Commissioners Detert and Hines oppose plans for height of residential structures and density of project
With Chair Nancy Detert in the minority on all but one of the six votes on Dec. 12, the Sarasota County Commission approved Benderson Development’s plans for 414 condominiums/apartments, a 130-room hotel, 133,000 feet of commercial space and 7,000 feet of office space on approximately 24 acres at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
The only facet of the project Detert approved was a street vacation involving Brentwood Avenue and Crestwood Avenue, so Benderson can realign Crestwood as one of the access points to the mixed-use project.
Commissioner Charles Hines joined Detert in opposing the company’s request for a Critical Area Plan (CAP) designation for the project, so it could exceed the standard restriction of 13 dwelling units per acre on land zoned Commercial General. The CAP approval allows up to 25 units per acre, though Benderson’s proposal would achieve a density of about 20.5 units per acre.
In response to the testimony of dozens of members of the public about the exacerbation of traffic congestion they expect at the intersection, Hines stressed the board’s responsibility to address those issues.
“We must make this intersection as important as we did with the Diverging Diamond three years ago,” he said, referring to the structure the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) built to ameliorate congestion issues involving the University Parkway access from Interstate-75. That project was put on a fast track so it would be completed prior to the 2017 World Rowing Championships, which were held in late September 2017 at Nathan Benderson Park, near University Parkway.
“This falls on us,” Hines added of the need to mitigate the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road problems.
“It behooves us to give it more attention,” Detert agreed.
In explaining her “No” votes, Detert referred to Pine Shores Estates, which is the community of single-family homes adjacent to the Siesta Promenade site. “If we’re going to impact an existing neighborhood in any kind of a negative way,” she said, then the commissioners could not forget about those residents, who had invested in their homes. A house, Detert continued, is typically the biggest investment a person will make. “There should be some benefit to doing that to people,” she said of allowing Siesta Promenade to be constructed next to Pine Shores.
Yet, she told Todd Mathes, director of development for Benderson Development, the applicant for Siesta Promenade, “I’m not seeing anything that you’re bringing to the table that we don’t already have.” She cited the nearby Best Western Plus Siesta Key Gateway Hotel, restaurants and shops.
Detert added, “I would be really happy if you put in, like an upscale resort. I don’t think you’re taking advantage of the fact that your piece of property is so close to the beach.”
If the company built a resort, she pointed out, it then could use a trolley to transport guests back and forth to the beach.
“I just don’t see anything new about the project, and I see a lot of downside.”
“We’ve been melding this project in response to community concern,” Mathes replied. “While we have not made everyone happy, and I don’t think we ever would have made everyone happy. I think what we did was put a project forward that works.” The 140,000 square feet “is smaller than every other center up and down [U.S.] 41. It’s meant for the neighborhood …”
Hines objected to the fact that residential structures as tall as 65 feet would be in close proximity to single-family homes in the Pine Shores Estates. At various points during the approximately seven-hour-long public hearing, he talked of his struggles with accepting the design of the project, saying he felt the higher residential buildings should be on the eastern side of the site, next to U.S. 41.
Commissioner Michael Moran made all six motions to approve the project. Commissioners Alan Maio and Christian Ziegler joined him in support of all the Benderson requests for the design.
Maio did win concessions from Mathes that Maio indicated would make it less attractive for drivers to cut through Pine Shores Estates to avoid traffic congestion on U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
Additionally, Mathes proffered that the company would make all of the 25 affordable housing units, required under county regulations for a CAP project, to be rental units. Mathes also said that the company would build those first.
Maio further urged Mathes to make the affordable housing units 750 square feet or smaller, as a new county ordinance will be going into effect soon to give developers incentives for what staff has characterized as “half dwelling units.”
Maio referenced several young people during the hearing that day, who talked of their support for Siesta Promenade in the context of more affordable housing in the community. Maio said the apartments of 750 square feet or less would be homes those speakers “would kill for …”
However, Maio did stress, “Nobody’s getting any increased density” if Benderson agrees to his request. The county Zoning Code specifies that one dwelling unit can range from 500 square feet to 12,000 square feet, he pointed out.
“Understood,” Mathes replied.
In making the motions to approve the various aspects of the project, Moran said of the property, “This is zoned for a full-service gas station — Wawa type — hundreds, hundreds of mobile homes, significant office space. … I simply feel that we can do better than that.”
Moran added, “What we do encourage is compact, mixed-use infill projects that can … use our infrastructure that’s already in place.”
Moreover, Moran said, “I don’t think you can ignore the applicant that’s before us on this today.” Benderson Development is not some speculative builder from another part of the country, Moran continued. “This is a proven developer that has brought projects into our community that have improved our quality of life.”
Hines concurred that Siesta Promenade is an example of urban redevelopment. People have urged the commissioners not to approve projects that would lead to “urban sprawl,” he continued. They have told the board they favor redevelopment in the urban core. “What that means,” Hines pointed out, “is land costs are higher. Neighborhoods already exist. You’re going to have those negative impacts.”
Worries about Avenue A and neighborhood access points
As the board members were taking their votes, the issue of the proposed closure of the median at the intersection of Avenue A and Stickney Point Road also arose. That proposal was one of several included in reports from the Kimley-Horn and Associates consulting firm, which worked with Benderson on Siesta Promenade.
Commissioner Maio referred to earlier testimony by the Benderson representatives. “The applicant has no intention to [change] the access turn movements in the median for Avenue A.” Therefore, Maio proposed including that as a stipulation in the motion to approve the Critical Area Plan for the project.
“I understood it as an expression of intent,” Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy responded.
“It’s a matter of intent,” Maio said, as the Benderson representatives, with — as Maio noted — cameras running to record the meeting for county records, told the board “they’re not touching Avenue A.”
Roddy suggested that the Avenue A matter be part of the rezoning motion for the project. However, he also advised the board first to allow more testimony from Paula Wiggins, the county’s Transportation Planning Division manager.
“My only concern,” Wiggins said, “is that [Avenue A] is a known area of crashes,” and it has been studied by the Florida Department of Transportation. “The applicant is not proposing to do anything with that intersection.”
Yet, she told the board, she did not feel the Avenue A issue should be included as a stipulation in the rezoning motion. After the conclusion of a planned “road swap” with FDOT in coming months, when the county will assume authority over Stickney Point Road, she continued, if crashes continue to occur at Avenue A, “and we don’t correct the deficiencies [there], we would be liable for anything that happens there, knowing that there is an existing problem.”
“Now you’ve got that all in the record,” Maio told her.
Business owners and residents south of Stickney Point Road have demanded in emails to the commissioners that the median not be closed, he continued, because it would compromise access to their property. He then suggested that staff not take any future action regarding Avenue A without discussing it with the commissioners.
Commissioner Moran agreed.
“Staff recognizes that there is a significant issue … for those businesses and residents on the south part of Stickney Point,” Wiggins responded, adding that staff would come back to the board with any proposals for changes.
A concession Maio did gain from Benderson involves the access points from the project site to Glencoe Avenue and Crestwood Avenue, which are Pine Shores Estates streets.
“This one was a tough one for me,” Mathes of Benderson said, because “there are a lot of supporters of this project, including in that neighborhood, who want to go back and forth [to Siesta Promenade].”
The first access point on Glencoe Avenue, heading north from Stickney Point Road, Mathes told the board, would be modified to right-in turns only, instead of allowing right and left turns.
On Crestwood, as indicated earlier in the testimony, the easternmost access will be used only by commercial vehicles making deliveries.
The middle two accesses on Crestwood will be converted to right-out turns only, to U.S. 41. The third access involving Crestwood will allow in-and-out traffic, Christopher Hatton, senior vice president of Kimley-Horn, explained.
“We can create a right-only that doesn’t afford people the opportunity to jump a curb and make the left into the neighborhood anyway?” Maio asked.
“They can be designed. Yep,” Hatton replied.
Compatibility and affordable housing
During their exchanges with Mathes, Commissioner Hines asked why the decision was made to build the residential structures along the side of the property closer to the Pine Shores neighborhood. Hines said he was struggling with the idea that even the three-story buildings would be compatible with the adjacent single-family homes.
“If I wake up in the morning and get the newspaper [outside], what is the feel of that height [when I look up]?” Hines continued.
The buildings closest to Pine Shores will stand 40 feet, Mathes pointed out. The goal, Mathes explained, was to transition from the residential buildings closer to the neighborhood to the commercial structures adjacent to U.S. 41.
However, Hines referenced a community north of Charlotte, N.C., that he had seen, which has two to three stories of residential units above retail stores. Why did Benderson not consider creating a similar design with the residential units for Siesta Promenade, Hines asked.
“That lends itself to a whole lot more density and intensity spread across the site,” Mathes replied. The reason projects such as that one in North Carolina succeed, Mathes continued, is because of density in the range of 500 to 600 dwelling units, “numbers well above what we’re talking about today.”
“I understand it,” Hines told him. “You’re the professional in regards to what you can sell, what people will buy, what people will rent.”
Still, Hines said, “I’m struggling with the compatibility along Glencoe [Avenue].”
Finally, Hines noted his concerns about the provision of affordable housing in the project. As Mathes had explained it earlier, 25 of the 414 apartments or condominiums will be set aside for people making 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI) as established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton area at the time construction began.
This year, Mathes said, 80% of that AMI is $56,240.
“To offer the [county’s] minimum of 15% [of the residential units as affordable] and only for five years [as required by county regulations], but at the same time you ask for increased density. … I think we could bargain a little bit better with you on those types of things,” Hines told him.
Mathes then explained the concession Benderson was willing to make: constructing the affordable housing units right away, which, he noted, is not what most developers do when they begin work on new communities. “Most ask for a ramp-up period [with the other housing types].”
“We anticipate this being a for-rent project,” Mathes added, “and we anticipate owning it for a long time.”
Among the 69 people who addressed the board during the public hearing, The Sarasota News Leader counted only 10 who offered support of the project as proposed.
Sura Kochman, leader of the Pine Shores Neighborhood Alliance, stressed, “This proposed development is not compatible with the surrounding area. There are three, 40-foot-high apartment buildings” separated from Pine Shores homes only by a 25-foot buffer.
“This height equates to the highest building in the area,” she continued, which is the Best Western Plus Siesta Key Gateway Hotel, a four-story structure half-a-mile from the Benderson property.
“The proposed hotel at 80 feet is out of character, as the nearest buildings comparable are 1.2 miles away,” she added, noting that those are the Phillippi Landings condominiums.
Nancy Hofstetter pointed out during her remarks that when Mathes appeared before the county’s Planning Commission on Nov. 15, he said that The Landings has 65-foot-tall residential buildings, and that they “do not impose on the ambiance” of The Landings. “I beg to differ with Mr. Mathes,” Hofstetter added.
Having verified the facts with representatives of The Landings, she continued, she was able to tell the County Commission that The Landings has five structures 65 feet tall, but none is closer than 300 feet from the nearest facing buildings, which also stand 65 feet tall. That is a situation in contrast, she stressed, “to our little 15-feet-high homes in Pine Shores.”
County Planner Kathy Eastley had explained that the 65-foot-tall residential building in Siesta Promenade will be 100 feet from Pine Shores.
Yet another speaker, Virginia Hitchcock, told the board, “The proposed tall buildings [in Siesta Promenade] would dwarf everything for miles around.”
Kochman also noted, “The density [of Siesta Promenade] is equal to the entire Pine Shores neighborhood. … Yet, the property is only one-eighth the size.”
“Should we open Pandora’s Box, setting a precedent for vacant land or future proposed redevelopment along Stickney Point Road,” with increased height and density, Kochman asked. “Should the approach to Siesta Key eventually be dotted with high rises, mirroring the city of Sarasota’s downtown?”
Morgan Bentley of the Sarasota law firm Bentley & Bruning, representing the owners of the Best Western Hotel, pointed out to the commissioners that his clients erroneously had been accused of opposing Siesta Promenade because of plans for the hotel. “Hotels like other hotels,” he said, as evidenced by the clusters at I-75 interchanges. Further, he said, “We have a Westin, a Ritz, a Hyatt and an Embassy Suites within 5 feet of each other, apparently, downtown, maybe less.”
Bentley’s comment drew laughter from the people filling the Commission Chambers.
What his clients want, Bentley continued, “is reasonabledevelopment at this site. … You’re allowed to do whatever the heck you want on this density,” even with the granting of a CAP designation.
Bentley also was among several speakers who maintained that county staff had not complied with county policy and precedent in considering the boundary for the Siesta Promenade CAP.
A former long-time county planner, Brian Lichterman, owner of Vision Planning and Design, told the commissioners that the CAP boundary should include “the entire intersection.”
Only one CAP approved in the county had encompassed a single property, he said, which is the situation for Siesta Promenade’s CAP boundary.
In his rebuttal, however, Mathes of Benderson pointed out that the company owns the commercial property located in the northeast quadrant of the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road intersection, and the new owners of Sarasota Pavilion — on the southeast quadrant — had not asked to participate in the CAP. Additionally, Mathes said, the owner of the shopping center with the New Balance store — in the southwest quadrant — had made it clear in correspondence to the commission that he does not oppose Siesta Promenade.
Among supporters of the project, Martin Black, chair of the West Villages Improvement District, pointed out that he is a certified planner “and one of the first credentialed city managers in the United States.” He added, “I have 35 years of experience … and have provided expert advice on infill and redevelopment …”
The county has established policies, Black continued, that call for people to “live within urban areas … One of the most urban areas that I can think of,” he said, is the site planned for Siesta Promenade.
Another proponent, Jon Mast, CEO of the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association, said his organization represents 530 business members and more than 840 employees with 22,000 family members.
“This type of project is exactly what Sarasota County needs,” he added, noting that he is a lifelong county resident. “Traffic has never changed,” he pointed out. “It has always been this busy on U.S. 41.”
Mast told the commissioners he especially supported Siesta Promenade because of the new affordable housing stock. “You have an opportunity to add to [that] immediately.”
Sydney Camp of Sarasota said she is a student majoring in hospitality management at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. Siesta Promenade, she told the board, would provide opportunities for young people like her “to have a career and affordable housing, so I can stay in the area.” She has been a county resident since she was 7 months old, she added, and she would like to continue to call Sarasota her home.