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County panel supports mixed-use plans for Sarasota Square Mall

Written by on Thursday, March 14, 2024

The developer makes no mention of affordable housing.

By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Mar. 13, 2024

Host: Dying shopping malls are low-hanging fruit for conversion to mixed-use with affordable housing. Sarasota Square Mall is probably the biggest of those low hanging fruit in the county. But at a hearing last week, affordable housing was not mentioned. Ramon Lopez reports.

Ramon Lopez: The Affordable Housing Advisory Council of Sarasota County has issued strategic recommendations to encourage and facilitate affordable housing in our region. One supports projects near transportation hubs, major employment centers, and mixed-use developments. It said: “Adaptive reuse of former commercial shopping centers should also be considered.” But Sarasota Square Mall is not a candidate for affordable housing.

Last Thursday, the Sarasota County Planning Commission conducted a three-and-half hour hearing on the application to redevelop the eerily vacant mall with new commercial and residential structures. It will become a town-center style mixed-use community. The project is bankrolled by Torburn Partners, a privately-owned real estate investment firm in Northbrook, Illinois. The property is located at the corner of U.S. 41 and Beneva Road, encompassing over 90 acres, with the applicant proposing to add a vacant 2.8 acre parcel to the site.

The Torburn redevelopment proposal

Currently, the mall property has over a million square feet of empty retail space. The applicant proposes to reduce the area for commercial use to 692,000 square feet, filled with new retail stores, restaurants, medical and business offices. The existing mall complex would be demolished, except for the Costco ‘big box’ store and gas station, the AMC theatres, and the J.C. Penny, the only remaining tenants.

As many as 1,200 market-rate apartments could be built there, but county staff has stipulated that the applicant must build a minimum of 500 residential units. As stated, there is no affordable housing component. Sarasota Square Mall opened its doors in September 1977 with major department stores as anchor tenants. But the once-bustling shopping center’s fortunes began to decline with the opening of the Mall at University Town Center.

The county planning commission advises the Sarasota County Commission on adoption of—and amendments to–the comprehensive plan, and land-use applications. It only makes recommendations, so their advice can be ignored by the county commissioners. A county go-ahead for the mall rehab is months and meetings away. Torburn must still submit applications for building permits and conduct traffic and wildlife studies. A site development plan is also needed.

Last week’s hearing entailed multiple requests, including rezoning and special exception petitions. The most controversial would allow for a bar and late-night outdoor entertainment on certain days. Robert Horne, a representative of Torburn Partners, said the town- center style mixed-use development would be good for the local community, won’t create more traffic and noise, and won’t harm the existing wildlife.

Robert Horne: It’s going to become a lifestyle community that’s walkable. We’re introducing residential to an area that doesn’t currently have residential. As was mentioned, we’re going to leave the door open for office uses or potentially medical office uses that could be a part of this campus. But we want it to be a walkable, livable lifestyle redevelopment.

RL: But 15 upset local residents said the buildings were too tall for the area, and the apartments would create area overcrowding. Most complained about resulting noise and traffic congestion. None of the speakers spoke in favor of the development, as currently planned.

Resident 1: We have an assisted living facility. And then all the other people, the mobile home park, and allowing music and entertainment after 10 o’clock. And I think this is becoming very disrespectful for the residents that do live around there.

Resident 2: I expect you to be working for us, for the community. The lawyers in their suits and so forth are asking you to work for them. You can’t have it both ways. We’re talking basically about quality of life, and this is going to change. 

I’m somewhat insulted by someone coming up and telling me that I live in a retail desert. There’s nothing that I can’t find within five minutes. I’m insulted by someone saying, “We’re giving you the option of not having to drive an hour round trip up to UTC.” I don’t ever have to drive up to UTC. I can find whatever I need right here. 

Resident 3: It’s a beautiful area. It’s quiet. It’s just where you’d want to be. I don’t have to tell you what’s happening to Sarasota. It’s shameful. 1,200 units is absurd. The height is out of control. Think about Naples. We can’t have that happening here. The traffic, as they’ve said, is exponentially going to get worse. 

Resident 4: Our committee asks for responsible development, not reckless development.

Resident 5: The anecdotal evidence is so clear that in areas that have had this side of uncontrolled growth, results in a reduction in quality of life for everyone. The developers touted the need for increased housing as a justification for the unreasonable size and scope of this project. Please don’t be fooled by this ruse.

Other infill development around this county has been accomplished and is assisting with housing needs. throughout the region. This project is so outrageous and is so large. Please don’t let them get away with this.

RL: In the end, the planning commissioners voted unanimously in favor of the multiple rezoning and special exception petitions. Planning Commissioners Donna Carter, Emmalee Legler and Jordan Keller:

Donna Carter: I think that the residents—everybody’s always so reluctant to change, and they’re always fearful. But once it’s there, everybody’s like, “Oh, this is great!” And I’ve seen it over and over again here in Sarasota, other places I’ve lived, and I think people … all of us need to be a little bit more open minded and realize the benefits to the general community and maybe not complain so much.  

Emmalee Legler: You know, I don’t know about anybody else on this board, but when I saw this come through, I was so excited. I think, you know, we have been waiting for a very, very long time in this community for that to become something.

Sarasota Square Mall

I mean, it is … blighted. That’s exactly what this is over there. You go on Saturday to Costco, and it is not blighted at Costco. I think one of the things that the folks who do come here … we do respect the opinions of everyone. However, we have to be considerate of the entire community that is going to benefit from this in addition to those that are surrounding this.

Jordan Keller: All I’d have to say is yes, it’s nice that it’s actually being renovated over there because literally the first time I was there, It looked like a horror movie. Like you walk down the mall and that’s literally all it is. It just looks like a zombie film. Like you’re just waiting for something to pop out. It’s actually nice that something’s actually going to come in there and actually help that area out.

RL: This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.


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