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‘Freedom Institute’ plans put squeeze on neighborhood

Written by on Sunday, March 31, 2024

Lack of involvement in New College’s planning raises anxiety.


By Florence Fahringer

Original Air Date: Mar. 29, 2024

Host: The new leadership at New College has ambitious expansion plans for the campus. One neighborhood feels threatened by these plans, and it’s not made easier by the lack of involvement in the process. Florence Fahringer has that story.

Florence Fahringer: The Uplands is a unique neighborhood, and one treasured by its inhabitants, as residents Karen Stack and Judy Burns explain. 

Karen Stack: This neighborhood has been the sweetest living experience that I’ve had pretty much anywhere. I can walk, open my door, and look out, and it puts a smile on my face every time. It’s so pretty here. It’s so quiet here.

Judy Burns: Yeah. It’s a gem of a neighborhood, and you don’t find them so close to the bay like this — untouched, not changed into a gated community. It’s really wonderful.

FF: To its north, there’s a satellite campus of USF; to the east, there’s US forty-one, and just past that, the SRQ airport; to the west, there’s Sarasota bay; to the south, there’s New College of Florida. That southern neighbor in particular has always left the biggest mark on the Uplands, shaping the diversity of the neighborhood. The two residents I talked to even had direct ties to New College, Karen Stack being the mother of an alum, and Judy Burns being an alum herself. Among their neighbors they also know of New College professors, both current and retired.

It’s a small neighborhood — not even a quarter of a square mile in area, with just over a hundred houses in total — surrounded by relative giants. Karen Stack says that never used to be a drawback.

KS: I love that we have our university to the north and college to the south. It enriches the neighborhood. It makes it more vibrant. It makes the possibilities for local activities expand monumentally. So we choose like having the university here. It’s been a it’s been a lovely, lovely relationship.

FF: That long history of peaceful coexistence has run into something of a hitch this past year, with the change of the New College administration. 

KS: When we first started to get a sense that there was going to be some big changes afoot would have been last summer. Several members of our community made an appointment to see [New College] President [Richard] Corcoran and requested that we as a neighborhood association who would be majorly impacted be included in the planning process. But we were told, absolutely, we would be included, we participate, our feedback was important. And really, it’s been words but no action to back it. And so when they when they finally had a neighborhood or a community meeting, … [that] would have been January 22. We were all, everybody was invited to attend. It wasn’t a discussion. It was, ‘This is the presentation. We’re very excited to be sharing all of this great development. You’re going to love it. Everything is going to be amazing.’ But we never were given the opportunity to get up and speak. There’s been no language, .. there’s no been no process. There was no data collection to determine what, where, when, how to do, what the studies would be, the impact on the environment, on traffic.

FF: One specific point of contention is the land between the Uplands neighborhood and the bay. It’s an undeveloped stretch of land, putting four hundred feet of wild Florida between the Uplands and the Sarasota Bay. The land at one time was owned by an Uplands resident, before they donated it to New College, as Judy Burns explains. 

JB: And at one point, that entire bay front of this subdivision was owned by a resident of the Uplands, and he gifted it to New College back in the 60s, when New College was founded. So it’s just ironic that … this land is donated with the intention that it should remain a preserve, and New College honored that for such a long time.

FF: Karen Stack adds that besides the undeveloped land’s charm, it also serves a practical purpose. 

KS: We’re safe from the bay as well, with the beautiful mangroves that are pretty densely planted and growing all the way along the space front. We don’t get flooding. You probably remember Hurricane Idalia last year, the horrific flooding that happened in downtown. We got none of it.

FF: In New College’s new master plan, half of this land would be used to house the Freedom Institute, which, according to the plan, would be the largest building on the entire campus, current or planned.

KS: The building of the Freedom Institute. This was described … their description is basically a building to combat wokeness, is how it was informally described. But the plan is to put it right on the waterfront. It’s the size of two football fields. It’s in a VE, so a high-velocity flood zone, and it would basically cover half of two thirds of the baseline property. So … they’re thinking about a 100,000-square foot building that covers a good chunk of the front park. That means that they’re going to have this very big cruise .., big container ship building, basically moving up onto shore here. … We have a rookery here that will be impacted. We have osprey, we have eagles, we have all kinds of seabirds here. The impact on the environment, on water quality, the natural life here would be impacted, and I don’t think this bayfront would ever recover from anything like that.

FF: Judy Burns emphasizes the contrast between the new administration’s way of dealing with the Uplands versus the precedent.

JB: I believe there was a to 2015 master plan that was developed, and we did have somebody from the neighborhood that was part of that process. They gave input, so in the past, we we were happy to be part of that process, and we expected that would continue. So I think it’s concerning that it hasn’t, that we’re not involved.

FF: A voice at the table, something which was once given to the Uplands without question, is now something Uplands residents are finding themselves having to fight for; and it’s caused quite a stir in the small neighborhood. 

JB: It’s not just Karen and I who are really interested in what happens here. I don’t know if she mentioned that in January we had 30 of our neighbors that came together at her house to talk about concerns and everybody’s concerns. I’d say the majority of .. concerns were very similar. Didn’t matter our backgrounds, didn’t matter on people’s politics or backgrounds, nothing. It was just this group of great neighbors getting together, to understand what the impact is and how to influence it. We have about 110 homes in the neighborhood and 30 people showed up. So this neighborhood is more unified, and it’s wonderful.

FF: When asked to comment on Uplands residents’ concerns, New College of Florida did not respond by the time of this recording. 

This is Florence Fahringer, reporting for WSLR News.

 

WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.