The biggest question at the standing-room-only STOP! Town Hall Meeting Thursday, September 22 at the Selby Library was this:
How on earth did a monstrous building like the Vue gain public approval?
The simple answer is that it didn’t.
And it didn’t because, unbelievably, it did not need public approval at all.
As Kate Lowman put it, “Administrative review gave us the Vue.”
This exclusion of a public voice regarding development is behind the formation of STOP! (a community-based organization of Sarasota citizens). In order to “preserve our quality of life,” four City Master Plan & Zoning Code changes are sought:
- Wider sidewalks with room for greenspace;
- Realistic traffic studies;
- Reintroduction of opportunities for public input during the review process; and
- Prevention of expanding the administrative review process beyond the downtown into neighborhoods.
(More information at forqualityprogress.com)
Over the course of an hour, four speakers offered details that explained how The Vue and other downtown development projects came to be.
Kate Lowman, who serves as a steering committee member, described how in 2003 new city zoning codes, inspired by the principles of New Urbanism, aimed to create a walkable, pedestrian-friendly downtown. But this effort was undermined when a lawsuit by Argus was settled by replacing a public review process with a purely administrative review process. Without any opportunity for public input, approval for development was guaranteed as long as a proposal met the zoning codes.
Mike Lasche, a bicycle and pedestrian advocate argued that “walkability” must mean more than a mere possibility that a person could walk a path. He suggested that walking is a form of transport that should be safe, viable, shaded, conspicuous, and even convivial.
Eileen Normile, former city commissioner, explained that the use of arcane traffic impact formulas result in developers (e.g., those of the new Quay project) escaping any amount of “concurrency fees.” What is needed, she argued, are realistic traffic studies.
Jennifer Ahearn-Koch, former planning board member, contrasted the public process of development approval (that includes 3 closed and 3 open steps) with the abbreviated administrative process that makes no room for public input at all.
STOP! is clearly onto something here. Anyone who attempts to walk by The Vue or new construction sites near Fruitville or First Street can experience first hand how truly pedestrian and bicycle un-friendly these sites are. It’s like walking through a concrete tunnel with traffic racing nearby.
So, the points made at the September 22nd meeting clearly resonated with the 200 plus people who attended, and the four speakers were informed and informative.
But as political scientists, we would like to suggest several questions for STOP! to consider as it moves forward.
First: Where are the decision points to prevent more bad decisions from happening? For example, it was stated that administrative review may be expanded from downtown to the neighborhoods. Exactly when will this decision be made? By what or whom? What can be done to prevent it? What’s needed is a calendar of critical decision dates so that activism can be prioritized.
Second: Is it possible to replace the administrative review process with a public review process? This appears to be the fundamental problem that has led to poor decisions. How exactly can the review process be changed? Or, does the Argus lawsuit settlement preclude this? Time to name names and address not blame but civic responsibility.
Third: Exactly what zoning language is needed? What do the zoning codes at present say? What specifically should they say or not say, and what city department, boards, individuals, politicians or other entities are empowered to make these changes? Specifically worded proposals are needed.
Fourth: What is the strategy to mobilize public support? STOP! had an opportunity to channel the public interest, anger and frustration of the 200+ people in the room into concrete actions—but this was for the most part missed when people began to leave during the question and answer period. The call to action took the form of a half page green handout that urged attendees to: (1) invite STOP! to speak at other meetings; and (2) contact the city commissioners and ask them to support adding realistic traffic studies to the Mobility Plan. With half the audience already gone, a quick announcement was made that the City Commission would be meeting about this topic at City Hall on October 3 at 6pm.
Perhaps this was intended only as an informational meeting, but to mobilize the public means to set concerned people into action. It’s not too late to take advantage of the high level of interest and support that are clearly there. STOP! collected emails from attendees and what’s needed next could include the following: invite attendees to formally join STOP!; circulate a petition; ask for small donations to support the effort; and ask new members to commit to specific actions such as attending city hall meetings, investigating zoning codes and future development proposals; reaching out to neighborhood leaders and HOAs, and even making STOP!s concerns part of the electoral process.
So if you have driven by the Vue and shaken your head in disgust, BEGIN! by joining the efforts of STOP!
[Note: See our other blog posts on The Vue under the category Salt and Snark.]