Monday, June 19, 2006

Voices From the Neighborhood

Sunday’s SHT had a article about the AltaVista Neighborhood and the struggle to keep the unique character that has existed there.

Developers of luxury condos keep looking for land that can be bought for a low price then change the zoning to allow maximum height and density so big profits can be garnered. Neighborhoods lose their character and charm and the developers take home big profits.

This scenario has been playing out all around Sarasota recently - the edge of the Laurel Park neighborhood, Hudson Bayou, Tahiti Park, McClellan Park, Lido Key.

The article says:

Yet whatever change may be ahead, at the very least they [Alta Vista residents] don't want to stare out their windows someday to find their backyards in the shadow of glass and concrete towers." All of us are citizens of the city of Sarasota, too," Kirschner said. "What we're seeing is hopscotch zoning. It isn't right, and it isn't appropriate."

"We're the people who make this city work," Zimmerman, a former radio and weekly newspaper reporter, says to those who joined him in reviving the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association about two years ago. "Why don't we have a say in things?" It's all rather uncharacteristic behavior for a neighborhood that, for more than 80 years, quietly and contentedly kept to itself.

The residents say that, in this battle over Sarasota's future, they are on the front line.

"What has been happening is making us demand respect and a place at the table," said Tracy Topjun, a nurse who bought her home six years ago. "We should have a voice that resonates just as strongly as the developers'."

As these conflicts become more and more prevalent, there isn't much doubt what the end result will be. The voters will make sure their voice is heard.

Our city has a policy requiring developers to conduct a neighborhood workshop prior to applying for a change in land use or zoning. The purpose is to inform the neighbors of the proposal and solicit input that could improve the proposal.

This process can work - recently a developer worked with the Arlington Park Neighborhood on a proposed project on Hyde Park. Neighbors' suggestions concerning trees were worked into the project and everyone was happy. The process works when the developer is a partner in the process, when he wants to be part of the community.

Contrast this scenario with the more typical proposal with the developer announcing his project at the workshop, answering questions minimally or with the comment "I don't know, we'll have to get back to you on that." It quickly becomes obvious that the developer has no intention of working with the neighborhood to understand concerns and then working to find solutions to those concerns. The developer is simply going through the motions.

Instead the developer is quick to cry "NIMBYism" and plead his case to the commissioners - usually behind a closed door.

A new tactic has been used in the School Avenue project: after it became quite clear that the proposal was going to be defeated, at the last minute (2 hours before the commission meeting) a change was made by offering to include affordable housing in the plan. Even though the affordability was undefined and no agreements were in place with potential partners (Sarasota Memorial Hospital and Habitat for Humanity) three commissioner were swayed and the process continues.

When the residents protested in unheard of numbers - Black Monday - the three commissioners refused to listen or reconsider.

Commissioner Shelin commented: "It is unfortunate that the recent claims by several neighborhood associations, the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations and the "Black Monday" protest at City Hall have not represented the truth of a recent vote by the City Commission. The vote did not approve any of the changes requested by the developer of the School Avenue property, but simply agreed to ask for state review and comment on a piece of the possible changes -- the future land use map."

Perhaps he was not aware of the proffer that included a request for Downtown Core zoning and the 10 story height and 50 units per acre density that accompanied the land use chage request. If the land use change is granted, everyone including the developer, the neighbors and three commissioners expect the zoning to accompany the change. That is what was included in the transmitted document sent to the state for review.

Why would the commissioners ask the state to review the proposed change if the intention was not to grant the change? This seems like throwing something up against a wall to see if it sticks - hardly the kind of policy making process we expect from our elected officials.

The battle for Sarasota's future indeed is here. It is truely unfortunate that many of the commissioners have not listened to the citizens during the last 5 years. A vision for the downtown was agreed upon by everyone; then the changes started lead by the development interests and we are still acceding to their demands. Now that the change is pushing into neighborhoods at an increasing rate, the residents are fighting back. Their voice is loud and it will be heard.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was interested in the discussion that was to take place at the June 19 Commission meeting concerning City properties availabkle for affordable housing. Yet, I came away concerned with Commissioner Palmer's intnet. Doesn't the commission know what properties are available downtown for all uses, especially with the need for available parking. I was also concerned with the elementary presentation and the lack of planning and redevelopment staff input which would have added the ability to answer questions concerning zoning, code compliance, variance possibilities, egress, future proposed development, etc. I believe instead of a cardboard map and post it notes as labels we might have had a more professional presentation utilizing software which would make it easier for public viewing. These are important issues and a well prepared presentation anticipating questions and concerns would probably be provided by those staff members with certification and experience in these very areas: planning, redevelopment, building, housing, etc.I would have liked to have known the present appraised value of these lots but that wasn't provided. All came away with was the knowledge that the meeting could have ended fifteen minutes earlier.