Up & Down the Trail

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Sarasota news

by Stan Zimmerman

Plug pulled on downtown lights

An $80,000 fiasco came to an end in June when the Downtown Improvement District voted to shut down its multi-colored lights in Five Points Park. They were entwined around the branches of 27 trees, and programmed to change colors to add gaiety downtown.

But the district forgot about the trees’ insistence on growing and expanding, snapping the wires. By time of the shutdown, only a handful of the lights were still operating despite thousands paid in maintenance.

Instead the district is asking the city purchasing department to release a request for proposals for a new lighting scheme. The proposers will be required to provide full maintenance.

It’s the second blow to the park. A number of benches were removed “as an experiment” after nearby condominium residents complained of homeless people and vagrants sleeping on them. The “experiment” became permanent, and now the lights are off “temporarily.”

Paying for parking

After the city commission folded to public pressure and removed the new parking meters downtown, it then found it would be subsidizing parking forever. “Parking management funds suffered greatly after we took out the meters,” Commissioner Suzanne Atwell noted at a commission meeting.

Tickets for overtime parking are now about the only monies coming in, and that will never be sufficient to run the parking garages, stripe the streets and boot the scofflaws. “Revenue through enhanced enforcement is not sustainable,” said Parking Manager Mark Lyons.

“Free parking for customers and staff is a public subsidy, it’s a city subsidy,” said Commissioner Susan Chapman. “Are there other best practices for revenue besides parking meters?”

Lyons said he’ll look for solutions “over the next couple of months.”

Form-based code gets go-ahead

The city’s current zoning code was established in the mid-1970s, and doesn’t seem to be able to mesh the expectations of neighbors and developers. But it can be arcane, like the “department store” rhetoric that derailed plans to build a Walmart “supercenter” in the ageing Ringling Shopping Center downtown.

“We are seeing increased polarization, increased incompatibilities, longer and longer meetings, an increasing number of variances,” said a former city planner. She’s been hired back as a contract employee to ramrod a re-write using the standards of a form-based code.

Karin Murphy recently competed the task for Bradenton, replacing an antiquated set of regulations with ones more agreeable to both neighbors and developers.

The form-based philosophy turns standard zoning on its head. In the past, zoning rules were concerned with what happened inside a building – was it commercial or residential? Multi-family? Industrial? Office spaces? A form-based code is less concerned with inside than outside. It aims to produce a building in harmony with its surrounds, and is less concerned with the uses inside.

It doesn’t mean you can build a steel mill next to a day care. But it does open the possibility of neighborhood-based businesses like a bakery or coffee bar in an otherwise residential area.

It will all get hammered out in public meetings over the next two years.


U of F plans architecture grad program here

The University of Florida is planning to create a graduate program in architecture in one of the county’s “Sarasota school” buildings on Orange Avenue. The building is the last structure designed by William Rupp that has not been altered radically after the invention of air conditioning. The building is now used as a print shop and mail center by Sarasota County.

Martin Gold, director of the U of F school of architecture estimated the program could start with 40 students when the program gets rolling in the fall of 2014. “I think this is a historic event for us,” Gold told the Sarasota County Commission when the papers were signed.

City commissioners were enthused as well. They expressed some hope the students may want to participate in the city’s form-based code formation.

Before the architecture students move in, the county will have to relocate its operations nearby. “For me, to bring this program to Sarasota, I’m more than willing to put up with the costs of this,” said County Commissioner Christine Robinson.

Strip mall gets overhaul plans

Shopping centers across American are having a tough time, and Sarasota’s are no different. However Benderson Development is ready to give CPR to the strip mall directly west across the Tamiami Trail from the Westfield Sarasota Square Mall.

The triangular-shape parcel now hosts a Dennys and a Wendys. It was best know as the home of a Linens ‘n Things that is now shuttered.

Benderson’s Director of Development Todd Mathes says the company is making an investment to upgrade the center’s aesthetics. Benderson is a major mall developer.

The biggest change will be fabrication of a storm water retaining vault – in effect a huge underground swimming pool to hold runoff from the mostly paved property.

County commissioners approved the plans unanimously.


Real estate values break their slide

For the first time in six years, the official county tax roll shows an increase in values. Overall the value of property for tax purposes was up 3.4 percent compared to a year ago. Assuming a flat millage rate, the bump in values will translate into $4.2 million in extra tax revenues.

The City of Sarasota witnessed a 3.7 percent rise in property values for tax purposes. School board revenues should jump 4.5 percent, and North Port’s rise was the sharpest in the county at 5.3 percent. The figures are preliminary, but by this time of year are close to the final figures.

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