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Affordable housing at big-mall makeover: Neither developer nor city planning board seem interested

Written by on Monday, May 20, 2024

Benderson proposes a minimal ‘attainable’ component at Southgate.

By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: May 17, 2024

Host: The biggest commercial developer in the region is proposing to turn one of the biggest mall properties in Sarasota into a complex that mixes retail and housing. That should be low-hanging, juicy fruit to build affordable apartments. But apparently neither the developer not the city planning board is eager to pick it. Ramon Lopez has the details.

Ramon Lopez: There’s agreement on the need for more affordable and attainable housing in Sarasota. But how to best get there is subject to much debate. Case in point: Redevelopment of the Southgate Mall, to include
residential housing.

Southgate Mall location

A heated argument broke out at the Sarasota Planning Board meeting on Monday, May 6. If you don’t already know, the Sarasota Planning Board guides future real estate development within the City of Sarasota. The board makes
recommendations to the city commission with respect to adoption of proposed amendments to the city’s comprehensive plan. It also prepares and recommend ordinances, regulations and other proposals, which promote controlled development of land within the city. And it determines whether proposed development projects conform
to the principles and requirements of the comp plan. The planning board has six members, all with real estate savvy.

Before the Planning Board members were requests from Benderson Development, the owner of Crossings at Siesta Key Mall, commonly known as Southgate Mall, located on South Tamiami Trail south of downtown Sarasota. Benderson is taking an initial procedural step towards transforming the current shopping mall, which has fallen on hard times.

Today, the half-empty shopping center’s list of tenants only includes a Macy’s, Chico’s, CMX Cinebistro, Connors Steak and Seafood, and a small Aldi’s grocery store. Benderson plans to rebuild the long-suffering shopping center into a “New Urbanism” community. The property’s current zoning designation is “Commercial Shopping Center.”

Project officials say they plan to address the former Southgate development in pieces, due to some long-term leases at the property, and they say the redevelopment may take two decades to complete.

Benderson needs a new “urban mixed-use” classification to construct retail, office and residential units on the site, including “attainable” or “workforce” housing. But Benderson remains vague about its overall building plan.

The company seeks to develop up to 848 dwelling units on the nearly 34-acre site, with 10% designated “attainable housing”, according to documents filed with the planning board. This provision is meant to address concern the real estate developer won’t construct attainable housing on the site.

The current proposal is to allow for residential development up to a maximum density of 25 dwelling units per acre. The applicant originally proposed to include a bonus density, providing an additional 10 dwelling units per acre, up to 35 units per acre.

City Planning staff signed off on all of Benderson’s requests. But Sarasota Planning Board Member Terrell Salem, a local house builder who lives in Newtown, pushed back on the zoning request. He said the project should have much more attainable housing. Salem said the recently-enacted Live Local Act provides historic investment in
affordable housing, and incentives for developers to construct workforce housing — and that should be applied here.

Terrell Salem

Terrell Salem: Live Local is something that was put in place, and I’m so glad – to be honest with you – I’m really surprised before the legislation yet that they haven’t been looking out for the less fortunate for a long time. This is a perfect, perfect piece of legislation that grants them the option to do that. But even taking a step back, we all must understand that they have a right to develop this property under their current zoning that they’re at right now, whatever that zoning permits. So here we are, about to make a change to the zoning for them. And we’re going to allow them to give us 10% housing, maybe, maybe, maybe get 10%. So they don’t have a right to do housing right now. But if we pass this, we grant them that right. We pretend that we care about affordable housing, but here we are with an opportunity to mandate affordable housing, if we were to approve this. We don’t have to give them this change. So we are put in a position to negotiate for the city on behalf of the city. That’s how we are situated here on this board. We’re supposed to look out for the best interests of the city, by granting them a rezone without saying ‘Hmm, what does the city need so badly?’ We need affordable housing badly. So here we are, we can say, ‘Okay, you want that? We don’t mind giving it to you if you’re willing to give us this best negotiation’. It’s perfect. It works good.

RL: But fellow board member Dan Clermont said some attainable housing is better than none at all.

Dan Clermont

Dan Clermont: I asked the question of the applicant: If we had to apply the 40%, what would you do? We wouldn’t build any housing. They would just build commercial, and then we would get zero. In this case, we have potentially 85 affordable units. And what we’re getting is, when we approve these, would be drip, drip, drip around the city. 85 here, 25 there, 16 there, 40 there. They’re over time, and we’re building attainable housing.

RL: Philip DiMaria, an urban planner and project manager with Kimley-Horn, laid out Benderson’s needs to the planning board members.

Philip DiMaria: So we ask for your recommendation of approval. You know, this would permit more than just the shopping center that steps down in density from the new urban mixed-use category. It complements the neighborhood as well as current land-use patterns and conditions. And it sets the stage for revitalization of truly a legacy property. It’s been around since 1956, the shopping center was acknowledged in 1956. We’re here before you in 2024, asking for revitalization of important property and services.

Todd Mathes, Benderson’s Development Director, said their ‘attainable housing’ formula makes the most sense for the company.

Todd Mathes: We’re excited about the property. We think your staff has been a thought leader and a good participant in sort of our visioning of the future redevelopment here but we do envision it as a redevelopment of a mixed use center that has curated neighborhood significant retail experiences, some amount of office and certainly housing as well. And so we’ve tried to create something that has and we’re trying to find the future scale and character that makes sense for this large property.

In the end, the Sarasota Planning Board voted 4 to one, with Salem casting the lone ‘nay’ vote, to recommend approval of Benderson’s zoning request to the city commissioners.

This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.


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