized as a “worst-case scenario.”

City Planning Director Steve Cover had emphasized during the workshop that public comments that Laurel Park resident Ron Kashden made to the commissioners during their regular meeting on Jan. 2 illustrated a scenario that Cover maintained “simply cannot happen.” Kashden had provided a graphic showing how the city’s commercial corridors could look if every building made use of the attainable housing residential density bonus, which would give them extra height, as well as more units.

“We all know that’s not going to happen,” Cover said on Jan. 8.

That graphic also was created on the assumption that each story of every structure would comprise 14 feet from floor to ceiling, Cover said.

Having spoken with staff of the city’s Development Services Department, Cover continued, he had learned that most buildings have stories ranging from 10 feet to 12 feet apiece. Constructing stories with 14 feet “obviously would be much more expensive … and probably would not be used in projects that are proposing attainable housing,” he added.

Another concern is that incorporating mezzanines into the buildings would add more height. Yet, Cover pointed out, only 10% of the structures proposed in the applications that the city receives include a mezzanine, because that also adds to the expense. The same consideration applies to basements, he said. “We very rarely see basements,” he emphasized.

Finally, Cover continued, Kashden said that the zoning text amendment staff was proposing for the Urban Mixed-Use Future Land Use classification “is going to create a concrete canyon, with every site having a 91-foot building on it. “This is not going to happen.”

Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch disputed the assertion that staff’s list of 3-acre sites — where the highest bonus density would be allowed — could not be expanded. She indicated that a recent transaction involving property on the North Tamiami Trail demonstrated that a developer could acquire contiguous parcels to create a new parcel with 3 or more acres. Nothing that she had read in the proposed zoning text amendment would prevent such action, Ahearn-Koch added.

Cover acknowledged that that scenario was possible, “but in terms of concrete corridor, it’s very unrealistic.”

City Manager Marlon Brown indicated that other facets of the amendment, including required setbacks, would make such a situation unlikely, as well.

Yet, Ahearn-Koch again pressed Cover about the potential of creating new 3-acre parcels. “That’s a possibility, right?”

In dealing with concepts, she continued, “We have to consider … the worst-case scenario — the biggest, the highest, the most intense use.” Not only could a person assemble a new 3-acre site, she added, but a developer could construct five, 14-foot stories, and only 15% of the bonus units would be priced or rented at an attainable level. The market-rate units, she said, “can go for top dollar.”

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch (fourth from left) makes a point to her colleagues on Jan. 8 about how very tall buildings, thanks to the use of attainable housing residential density bonuses, could stand near lower buildings. News Leader image

Ahearn-Koch also noted the potential for an extra 2 feet of height — beyond the 14 feet — thanks to what is called “interstitial space,” where mechanical, electrical, plumbing and other equipment is located between stories. “I think if we conservatively said a foot or two, that’s not out of line.”

Finally, Mayor Alpert, with a raised voice, told Ahearn-Koch, “Every parcel up and down [U.S.] 41, they would have to assemble 3-acre lots; doesn’t matter what’s there now or if people want to sell, even if they do, there is a 10-foot setback. [U.S.] 41’s fairly wide. It still would not be a canyon, and there would be a separation between the buildings. This is an unrealistic scenario.”

“It could happen,” Ahearn-Koch maintained.

“If people want to build a lot of attainable housing, that’s great!” Alpert told her. “That’s what we want to achieve.”

Yet, the proposed amendment, Ahearn-Koch responded, would allow up to 105 units on the North Trail, with only 20 of them priced as attainable, and such a building could stand 91 feet in height.

This is the graphic that Laurel Park resident Ron Kashden showed the commissioners on Jan. 2. ‘ZTA’ stands for zoning text amendment. ‘Building coverage’ refers to how much of a parcel a building can take up. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Interrupting Ahearn-Koch, Alpert insisted, with her voice raised, that structures on the North Trail would be smaller, because of the expense. “The market rate can’t be a million [dollars] or $5 million. … It is not going to be a row of buildings like that!”

Ryan Chapdelain, general manager of the city’s Planning Department, told the commissioners, “I don’t think we’re going to see this mass movement to construct 91-foot buildings up and down these [commercial] corridors.” As Planning Director Cover had noted earlier, Chapdelain added, “This is decades and decades to implement, but if [the proposed zoning text amendment yields] attainable housing, “I think that’s what we want …”

“We cannot hope and pray that … it’s not going to be bad,” Ahearn-Koch responded. “We have to know, going into this … what’s the reality of the very most intense use … and hopefully, we back down from that.”

Commissioner Debbie Trice proposed that the zoning text amendment be modified to provide clear criteria for construction of buildings on commercial corridors on property with less than 3 acres and a separate set of criteria for parcels with more than 3 acres. “That might resolve some of the concerns.”

“That’s a very interesting comment,” Ahearn-Koch told  her.

However, City Manager Brown indicated his alignment with the Planning staff, pointing out — for example — that not all of the buildings in the city’s downtown zoning districts have been constructed to the maximum height allowed since those districts were implemented.

Ahearn-Koch told him she would “love to see” an analysis of the number of buildings that have been constructed to the maximum heights since those downtown districts were put into effect.

At one point, she did apologize for “sounding argumentative,” adding that workshops provide opportunities for just the sort of discussion that was taking place that day.

The Jan. 24 Planning Board hearing on the draft amendment will begin at 11:30 a.m. in the Commission Chambers of City Hall in downtown Sarasota (1565 First St.). The City Commission tentatively is scheduled to hold its hearing on the amendment this spring.

Density, height and ‘AMI’

The Jan. 8 workshop focused just on the facets of the zoning text amendment involving the Urban Mixed-Use Future Land Use classification. In October 2022, the commissioners approved that classification, among others, in an effort to spur the creation of more attainable housing units in the city.

City staff members, commissioners, and members of the public have stressed that the city is in crisis, because too little affordable housing exists to serve workers, especially.

The Urban Mixed-Use classification allows up to three times the base residential density, if a developer proposes to make at least 15% of the extra units affordable.

As city Chief Planner Brianna Dobbs explained the proposed zoning text amendment, it will include three districts:

  • MU-1 would have a base density of 13 units per acre. However, the Future Land Use classification that the commissioners modified in October 2022 for inclusion in the city’s Comprehensive Plan — which guides community growth — allows that density to rise to 25 units per acre. The maximum number of units for a developer constructing extra apartments or condominiums to be priced as attainable would be 75 per acre.
  • MU-2, which has a permitted base density of 25 units per acre, also could have a maximum density of 75 per acre when the housing density bonus was utilized.
  • MU-3 would apply to the North Tamiami Trail only. It would have a base density of 35 units per acre. Thus, if a developer planned to include attainable units, the maximum number of apartments and/or condominiums would be 105 per acre.

Additionally, Dobbs pointed out, all of the attainable units would have to remain attainable for a minimum of 30 years.

One other facet of the proposed zoning text amendment, Dobbs explained, would be a tiering requirement: One-third of the attainable units would have to be priced for households with incomes at or below 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI) for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). (Each year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — HUD — sets the AMI for each Metropolitan Statistical Area in the United States. This year, for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton MSA, the Area Median Income is $98,700 for a household of four. Therefore, the HUD chart shows, 80% of that AMI for such a household would be $73,100.

However, a slide that Dobbs showed the commissioners on Jan. 8 used the 2022 HUD data; that put 80% of the AMI at $51,200, with 100% at $64,000.)

This is HUD’s 2023 Area Median Income chart for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area. Image from HUD
This is a chart that Senior Planner Brianna Dobbs showed the commissioners in regard to the pricing of the attainable units. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Further, Dobbs told the commissioners, one-third of the attainable units would have to be designated at a price or rent no higher than 100% of the AMI, and no more than one-third of the attainable units could be priced between 100% and 120% of the AMI.

Moreover, Dobbs emphasized, no individual “should be paying more than 30% of their income for housing, including utilities.

Additionally, the proposed zoning text amendment sets height restrictions. For the MU-1 district, the permitted height would be three stories, Dobbs said. If 5% of the units were designated as attainable, she pointed out, one extra story would be allowed; the building could go up to five stories if 15% of the units were priced as attainable. However, she stressed, five stories would be allowed only on parcels comprising 3 or more acres, and only a site situated at least 100 feet from any property zoned for single-family residential housing.

However, in the MU-2 and MU-3 districts, up to 5 stories would be allowed if 5% of the units were designated attainable. Again, those parcels would have to comprise at least 3 acres.

Dobbs also explained that staff is calling those parcels with 3 or more acres “Commercial Centers” in the zoning text amendment. Only about 35 of those exist within the city limits, she said.

Altogether, she noted, more than 700 parcels in the city have the Urban Mixed-Use Future Land Use classification. However, only about 5% of them, she emphasized, would be able to develop up to five stories.”
Dobbs noted that many of the areas with the classification already have been developed or are being redeveloped.

This slide shows details about the determination of height for the structures containing attainable housing units. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Yet another element of the amendment with which a developer would have to comply, Dobbs said, involves the daylight plane. The purpose of that, she added, “is to enhance compatibility between zone districts” by requiring a gradual increase in height between developments, to provide privacy for neighboring properties. “The building may be extended up in height an additional foot for each foot of distance from the starting setback line up to the maximum [number of] stories allowed.”

She showed them a slide illustrating that aspect of the zoning text amendment.

Then Dobbs pointed out, “This is something that we’ve heard a lot from the community is just the desire and the need for … clear pedestrian paths as well as an amenity zone that actually has enough space to provide a canopy tree.” The zoning text amendment calls for an amenity zone of 8 feet, Dobbs said.

That amenity zone also could include public art and light poles, she continued, but with a “clear pedestrian zone of 6 feet.” Such a requirement, she added, is “known to slow down traffic and provide shade to increase walkability in these areas.”

Further, as agreed upon by the majority of the city commissioners in October 2022, applications that would take advantage of the attainable housing bonuses would be approved through an administrative review process, meaning staff would have the final say, not the City Commission.

City Manager Brown took the opportunity at one point during the workshop to tell the commissioners that he had sent them an email from Lucia Panica, the city’s development director, who was “clarifying some misconceptions” about the administrative review process.

“There seems to be this ‘boogie man’ out there that this is all done behind closed doors,” Brown continued. Yet, he explained, Panica makes her decisions after reviewing the public comments she receives.

Dobbs also noted that a community workshop is required whenever a developer wants to take advantage of the attainable housing density bonus.

1 thought on “Sarasota mayor, vice mayor debate ‘worst-case scenario’ of proposed zoning regulations for attainable housing projects on commercial corridors”

  1. I created this graphic not to illustrate that EVERY building will be at the maximum, but rather show what the permissible heights were in the proposal and that SOME buildings on the corridor COULD be that height. For example, if your neighborhood entrance is zoned commercial neighborhood, then you could see a building taller than 90 feet, instead of the now maximum of 28 feet.

    We all know that SOME developers will build to the maximum. Our code should explicitly define structure limitations we, as a community, desire.

    Mayor Alpert and Mr. Cover are purposely misquoting my presentation to support their point of view. No one is denying the 90+ feet height calculation in the proposed zoning. Mr. Cover defends the proposal by stating that he EXPECTS that builders won’t build floors higher than 10 feet, but he has been steadfast in the 14 foot ceiling proposal.

    To avoid having unintendedly tall structures, I have suggested to either add in a “not to exceed. xx feet provision” or decrease the floor height. Correcting the proposal to the intended 10 foot floor height would prevent 20 feet of unwanted height (which is the size of two story building).

    Poorly written zoning leads to disputes in the future. Just look at the Obsidian project.

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