Monday, July 31, 2006

Charter Review Meeting

Pictured to the left are three of the Charter Review Committee members (Tom Luzier, Pandora Siebert and Gretchen Serrie)

About 40 people attended the Charter Review meeting and 16 gave input at the session this evening.

Many spoke in favor of retaining the present system, indicating that an elected mayor is not needed or desired. Members of the business community favored an elected mayor with some proposing a strong mayor quite similar to the proposal that was voted down 4 years ago.

It was apparent that there is much dissatisfaction with the current commission. Whether this is related to the form of government or the particular commissioners was a matter of opinion.

Issues that bring dissatisfaction that were mentioned are:

  • No sense of who is in charge
  • Poor communication with constituents
  • End runs around staff
  • Commissioners act as "know it alls" (don’t listen)
  • No specific goals and objectives (and no review of progress)
  • Bickering with, and undermining of, fellow commissioners
  • No accountability
  • City manager not accountable to voters

Other comments included:

  • Sarasota is top heavy with administrators compared to cities our size - referred to city managers office.
  • Commissioners should not make more than the average wage for city residents (about $23,000)
  • Coral Gables would be a city to look at - they are our size and have good leadership and the voters are happy

The Review Committee did not discuss the public input.

The next meeting will be 1:30 PM on Wednesday (Aug 2). A representative from the Florida League of Cities will give a presentation about forms of local government and answer questions.

The remain schedule of meetings is given here.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Shelin Speaks to Alta Vista Neighborhood

Commissioner Shelin spoke to the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association this past Thursday. The topic was the recent proposed comprehensive plan change and its potential effect on their neighborhood. This is the proposed condo development for the School Ave site bordering the eastern side of Payne Park.

Visitors from CCNA, Laurel Park and Save Our Sarasota also attended to hear what Commissioner Shelin would say about this.

After preliminary comments about the recent city budget and the 4X density comp plan proposal, he was asked to focus more on the School Ave Project as this was the most pressing question for the Alta Vista Neighborhood.

Shelin indicated that there have been some comments received from DCA (Florida Dept of Community Affairs) that will require modification of the original proposals.

Apparently DCA had objections and comments concerning the lack of a transportation plan, coastal evacuation issues and compatibility with some state requirements (like the need to include taxes and insurance in the affordability calculation, as well as keeping the housing at less than 30% of the income). Hopefully the city will provide a link to the DCA comments.

He then reiterated his previous stance that this process has been mis-characterized by many people as being a request for Downtown Core Zoning and that it was not given final approval. He continues to indicate that this was only the first step in the process and that a required step is to ask DCA for comment on whether the proposal meets state requirements. If it does, the process can continue.

Kelly Kirschner, President of AVNA, asked if a comp plan proposal that had been submitted to DCA had ever been shelved - in other words, the submittal is really a decision to proceed assuming the state says OK. The answer had already been researched by Kelly as he indicated that in discussion with the city attorney, the attorney indicated that in his recollection the last 80 or so comp plan amendments that had been submitted to DCA were all passed.

While Shelin did not comment on this, he continued to say that the decision had not been made and that hearings will be scheduled for public input.

Shelin said that he does not support DTC zoning. He thinks Downtown Edge (DTE) may be more appropriate (5 stories max, 25 units per acre density). He said he will support DTE if the other 5 areas proposed for change to DTE in a "companion" comp plan proposal are approved for DTE zoning. He indicated he had discussed this with the developer.

When asked about the proffer the developer had attached to his request for the land use change, Shelin said he did not consider it since that was a "site plan" issue and is appropriate for zoning not land use changes. When questioned about a similar land use and zoning change about 2 years ago (Asian Museum of Art) Shelin said that was different, it was a signed proffer. The Asian Museum land use was changed, but that decision is now being reversed since the museum will not be built.

Shelin also said he was not surprised the evening of the commission decision on this change, when only two hours prior to the meeting the developer brought in a different plan that included affordable housing as a component. Shelin said that he had met a week earlier with the developer (Ron Burks) and the Habitat for Humanity director and they indicated they were working on a change to the plan, a change to include affordable housing. Shelin said that while he liked the affordable housing inclusion it did not necessarily change his decision.

The AVNA group was not happy with the answers and the explanations and there were a lot of grim faces. When asked about supporting the residents of the city, Shelin said it is his job to listen to all "constituents" and make the best decision. This echoes Commissioner Bilyeu’s comments at a past AVNA meeting about listening to business owners instead of residents.

One of the undercurrents was the issue of when do commissioners make up their mind and how can residents make their voice be heard and counted. As Commissioner Shelin recounted various meetings with developer Ron Burks, the residents got the feeling that access to commissioners is a powerful tool that developers use. Residents, especially volunteers that work at jobs, have limited time to talk with commissioners. They do not have the time to take commissioners to breakfast, lunch or dinner; they don’t have time during the day to schedule appointments with commissioners. They all wonder when the decisions are made and how much does this constant access, available only to special interests (that usually profit form it) weigh on the decisions made.

While Commissioner Shelin indicates that his mind is not necessarily made up, his comments that evening left little doubt in most people’s minds. The question then becomes how much more time do residents want to spend banging their heads against the wall.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Heat Island Effect in L A

"Climatologists say global warming gets some of the blame. But the prime villain, they say, is the ever-increasing urbanization of the region. The rapid development of Southern California over the last 50 years has created structures and landscapes that retain heat better than dry desert chaparral."

"The extreme makeover Southern California got is impacting nighttime temperatures," said William Patzert, a meteorologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"Everybody wants to know why it's not cooling off at night. This is an urban land use 'heat island' effect."

"The numbers tell the tale: Between 1901 and 2000, the average daytime temperature in Southern California has gone up by three degrees, Patzert said. But nighttime averages have risen by seven degrees."

This information is from a story in the L A Times.

As Sarasota creates more concrete hardscape downtown and elsewhere, we too will increasingly feel the heat island effect.

There is something we can do to counter this effect - retain and even increase the number of trees!

It is well known that trees soak up water during periods of heavy rain (slowing or preventing run-off), slowly release the water through leaves providing cooling, and trees provide shade without retaining daytime heat. Economic studies also show retail establishments on tree lined streets streets out-perform those on non-tree streets. Economic performance in both total sales and ability to sell at a higher price is improved.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Last Chance for a Downtown DQ

If you want a DQ treat from this long standing downtown store, operated for more than 40 years on Washington, you had better hurry. July 30 will be their last open day.

A new high rise will be constructed and apparently only a smaller space than the current building is available to the long time business owner Linda Pawloski - too small to justify the location.

This is the second oldest DQ in Florida. It also may be unique in that it has a literary connection.

Charter Review Committee Meeting Schedule

Here is the Charter Review Committee Meeting Schedule. All meetings are held at the Commission Chambers in City Hall.

Tuesday......July 18.......5 PM.....Organizational Meeting
Thursday.....July 27.......5 PM.....Regular Meeting
Monday......July 31......6 PM....Public Input Meeting
Wed..........Aug 2.........1:30 PM.....Presentation by Lunn Tipton, Florida League of Cities
Tuesday......Aug 15........5 PM.....Regular Meeting
Tuesday......Aug 29........5 PM.....Regular Meeting
Tuesday......Sept 12.......5 PM.....Regular Meeting
Tuesday......Sept 26.......5 PM.....Regular Meeting
Tuesday......Oct 3..........5 PM.....Regular Meeting

All regular meetings will have a public input time at the end of the meeting.

We would encourage all interested citizens to attend the July 31 meeting and share your ideas, comments, concerns and opportunities with the committee. Since all meetings are open, you may wish to attend as many as possible.

The basic charge given to this committee is to propose a change (if they choose) to the city charter that would establish an elected mayor. In addition they will look at commissioner salaries and propose a change if they feel one is warranted.

The commission will review the committee recommendations at the end of the process and determine whether to allow citizens to vote on the committee recommendations.

Charter Review Committee members are:
  • David Brain
  • Diana Hamilton
  • Tom Luzier
  • Pandora Siebert
  • Gretchen Serrie
  • Michael Shelton
  • Elsie Souza

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Tickle Me BlackBerry

Recent budget discussion at Sarasota City Call have again brought up questions about how many staffers and commissioners need BlackBerries (those "must have" digital devices that handle telephone and e-mail in a hand held size).

A while ago we read about then mayor Mary Ann Servian's plight when she dropped her BlackBerry into a glass of iced tea - apparently while rushing to get ready for a commission meeting. Then later had another one stolen and it was used to make calls to South America.

The latest discussions indicate that "Vice Mayor Danny Bilyeu, who's been using a city BlackBerry on a trial basis, said he kind of likes to "feel a little tickle on my side" when he gets an e-mail", according to a SHT article.

This is getting to be quite the ticklish subject.

What exactly are the city commissioners doing with these devices? Apparently there is some experimentation to find just the right way to use them.

We also wonder why everyone in the Neighborhood Partnership Office apparently needs one. According to the SHT "The Neighborhood Partnership Office, which gave out a BlackBerry for each of its six staffers, estimated next year's cell phone charges to be around $3,000 -- double what it expects to spend through this fiscal year."

We hope these budget requests are justified in terms of improved productivity and that savings can be documented.

Oh, and there are much cheaper ways to get a tickle.

Saving Rudolph

There is a nice article about Sarasota's Martie Lieberman in the on-line Metropolis Magazine.

An enlightened real estate broker lovingly restores a Paul Rudolph house with the goal of preserving a masterpiece—and making a profit.

The Cohen House, in Sarasota, Florida, could have easily been a teardown. Designed by Paul Rudolph in 1955, the 2,300-square-foot house—sited on a double waterfront lot on the barrier island of Siesta Key—is about half the size of newer homes nearby.

This shows what can be done when an owner is enlightened and has a sense of Sarasota's history and architectural legacy. We applaud Martie for her endeavors.

We only wish that the Sarasota School Board had some enlightenment and a similar sense of Sarasota's architectural legacy - maybe they would not have made the decision to replace Rudolph's Riverview High School buildings with a parking lot.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Arcade Alternative

As Sarasota continues to have a discussion about the usefullness of adcades, Main street at Lakewood Ranch presents an alternative - small "bump-outs" on the second and third stories that jut out slightly over the sidewalk.

These bump-outs extend only 3-4 feet, about the same as the awnings that line the streets. Excellent views up and down the street are given to each condo owner.

This seems to compliment both the pedestrian experience as well as the condo owner.

Now, if Sarasota would only require a more reasonable height, we too could have a more friendly pedestrian experience.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

A View on the Proposed Sky Plaza

Dear Commissioners,

When Save Our Sarasota signed a letter requesting the city create more connectivity to the bay, we never contemplated a major structure along the bayfront. We considered and discussed traffic calming measures such as landscaping, wider landscaped medians to provide safe refuge when crossing Route 41, traffic signals more responsive to pedestrian demand, pedestrian sleeves and other options.

We believe the Sky Plaza being proposed is inappropriate in character and overwhelming in scale and would detract from the beauty of our bayfront. It competes with and dwarfs the natural environment. It would also constitute an interruption to the view of the bay from Main Street.

And what about other areas that need to connect with the bayfront? We hope that full citizen input will be solicited in designing more graceful, less intrusive means of providing pedestrian access to the bayfront.

We have been in contact with the proponents of the Sky Plaza design and plan to meet with them to discuss various alternatives. Many of our civic objectives are shared by them.

Thank you for your consideration,

Save Our Sarasota Steering Committee

[A Pelican Press article about this proposal can be read here.]

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Charter Review

Article published Jul 10, 2006 in the sarasota Herald Tribune

Reviewing the mayor's role

Sarasota committee revisits an issue that won't go away

A brand-new Sarasota charter review committee has been constituted, but it will not boldly go where no one has gone before.

Instead, the members will re-explore an elected-mayor proposal -- variations of which have been spurned by city voters twice over the past decade.

Currently, the mayorship is largely ceremonial, and it rotates among the five city commissioners. A push for an elected mayor narrowly failed in September 1996, and a super-strong-mayor proposal went down in flames in 2002.

The charter board also will examine a possible pay raise for commissioners, who now are each paid about $24,000 a year.

Commissioners chose seven able city residents -- David Brain, Diana Hamilton, Tom Luzier, Pandora Seibert, Gretchen Serrie, Michael Shelton and Elsie Souza -- to examine these issues. They're expected to make recommendations in October; then it's up to commissioners to set an election, if they choose to take charter proposals to the voters. If so, we're told, the balloting probably wouldn't occur until March 2007 -- which is when the city's three commissioners picked by district (the other two are at-large seats) come up for re-election.

The timing could be politically charged, but we're confident that the charter review members will tackle their duties with energy and objectivity.

Revolutionary change is not proposed; commissioners set fairly restrictive study parameters that would retain the commission/manager form of government.

There's a strong element of deja vu, but the mayor question likely will recycle until citizens are satisfied with city leadership -- an elusive goal but one they're right to seek.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Affordable Housing Editorial

[Pelican Press Editorial concerning affordable housing.]

Lack of affordable housing has reached critical level

County and city need to take serious note of activist’s ideas

As reported last week in the Pelican Press, area rents are continuing to escalate while worker housing is evaporating. Apparently, providing affordable housing wasn’t a criteria for Sarasota’s recent designation as an “All-America County.”

And despite its reputation as a haven for owner-occupied single-family homes, until recently 40 percent of the housing in the City of Sarasota was rental property.

But no longer.

Escalating real estate prices and huge increases on non-homestead property taxes have combined to pressure landlords to either sell or increase rents substantially to cover costs. Many rentals east of Tamiami Trail, for example, have seen tax increases of more than 100 percent over the past three years.

According to area landlord Tully Giacomazzi, “... The cost of running rentals is increasing faster than the renters’ incomes.” And to make matters worse, landlords are saying that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) isn’t keeping up with the market rate, further reducing housing opportunities for those on the lower side of the socio-economic scale.

Activist and city renter Jude Levy helped organize the Tenant Landlord Coalition, the goal of which is to get landlords and tenants to work together to solve common problems.

Levy says that within the past month, she’s seen the elimination of 60 of 220 rental units in the Laurel Park area alone.

Huge increases in non-homestead property taxes and insurance rates, which are far more costly for rentals than owner-occupied dwellings, and pressure to sell have conspired to cause the loss of thousands of rental units to condominiums, Levy says.

Levy joined forces with the Landlords Association and composed a white paper urging city action to slow or halt the disappearance of rentals for the working class.

The white paper urges the city and county to adopt tax relief for rental properties and file a grievance with the governor over the current two-tiered rate system on property insurance. It also asks the city and county to put together a relief package for tenants and landlords with reasonable rents ($600-$900) by canceling or reducing their water, sewer and garbage-pickup fees.

If you spend any time at all in Sarasota, you’ll hear people referring to it as “paradise.” And while we all love the spectacular sunsets, balmy sea breezes and snow-white sands of area beaches, for many whose lives are far from an endless vacation, paradise is lost.

A truly forward-thinking community should not only embrace diversity, but welcome it. This means being able to support the wealthy and those who toil to support their luxurious lifestyle.

[The following post is the "white Paper" the editorial discusses.]

Tenant-Landlord Coalition Seeks Affordable Solutions

An open letter to City and County Commissioners

July 5, 2006

To: City and County Commissioners

Fr: The Tenant-Landlord Coalition (TLC)


Affordable Housing is a huge challenge for the City and County right now and broadly defined, “affordable housing” includes many groups: HUD subsidized housing (extremely low to very low income), Habitat Homes (for households making $16,000 a year and more), all the way up the economic ladder to the ERA plans for downtown units for professionals making over $55,000.

We choose to narrow down our focus to rentals in the $600 to $900 range.

These reasonably priced rentals are needed by those making $10,000, up to those making $50,000 annually (from the Sarasota Memorial Hospital housing survey and the salary range of workers looking for
$600-$900 a month rentals).

Landlords provide the real affordable housing in the City and County.

Reasonably priced rentals in the City and County of Sarasota must be saved to provide housing to the extremely low, very low and low income workers (these include your service workers and municipal employees), students, retirees, fixed income individuals and families. At least 25-30% of your residents make less than $30,000 a year (top end of low income as defined by HUD) and renting is their only housing option.

Why are rental units being lost?

Because of the following:
The tax structure is totally off balance. Many commercial ventures, which include rentals, in the past three years, have seen their taxes increased at least 100% vs. homesteaded homes at 5%. Homesteaded tax breaks are penalizing the renters who must pay this increased expense.

The low and middle income renters who must carry the burden of these tax hikes are those amongst us who can least afford these increases, and are being squeezed out of the area. A City of Sarasota rental property will have to pay for the tax increases from both the City and the County.

This taxing formula disparity will have to be taken to Tallahassee. Tenants and landlords across the State of Florida will have to coordinate an appeal. All the area government officials should see the impact of losing affordable rentals and should support their appeal.

The County of Sarasota, with a windfall of tax revenues, is thinking about giving a tax break to homesteaded property owners and raising the rates on commercial properties.

Now the City of Sarasota is thinking of doing the same!

Insurance for the commercial and rental properties is much more expensive than it is for homeowners. This dramatic increase also makes rentals less affordable

Pressure to sell.
As you are aware, 10,400 apartments in Sarasota have been lost to condo conversions alone. Lost for good. The high taxes and insurance expenses only encourage landlords to sell out.

What relief can the City and County of Sarasota provide NOW for affordable rentals?

Support tenants by providing tax relief for the reasonable rental properties, and register a complaint against rising insurance rates to the Governor.

Assemble a temporary relief package for tenants and landlords in reasonable rental properties (rentals in the $600 to $900 range) by canceling or reducing their water, sewer and garbage pick up fees. There are plenty of new units coming on line to keep the Utilities Departments solvent.

Work with the Community Housing program to provide vouchers to low income people so they can rent closer to work. These workers are needed Downtown and throughout the county. Service workers and other low income residents need to be able to use public transit, bike and/or walk.

The voucher program could use the HUD Section 8 program as a model. It would be a voluntary program and landlords could choose whether or not they would be willing to accept the voucher for a portion of the rent.

Encourage HUD (Sarasota Housing Authority) to provide incentives for redevelopment of public housing land in North Sarasota to bring back all of the family units (388 family units now occupied, with a waiting list of some 300 families). Yes, there are landlords in the community who will accept Section 8 vouchers, but their units are full. Where will 388 families be housed – either temporarily or permanently – during the redevelopment?

Where can temporary workers (i.e. construction workers et al) be housed safely while they work on homes and high rises?

The City and County have organized numerous Affordable Housing venues and they have all done a good job identifying the challenges, but no action has been taken.

Now is the time to act. Rental properties are dwindling because of the tax and insurance issues. Renters have nowhere to go. Both the City and the County need to act to negate this out of balance tax structure to bring relief to the tenants. The City and County cannot wait for Tallahassee to react.

We are losing families, students, service workers, hospital staff, even professionals, because they cannot find housing.

A response is required NOW, not later.

Issues to be considered for future planning:

How do we restructure the tax and insurance imbalance?

How do we stop the rapid loss of rental stock?

How do we save older and historic apartment buildings from the wrecking ball?

To build new, because of the price of land, precludes the possibility of providing reasonably priced rental units unless they are on City or County land.

Save the buildings we have.

How can City owned lots be developed as multi-family dwellings?

Who will inventory what is currently available and make the data available to all?

Who will assemble a resources directory for low and middle income renters and home buyers?

Where can transitional housing be built?

What sort of incentives could be offered for builders to build efficiencies (400-800 sq ft flats) near town at reasonable sale and/or rental prices?

At least a quarter of households are one person households
(according to the last census).

How do we utilize/encourage the granny flats as rentals?

TLC would like a seat at the roundtable of interested community groups to help solve present and future housing problems - with the subject of reasonable rentals as part of the larger affordable housing solution.

This roundtable on affordable housing would include representatives from the City and County as well from CCNA, CONA, SURE, Habitat, Sarasota Memorial Hospital, the Community Housing Trust, HUD,
Downtown Partnership, Chamber of Commerce, SCOPE, and other interested parties.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Gerri Holmes @ 362-3644 (Landlords)
Jude Levy @ 365-2314 (Tenants)

Sunday, July 09, 2006

LWR Main Street

Lakewood Ranch's Main Street is taking shape. It is pleasant to see somewhat wide sidewalks, shade trees along with two and three story buildings. This is a very pedestrian friendly environment.

A SHT story on LWR Main Street can be found here.

Shenandoah Park

Sarasota has recently built a number of new neighborhood parks ( a recent post showed pictures of Fredd Atkins Park, Sarasota's newest) over the last couple years. These parks have provided enjoyment to neighborhood residents as well as other visitors.

Shenandoah Park, in the Park East neighborhood opened about a year ago. It features some magnificent grand oaks, sculpture and children's play equipment.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

What's on the Horizon

Sarasota's future is at a turning point. The huge changes that have been approved by the current city commission will change our city forever.

Even though the citizens showed overwhelming support for a downtown master plan that limited building height and moved toward a pedestrian friendly, human scale people place, the last 4-5 years have given us an unstoppable frenzy as developers rushed to get high rise buildings approved under the old code. In doing this the commissioners stood idly by while encouraging and possibly participating in the "gold rush".

Then came the speculators, driven by the same frenzy, feeding at the same trough, while all the time saying isn't this free market great.

Now we are beginning to see the reality of the changes we have watched unfold. Affordable housing has disappeared. The commissioners latest solution - let's increase the downtown density; after all, they say, density is the answer to all our housing problems. Yet they really struggled with the decision to include affordable housing in the RFP for the Palm Ave lot. The real estate/developer heavy CRA Advisory Board recommended no affordable housing be included - saying it wouldn't work. Even considering that the land cost was not a factor - free land yet we can't make affordable housing work.

There is a segment of Sarasotans that believe we need to change our city as fast as we can - make it bigger, more metropolitan, pack downtown with as many residents as possible.

Others see Sarasota's rapid downtown development as a bane - infracture is not keeping up with the growth, traffic and parking problems increase each year, the seasonality of our local economy has not lessened, people wonder what will be the effect of the speculator purchases in downtown as interest rates rise.

Rapid growth is not a pleasant aspect of the quality of life that drew us to Sarasota.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Building A City?

From a comment on the City Managers blog.

We are building a city and cities require density, shopping, exitement and people space. Cities do not work because there are parks and open space and green lawns with trees. These are not the things that make up a city. Luckly for those that seem to be jerking from the thought of our city becoming a real city, our city is small and surrounded by great neighborhoods that can keep us green.

Are we to believe that Chicago is one of the greatest large cities to live in because it has only buildings, concrete and asphalt?

Cities work because of diversity - great cities have a wide range of spaces - space devoted to commercial activity (this includes much more than "shopping"), space for residential, space for community gatherings, space for parks and unique natural settings like waterfronts.

The spaces themselves need to be diverse. Restaurants, bars, drugstores, department stores, even tattoo shops and the Goodwill store provide diversity and fill the needs of a diverse community. Plazas, large parks, small green spaces, trees and flowers add interest and vitality. Trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers all remove the pollution left from the high concentration of people and their automobiles that fill city centers.

Sarasota is now building Payne Park. This great green space will contain large expanses of grass, water and trees. This park will be within walking distance of downtown (although it may be a bit of a hike from lower Main).

New York City has Central Park and Chicago has Millennium Park, both at the city center. These large public green spaces help define these great cities.