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Sarasota luxury tower developer has to face some public scrutiny

Written by on Saturday, September 30, 2023

But the most controversial issue – height – may not be up for discussion.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Sept. 29, 2023

Host: Their downtown lot is tiny, but the Obsidian tower will be the tallest in town – if the developer gets his way. The luxury project is now facing public scrutiny, after the City of Sarasota’s chief planner said she doesn’t have the authority to decide on one of three adjustments the Obsidian developer asked for. With that, the ball is now in the court of the city planning board, and that board may have to pass it on to the city commission. But the most controversial aspect – height – may not even be up to discussion, as our news team reports.

Johannes Werner: The most luxurious condo tower project in downtown Sarasota yet now has to face public scrutiny, after the head of the City of Sarasota Development Services Department denied one adjustment to the zoning code the developers had requested, and said she does not have the authority to decide on one other adjustment. Lucia Panica said so in a letter a week ago to Joel Freedman, the consultant hired by developer Matt Kihnke, as first reported by the Sarasota News Leader.

This means, the ball is in the court of the city planning board and its appointed members. Depending on that board’s decision and possible appeals by either the developer or neighbors, it may end up in the Sarasota City Commission.

The 340-foot tall project on North Palm Avenue has been the subject of wrath by neighborhood activists, who called it “Spa Needle” and say it is violating the spirit of the Duany development plan that aims to create a walkable downtown, due to its towering height and exemptions to the comprehensive plan its developers requested.

City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch has been a long-time critic of what is called “administrative approval”, the process that leaves the decision for major projects in the hands of staffers, and often outside public scrutiny. She could not speak to the specifics of the Obsidian project, due to the fact that she and her fellow commissioners will have to deliberate on it. But she does have strong opinions on the process in general.

Jen Ahearn-Koch: In downtown, there is Administrative Approval on all projects that conform to the code, with no community input that is part of the record. I think that the community should really be a part of that process. It’s really the big projects that are impactful to the community where it’s really valuable to have that community conversation. It’s not a question of, ‘Did you get their approval or you don’t get their approval’? That’s not what we’re talking about. It really is a very basic course. It’s about community planning. It’s about the community feeling being a part of the way their community is developing.

J.W.: Panica, in her letter to the developer, denied the request to reduce habitable space on the ground floor and first floor, saying it “does not meet all of the criteria”. She also said she had to move the request to reduce retail frontage of the Obsidian to the planning board, because the reduction would exceed 25 percent. She also cited the zoning code’s intent to “promote the safety, comfort and convenience of the pedestrian”.

The most controversial aspect of the Obsidian – its towering height, thanks to additional space on each of the allowed 18 floors – will apparently not be addressed by the planning board.

In the meantime, Commissioner Ahearn-Koch has a message to neighbors and residents.

J.A.-K.: I just would constantly encourage the community to stay involved. Contact your commissioners. We work for you. We are here to represent you. And if we don’t know what you’re thinking, if we don’t know what your input is, if we don’t know what your concerns are, if we don’t know what your your suggestions are – even if they’re positive, negative or neutral – if we don’t know them, if you don’t communicate with us that, we cannot represent you. So I would encourage citizens to reach out to your city commissioners. You elect us, we represent you, and we can’t represent you, if we don’t know what you’re thinking and what your concerns are.

This has been Johannes Werner with WSLR News.

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