Goal of revitalizing Midtown Plaza and other centers gets pushback.

SARASOTA — Sarasota city commissioners' desire to revitalize some older strip malls by transforming them into mixed-use developments that include affordable housing ran into opposition Tuesday night from Arlington Park residents who described a proposed zoning ordinance as crafted by developers without consulting members of the public.

In April, the commission asked its staff to work with planner Joel Freedman to come up with a zoning text amendment that would apply not only to his project — a renovation of Midtown Plaza — but to 10 other shopping centers in the city. The goal: attractive commercial-residential complexes that allow people to shop where they live and work, making a dent in traffic congestion and also the need for housing.

"You’re much better off having a mixed use than a whole big area of asphalt set back from the road," Mayor Liz Alpert said Tuesday.

Midtown Associates, which owns the shopping center on the corner of Tamiami Trail and Bahia Vista Street, was seeking a more simple rezoning when the idea for a commercial-residential mix surfaced. The developer pursued a privately initiated zoning text amendment with support from the commissioners, because city planning staffers were busy with other priorities. But Arlington Park residents, already unhappy about a proposal to build multi-family housing at the former Doctors Hospital site on Bahia Vista, viewed the ordinance as a power grab by developers that threatens their quality of life.

"Our beautiful town is growing too fast," said Kim Fitz, a 40-year resident of the neighborhood. "I feel we are loving our city to death."

They also told the commissioners that they want the same collaborative planning process in their part of the city that Rosemary District residents have participated in.

"This change, if allowed to move forward, will cause my neighborhood to become an experiment in new zoning with little input from the people who already live here," said John Hanlon. "We deserve a blueprint or a master plan for our neighborhood before such changes can take place."

Even before the Arlington Park residents had their say, commissioners were not satisfied with the amendment's lack of details on affordable housing.

"There was a unanimous agreement that we were going to see something related to affordable housing," said Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie. "If there’s not an affordable housing component included in the zoning text amendment, then you don’t get my support."

Gavin Meshad, owner of the property, expressed a willingness to work with the city staff on the issue.

"This is a shopping center; it’s probably going to be affordable by nature," Meshad told commissioners. "It’s not going to be a high-end condo. If we can figure out a way to make the affordable component work, we’re not opposed to it."

On what promised to be a long night, the ordinance was approved on its first reading, with some caveats, with commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Willie Shaw voting against it. Before its second reading in two months, the commission asked for more specificity about incentives that would encourage affordable housing, and also for meetings that would give residents a chance to provide input.

"I agree with the mayor that we’re trying to incentivize mixed-use, the redevelopment of these zombie properties," said Commissioner Hagen Brody. "We have them all over the place. This is the smart growth that everybody’s talking about — changing these dinosaurs into properties that people want."

Commissioner comments

An August story in the Herald-Tribune about plans to rescue the Sarasota Family YMCA from the brink of closing its two fitness centers quoted Brody as promising that "myself and the city of Sarasota stand ready and willing to help facilitate" that effort, mentioning potential help with any permitting and zoning issues.

In the time set aside for commissioners' comments at Tuesday's meeting, Ahearn-Koch said she was "thrilled" that the Y had agreed on a solution, but took issue with Brody's speaking for the city when the commission had never discussed the topic. She suggested a retreat where commissioners might "sort of brush up on procedures."

Alpert agreed: "I would never speak for this commission without having discussed it with the commission in an open meeting and getting a vote."

Brody was out of the room for this portion of the meeting.