Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Vision

In the April issue of Sarasota Magazine, Richard Storm wrote an excellent article covering Sarasota's current building boom.

He begins with a description of sleepy Sarasota in the early 50's, touches on the Sarasota School of Architecture and brings us to the Med-Rev zone.

A significant change in how we thought about our cities, towns and suburbs had been happening during the 90's. As Sarasota began thinking about these concepts and how we might change our downtown, the ideas of pedestrian friendly, walkable, human scale and similar concepts were discussed thoroughly in a series of community discussions lead by Andres Duany, a leading practitioner of New Urbanism.

The result was a Downtown Sarasota Master Plan - a vision of the community, by the community and for the community.

As Richard describes the next few years:
We left those sessions ready to work with the appropriate officials to craft codes that would bring the vision to life. Doing so, we believed, would ensure a future Sarasota responding to our needs and dreams. Most crucially, we believed that the financial forces behind future development shared our vision of a place crafted with community well-being in mind, even if that meant the sacrifice of some profit.

Behind the scenes, however, the vision was already beginning to fray and fade. The sound of people rushing to obtain building permits before the adoption of the new plan became deafening. Even prominent business leaders who had participated in the lengthy charrettes and voiced enthusiastic support for the plans joined in the stampede. Buildings unlikely to pass muster under the new codes were submitted in great quantities; many of them were approved; some are now nearing completion. And architects began to have belated second thoughts about design....

Planning authorities caved, and the area, which had been Downtown Edge, was redesignated Downtown Core, putting Burns Court in peril of isolation as a cute zone surrounded by massive towers or, worse still, of being gradually gobbled up and demolished in spite of the historic designations assigned to several of the buildings in the area. So much for the power of pride in a graceful and human solution to the challenge of the contemporary city.

Now, with disputes raging about arcades, building heights, architectural standards and other parts of the plan, we seem to be in a sullen standoff, with much of the public complaining that the process is rushing past them toward an imposed and artificial urban entity. Even when the concern about Main Street arcades was dealt with by the City Commission, removing them from code requirements now with the promise to revisit this potentially interesting aspect later, the atmosphere remained tense and confrontational.

What underlies all of this is the replacement of vision by squabbling, and, alas, the greed that is responsible for many of the bloated and vulgar buildings that have begun to deface downtown, unfriendly buildings that might have been given a human scale had they been part of a functioning master plan. They would have been forced to meet the street in a consistent way, given setbacks to reduce their perceived mass and compelled to contribute to the communal life that characterizes a great city.

The community vision has not been accomplished; we are not even close.

We were warned by Duany that if we didn't act quickly and adopt the new zoning code, designed to put the vision in place, the vision process would have been wasted. Well, as everyone knows, a couple challenges to the code effectively delayed its adoption, then, two years later, the commissioners decided that developers and property owners still hadn't had enough time to make application under the old code so the time was extended. Finally 6 years after the process was begun the code was put in place. Yet even today the code continues to be modified to accommodate each new proposal that is submitted.

The vision has been completely lost. Downtown is literally closing in on us (witness the 1350 Main building) as developers look for ways to get more space to sell: covering the sidewalks with condo covered arcades, and covering streets with retail and condos.

Is it too late to achieve any of the vision? Richard Storm ends his article with "We must bring the vision thing back." Many of us think it may be too late for most of downtown.


Anonymous said...

Bloated and vulgar are two excellent terms to describe both the 5 points building and 1350 Main street. Its nice to see Sarasota Magazine tackle this issue in print, brave too considering where their ad revenue comes from. I wonder how Sarasota ranks, in terms of architecture and design excellence, amongst other well off cities? My guess would be close to the bottom.

It is all to easy to rant about greedy developers, but they are in the game to make money and will build whatever we allow them to, the bigger the better. The real blame lies with our city commission and planning department. There is a lack of vision at city hall for sure, and it is backed up to the nines by a delusional and incompetent planning department.

sarasotanow said...

Wish the newspaper would consider hiring another architecture critic. When a city is changing as quickly as ours, seems that would be a priority for a New York Times newspaper.

Previous critic was controversial and I guess describing the Renaissance condo as being in the "Albert Speer" style was the last straw. Think we need some of that commentary rather than patting ourselves on the back for the kind of architecture Sarasota is producing today.

Anonymous said...

Picture: How could that kind of connection to the Palm Avenue buildings have been allowed? Where is the "visual harmony" in that.

Anonymous said...

The Commission will be considering the lease with Marina Jack on Monday, June 19th. This area was also considered within Duany's plan as underutilized at the time of the report. I truly hope that hard data is presented or at least some considerations have been provided to all citizens of Sarasota for the future of this area and its importance to the Downtown. Residents are losing more and more access to the bayfront that they fund through tax dollars. This is prime space and the lease conditions should reflect the broadest of terms for future use of this area. The overriding consideration should not be the capital investment of the leaseholder as previously stated.