Sunday, August 28, 2005

A Blast From the Past

Check this story published in the St Pete Times 3 1/2 years ago.

A few teasers:

SARASOTA -- Michael McNees, the lanky new city manager in Sarasota, has almost mastered the Boy Scout pledge of the city's myriad virtues.

"We in Sarasota feel like we've got a unique mix of urban amenities, particularly cultural amenities, natural resources, beaches that rank among the best in the world, an active, engaged populace, a thriving business community," says McNees, now entering his third month on the job. "Did I forget to mention the educational system?"

That is about as tidy a summary as you will find of the criteria Money magazine cited this month when, for the second year running, it picked Sarasota as the Best Small City in America. The magazine's editors said they were looking for "areas that have avoided urban sprawl and overcrowding, where city fathers have put a premium on green space, culture and having an accessible city center."

Unlike Tampa's downtown, for example, Sarasota's is more than just the physical center of the city. It defines the city's personality. Walking the district reveals clues to the city's identity that are lost driving.

Like the tiny sign on U.S. 301 pointing the way to the Towles Court artists colony.

Keep walking west and you enter Laurel Park, one of a handful of small and healthy neighborhoods that ring the downtown. The houses aren't grand. Most of them are single-story bungalows, but they are occupied. Along with small downtown businesses, neighborhoods such as these were the first casualties of the explosive growth in the suburbs. Duany, the town planner who likes to promote walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, was reportedly dumbstruck to find so much to work with in Sarasota.

"He thought it was a fluke," says Thorning Little, an architect who is chairman of the city's Historic Preservation Board.

Money magazine cited Burns Court as one of the city's best neighborhoods to live in, though in truth half of the structures are occupied by small businesses, restaurants, art galleries and the like. Duany cited the short street as an architectural precedent that should be emulated in any new construction.

It's the little things, the decisions made block by block, resident by resident, that make Sarasota work.

Was that the good old days, back before the mad dash for 18 stories and the actual and threatened suits as we pursued a better Sarasota? It is an interesting perspective, even looking back a few short years.

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