Sarasota Square Mall redevelopment wins unanimous support of Sarasota County planning commissioners

Residents of neighboring communities protest intensity of residential construction and potential for noise disturbances

This aerial map shows the mall site adjacent to Palmer Ranch communities. Image from Google Maps

It took almost two hours and 40 minutes of presentations, public comments, questions and discussions on March 7, but the Sarasota County Planning Commission members ended up voting unanimously to recommend that the County Commission approve the five applications related to the planned redevelopment of the Sarasota Square Mall property next to Palmer Ranch in Sarasota.

The formal address of the site is 8201 S. Tamiami Trail.

Emmalee Legler, chair pro tem of the advisory board — who made several of the motions following the public hearing — pointed out that she had taken “very much to heart” the advice that Planning Commissioner Justin Taylor gave her when she joined the commission. She goes into every hearing, she explained, prepared to vote “No,” and then waiting to learn whether the information she will hear will convince her to vote “Yes” instead.

In this case, Legler continued, “I am very, very excited to see this development in this area.”
Planning Commissioner John LaCivita, who seconded the first motion of five, concurred with her. “Being born here,” he said, “I grew up at the mall. It was my hangout. I hated seeing it being abandoned for so long.”

Moreover, citing one of the top concerns of the 16 speakers during the hearing, LaCivita said he does not believe noise will be an issue. After hearing the project team’s answers to questions, LaCivita added that he believes the redevelopment is “going to be just as nice … as Waterside,” a Lakewood Ranch community in the northeastern part of the county.

Attorney Charles D. Bailey III, with the Williams Parker firm in Sarasota, pointed out that a Special Exception petition had to be submitted to county staff if the redeveloped mall site were to be able to offer even an acoustic guitar performance outdoors at a restaurant. “It’s not going to be a bar district with outdoor events 24/7,” Bailey said of the proposed 0.88-acre Central Focal Area, which is depicted on the Binding Development Concept Plan within the interior of the approximately 91-acre site.

This is the Binding Development Concept Plan for the project. The Central Focus Area is in Block A. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In fact, he added, he expected that even the indoor entertainment would not last beyond 11 p.m.

Further, Bailey emphasized that the Special Exception approval is necessary for food truck rallies and farmers markets.

County Planner Hannah Sowinski, who handled the applications, explained that the Special Exception would allow the following:

  • A bar with outdoor entertainment or outdoor dining after 10 p.m.
  • Indoor entertainment after 10 p.m.
  • All outdoor recreation.
  • Outdoor entertainment in general after 10 p.m.
  • Special events in conjunction with approved outdoor recreation.
  • A garden center with outside merchandise.

“I think the developer has been more than amenable with the neighbors,” Planning Commissioner Legler pointed out. “We’re not intending to have a concert series come to this area that’s going to last until 2 a.m.” If the redevelopment could not have even an acoustic guitarist after 10 p.m., she emphasized, “That is really limiting.”

Planning Commissioner Taylor noted that he recently had dined “at a very nice restaurant in the Rosemary District” in Sarasota while a violinist was performing. “That was a magical experience,” he said.

Robert Horne addresses the Planning Commission on March 7. News Leader image

The outdoor entertainment idea “wasn’t even on our agenda,” Robert Horne, a principal of Torburn Partners of Northbrook, Illiniois — the developer — told the Planning Commission. County staff came up with that idea, he said, suggesting “that we get in front of it.”

He indicated that staff believed advance planning would be preferable to Torburn’s needing to seek a Special Exception at a later time.

Horne also pointed out, “We’re talking to a number of high-end restaurants” among the new amenities for the mall site.
Nonetheless, he continued, mostly daytime events would be held in what staff has designated the outdoor Central Focal Area, within the interior of the development.

“Our residents will be closer to any of those [outdoor] uses than any other resident that exists today,” attorney Bailey said, “so we’re going to be especially mindful of what goes on there.”

Further, Bailey noted, any events would have to abide by the restrictions in the county’s noise ordinance.

Yet, one member of the public who addressed the board during the meeting, Laura Koppel, who lives on Palmer Ranch, emphasized that the residential developments that are neighbors to the mall site comprise “an older community.” She characterized the proposal for outdoor entertainment after 10 p.m. as “disrespectful for the residents that do live around there.”

Mari-Anne Saunders, a resident of the Park East Mobile Home Park next to the mall site on its southeastern boundary, explained that the park is “a 55-plus community.” Very few lights can be seen on in units after 10 p.m., she added. “Everyone’s asleep.”

Even though one of the stipulations calls for a 100-foot setback of the redeveloped mall from Park East, Saunders stressed that the mobile homes “are not very well insulated. “There is no way a 100-foot setback could possibly contain any of the noise.”

“I can understand residents not wanting to have music until 12 o’clock at night,” Planning Commissioner Donna Carter said during an exchange with attorney Bailey.

Bailey responded that the county Planning Division staff had offered recommendations for the Sarasota Square redevelopment that mirrored the types of amenities provided in the University Town Center (UTC) commercial corridor along Cattlemen Road, near University Parkway. However, he added, “We’re going to be smaller in size [than UTC].”

Horne of Torburn Partners did note at one point that the three “big box” tenants that will remain in place at the site — JCPenny, Costco and AMC Theatres — also will act as a noise buffer for surrounding residents.

He added that the company’s goal with the South Square property is to provide “really a fresh new approach to retail. We’re negotiating with a number of high-end grocery concepts, a lot of fashion … It’s going to become a lifestyle community that’s walkable …”

The project will serve Palmer Ranch and Pelican Cove residents, Horne pointed out, “and really the area overall.”

This is the vision plan for the mall redevelopment.
Image courtesy Sarasota County

‘Traffic is going to be very bad’

Yet another point of contention for the 16 speakers during the hearing — all of whom opposed the project as designed — was the potential for 1,200 apartments to be constructed.

The very first person to address the commission — Kathy Hobbs, of the Prestancia community on Palmer Ranch — summed that up.

“We all want something to happen to this mall,” Hobbs said. Nonetheless, she continued, “The traffic is going to be very bad, I think,” and the plans for as many as 1,200 apartments “are overkill for that area.”

Another speaker, Ginger Peterson, who noted she was representing 13 Palmer Ranch communities that night, stressed, “Sarasota Square Boulevard is already heavily congested.”

Palmer Ranch residents have trouble getting out of their communities “without having to sit in traffic for a very long time,” she continued.

Yet, Frank Domingo, a transportation engineer with the Stantec consulting firm in Sarasota, who worked for the county as a transportation planner for a number of years, explained that data show that commercial development generates two to two-and-a-half times the number of vehicle trips than residential construction does. Multi-family units, such as those planned on the mall site, “generates way less trips” than commercial construction, he added.

The project team presented this slide with details about trip generation from the site. ‘DRI’ stands for Development of Regional Impact. ‘MFDU’ stands for multifamily dwelling unit. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Torburn Partners plans to reduce the commercial-office square footage on the approximately 91-acre site from 1,002,983 square feet to 692,457 square feet, he pointed out. “This sets the ground rules for the number of trips.”

Moreover, Domingo explained, because the original Sarasota Square Mall project was designated a Development of Regional Impact, the Torburn Partners team will have to conduct traffic count studies every two years, including making a determination about any “operational issues” with one-quarter mile of the property. The developer will “have to fix [any problems that arise,” he added.

In fact, Domingo explained, he spent 27 years analyzing traffic studies for Sarasota Square Mall. “It actually under-generated from what the retail standard would have been.” Around 1996 or 1997, Domingo continued, “I was really surprised” because the traffic counts were “probably 30% less than we had anticipated …”

Testimony from both the project team and county Planner Sowinski also made it clear that county Planning Division staff had called for the 500-apartment minimum, since the site will contain a mix of uses. However, the application would allow up to 1,200 dwelling units, all of which would be built on the northern border of the site, adjacent to Sarasota Square Boulevard.

“Staff told us, ‘Thou shalt have 500,’ ” was how attorney Bailey put it.

“We believe residential [units are] going to be really important to stimulate this whole redevelopment, Horne of Torburn Partners added. County staff had encouraged the project team to take that view, he noted.

Nonetheless, Bailey voiced doubt that Torburn Partners would end up constructing 1,200 units. He also told the commissioners that he did not believe any of the apartment buildings would stand taller than six stories, though speakers had talked about the potential of eight-story structures. Bailey further noted that the maximum number of units that the zoning would allow would be 25 per acre, and 1,200 apartments would represent only about 13 units per acre. He told the planning commissioners that the units would be priced at market rate.

He added that the buildings also will be set back about 150 feet from the closest neighboring residential structures.

Lino Canalia of Prestancia presented this graphic to illustrate neighbors’ concerns about the height of the proposed residential buildings. Heron Club, which is north of the mall site, has only four-story buildings, Canalia said. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Still, Bailey did acknowledge that as many as three apartment buildings, with 400 units each, could end up on the site, but they would be wrapped around in-structure parking areas. Bailey likened the design to condominium complexes within the Rosemary District in the city of Sarasota.

Yet another concern Hobbs of Prestancia was the first to raise that night was the fact that “sandhill cranes are just now coming back [to the area around the mall] after [Hurricane] Ian,” which struck in late September 2022.

‘We’re very respectful of the sandhill crane,” Horne said

Moreover, Bailey noted, the pond on the site, which dates to the original construction of the mall in the 1970s, will stay in place. “It’s now actually on an e-birding website for Audubon.” In fact, he said, plans call for expanding the area with the pond, to accommodate bird-watching.

Additionally, Ray Loraine, a senior scientist on the Stantec staff with 37 years of experience, explained that the state has a detailed set of guidelines in place to protect sandhill cranes, and the project team will have to abide by those.

Criticism about residents’ concerns going unheard

Richard Palermino, a resident of the Deer Creek community on Palmer Ranch, stressed to the Planning Commission that for years, population growth and new development has been cited as “the No. 1 issue” by respondents to Sarasota County’s annual Citizen Opinion Survey.

He cited details from the survey results going back to 2019.

This is the graphic in the 2023 Citizen Opinion Survey that speaker Richard Palermino referenced. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Why does the county bother to pay for such a survey, he asked, when residents “are the last people the Planning [Commission] and the [county] commissioners listen to?”

“The Planning [Commission] as a whole votes in a bloc for the developers,” Palermino emphasized.

However, as he and his colleagues were making their way through the five motions, Planning Commissioner Taylor pointed out, “We had an incredibly healthy discussion tonight and questions that were asked to put things on the record.”

The Planning Commission members have nothing to do with the creation of any project they consider, Taylor said. They are charged with making sure that proposals adhere to county regulations and policies.

Planning Commissioner Legler acknowledged residents’ aversion to new development, “which I can understand …” Nonetheless, she continued, “I think … staff has really done a great job” with the South Square plans, especially in consideration of the variety of uses possible on the site.

“I’m excited to see the mall redeveloped into something that I think people in the county will be very proud of,” Taylor said.

He encouraged residents with lingering concerns to ask questions of the project team members and county staff.

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