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Sarasota County Commission approves big mall redevelopment

Written by on Tuesday, April 16, 2024

But affordable housing was not even discussed before the vote.

By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Apr. 12, 2024

Host: Sarasota Square Mall is the biggest ailing retail property in the county. These kinds of dying malls are low-hanging fruit to get much-needed affordable housing. But that was not a topic discussed by Sarasota County Commissioners before they approved a developer’s request for a rezone, as Ramon Lopez reports.

Ramon Lopez: Sarasota County Commissioners at their April 9 hearing tackled what to do with the Sarasota Square Mall, probably the biggest ailing retail property in the county.

A developer seeks a rezone to turn the eerily vacant mall into a mixed-use complex. But neighbors have reservations on how the reconstruction should be accomplished.

First some background.

The project is bankrolled by Torburn Partners, a privately-owned real estate investment firm in Northbrook, Illinois. Sarasota Square Mall is located at the corner of U.S. 41 and Beneva Road, with over 90 acres. Currently, the mall property has over a million square feet of empty retail space.

Torburn wants to add new commercial space and housing there, creating a town-center style mixed-use community. There would be new stores, restaurants, medical and business offices. A bar and late-night outdoor entertainment on certain days is part of the plan.

The existing mall would be demolished, except for the big-box Costco store, a gas station, the AMC theaters, and the J.C. Penny department store, the only remaining tenants there.

Except for a Costco, J.C. Penney, AMC theaters, and a gas station, the 9-acre mall sits empty.

Opponents of the redevelopment proposal don’t like the plan to build as many as 1,200 market-rate apartments there. The county says there has to be a minimum of 500 residential units. Critics say the planned apartment building will be too tall for the area, and it will create overcrowding and traffic congestion.

Opponents spoke out at the April 9 hearing. Walt Tibbett and Ginger Peterson:

Walt Tibbett: We support 100 percent the redevelopment of the mall area. Our concern is that what’s being proposed from a residential standpoint clearly is not appropriate. 1,200 units is excessive, and I think needs to be scaled back. As this county continues to struggle with growth and the need for housing, there are plenty of opportunities for locations, and to do this in a smart, responsible way that protects the homeowners, that protects the residents, to protect you who have been here a lot longer than I have. So we ask you to consider that we aske you to scale those.

Ginger Peterson: These will be 80 foot high, eight storey buildings that will completely transform our quiet neighborhood into a Manhattan-ite type of look.

RL: But Chuck Treadway welcomes the project.

Chuck Treadway: We’re very appreciative of the efforts of what the mall’s developers have proposed to us, and their willingness to work with us, and we fully support the development of the mall.

RL: Many saw a positive vote for the mall redesign as a foregone conclusion. But some of the county commissioners had issues with the plan and pushed back. Commissioners Joe Neunder and Neil Rainford:

Joe Neunder: Putting something of that size there is just not going to be compatible, in my mind. That particular property, I’m in agreement, has to be redeveloped into something. It’s been sitting there. It’s a parking lot, basically, for my son to practice his driving on the weekends. But we want to encourage economic development of our community, we want jobs. We definitely think this is going to be a great project at some point. I just, I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around, you know, something of that magnitude on that particular strip of land. 

Neil Rainford: The issue I have is with the residential. And it’s not with residential in general. It just, if you put in a potentially 85-foot building, they’re going to look across Prestancia. That’s too high for me, that feels like a downtown environment. To me that needs to be kept at some level. I’m more comfortable at the four-storey level.

RL: But Commissioner Ron Cutsinger and Commission Chair Mike Moran favor the major construction project.

Ron Cutsinger: I don’t have a problem with the residential. In fact, I think that one of the things we want to do in these areas is to create true mixed-use development. And you know, staff has even said look, we want at least 500 units. I don’t have a problem with the height…, this is a commercial corner. There’s commercial buildings, the building across the street is much higher, to the south. And I don’t believe that, given the buffers, they’re given the width of the right-of-way and the four-lane road, the trees on both sides, and then the setbacks of 40 feet. I just don’t believe, for me anyway, that that’s an issue. 

Mike Moran: Really the applicant here, I think — I’m not speaking for them — if they’re trying to keepresidential and commercial as far off of that and buffered as possible — and it looks like it’s coming back to bite them a little bit — but I think the good-faith intention is essential [inaudible] close to residential and still keep that mixed-use multifamily, living, dining, entertainment experience, which I think that’s before us, in my opinion. They literally [inaudible] this thing with commercial. I think this is much better than that for the community, in my opinion. [inaudible] I think it’s amazing to our community with that mixed-use, living, dining, entertainment experience.

RL: The apartment building’s proposed height — 85 feet — and the maximum number of units were the main issues. Some of the commissioners backed 65 feet and no more than five stories. The commissioners moved to find a compromise. And some ‘horse-trading’ took place during the public hearing between the
commissioners and the developer’s lawyer, Charles Bailey. He said Torburn could live with a shorter apartment building.

Charles Bailey: We feel confident that, in order to even have the prospect of doing 1,200 units or anything close to that, we could achieve that with a 65-foot height building limitation instead of 85 feet that’s permitted …, reducing it by 20 feet to 65 feet. Reducing 20 feet from 85 feet to 65 feet, that would ensure that we would have at least the snowball’s chance in Hades of reaching that 1,200 units or something close to that.

RL: This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.


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