When the Vue started construction, it wasn’t long before residents of Sarasota started questioning how such a large building could have been approved without public input. As the $300 million project began its obstruction of Sarasota Bay from southbound US 41, some started questioning more loudly. The result is a more concerted effort to ensure that Sarasota develops within the principles of the Downtown Master Plan 2020 developed by New Urbanism guru Andres Duany in 2000.
At the time, the plan was designed to make downtown Sarasota a more vibrant and walkable area. While Duany stated that he was pleased with the progress when he visited in 2013, when the Vue broke ground on the corner of US 41 and Gulfstream Boulevard in September 2014, residents realized the shortcomings of the master plan.
Initially, when the plan was adopted in January of 2001, it offered both administrative approval and city commission approval as options. However, when it was challenged by developers like Argus and the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, the City of Sarasota avoided the cost of litigation by modifying the plan to replace a public review process with a mere administrative review process. So, when the Kolter Group submitted their plan for an 18-story project that included 141 condominium units and 255 hotel rooms, the project was easily approved on May 16, 2014.
Although Sarasota’s Neighborhood and Development Services require multiple staff members from five departments to analyze proposals, many are still wondering if that is enough. Given public input on a project as grandiose as the Vue, chances are good Sarasota residents would be seeing a much different building going up right now.
While the Kolter Group promises that the Vue project will be more visually appealing when construction is completed, many in the Sarasota area have already called the building an eyesore and an architectural failure. Beyond just the towering height of the project and the views it blocks, residents are also bemoaning the width of the building and the narrowness of sidewalks due to how close the building comes to the edge of the property.
However, the building does comply with current city design standards which require buildings on primary roads to sit only a few feet from the street. While this does provide for better aesthetic on 2-lane, arterial roads, allowing for pedestrians to be able to engage with storefronts, critics of projects like the Vue, which has no street side frontage, state that this standard will create concrete canyons on more heavily travelled highways like US 41 and Fruitville Road.
In response, a civic organization of 10 steering committee members, a 25-member board of directors, and several dozen concerned citizens was developed in the Fall of 2016. Calling themselves STOP!, the new 501c3 has been fighting for more citizen involvement in the decision-making process. As the Urban Design Center completes its 4-year process of developing a city-wide form-based code to replace the City’s current zoning code, members of STOP! are advocating for a few other changes in the process.
Building upon the principles of bikeability and walkability of the Downtown Master Plan 2020, the group is calling for four main initiatives. The first is for wider sidewalks so that walkways will not feel as claustrophobic as those by the Vue. They want to see improved traffic studies in order to avoid future gridlock as Sarasota’s population continues to grow. They want large-scale and high-density developments to allow for more public input and not rely simply on administrative approval. Finally, they want to ensure that the administrative approval process does not expand into other neighborhoods.
Since the Downtown Master Plan was released, only one administrative approval has been appealed and overruled. When the Woman’s Exchange proposed the addition of a new loading dock on the one-way Rawls Avenue, residents of the Laurel Park neighborhood intervened, and after two appeals, blocked the project. The Woman’s Exchange has since purchased the Short Stop market next door, and will seek to add their loading dock on that property, where it is less likely to obstruct traffic.
As Sarasota continues to develop, how much input do you think residents should have in the approval process?