By JESSE BITER, Guest Columnist
Downtown Sarasota is nice, but it could be so much better. Downtown needs a new vision for a new generation. The old vision may have worked for an era, but it has run its course.
I didn’t notice this 12 years ago when I drove from South Carolina to Miami with plans to go on to Texas. When I found Sarasota, I knew I had found the place I wanted to call home the rest of my life. I ran my Pennsylvania company out of my home until selling it a few years ago.
Now my family lives downtown and I have started more companies and come to realize just how smothering and antiquated are the rules and regulations. They seem made for another time. I’ve invested in several properties downtown, but carrying out a vision for the next generation is almost impossible under the old rules. Those are not the ways to the future and it became clear to me as many younger professionals and business people were finding few options in Sarasota.
But I have found a glimpse of the future and inspiration in Rich Swier Jr. at the HuB — a group of individuals interested in finding solutions that work for as many people as possible, as long as they work toward the priority of having a vibrant downtown. To me the HuB means entrepreneurship, innovation, networking, community and jobs. I decided the HuB needed to be bigger, so I bought a building and moved the organization into its current location. Then it hit me, the HuB isn’t a building, it’s a concept for the next generation.
For downtown to have a thriving future for my children and grandchildren, we cannot allow policy to be dictated by the loudest naysayers.
Naysayers do not build, create or improve. They stand in the way and cordon off others. But the future is integrated.
So imagine a community where people can afford to live near work, are close to their families and are able to walk, if they prefer, rather than always drive.
Right now the regulations in Sarasota don’t support such obtainable housing for people. Current density allows up to 50 units per acre. In the downtown core you can build a 10-story building. Ten stories on one acre, which is 435,600 square feet, gives you 50 units at 8,712 feet per unit. Subtract some space for common areas and even retail on the first floor and you’re still at condo sizes that the average family cannot afford.
Those are big, expensive condos for a downtown core. That is what the old rules allow, and it works for wealthier residents. But does it make sense to force builders to build only units that large? The larger the condo, the more expensive it is and will tend to lure part-time residents and leave an emptier downtown for much of the year. Smaller units are more obtainable, result in less commuter traffic and lead to a more vibrant downtown that is sustainable year-round.
Now imagine that downtown is not just Realtors, bankers and lawyers (no offense, I love you all). Consider what Lexjet is doing with more than 150 employees in the heart of downtown. They are earning their money all over the world and bringing it to Sarasota.
But the current rules and regulations don’t work to attract more companies like Lexjet — in fact, they do quite the opposite. A vibrant downtown attracts workers. That attracts more companies like Lexjet, which leads to a Sarasota where wealth is generated versus one where wealth is simply retired. We create a Sarasota that is the land of opportunity.
If people are working and living downtown, they will likely want to play here too. But rules such as banning the playing of amplified music outside works for condos on Longboat Key but not in the heart of a thriving downtown. The City Commission recently voted not to enforce the zoning ban, at least for now, but has let stay in place the noise ordinance that allows music at certain times under certain decibel levels.
My suggestion to residents who don’t like any noise: Don’t live in the heart of downtown — ours or any other.
This is not an either-or scenario, but a future where wealth creation is added to wealth retirement. A Sound Overlay District for downtown would be one remedy.
Living, working and playing should not be mutually exclusive. The synergistic effect created by intelligently improving all three creates a compounded return: Businesses want to be here because employees are here; employees are here because it’s a fun and affordable place to live; everybody wants to play here.
It’s time to change the direction of Sarasota’s future. We have an election March 12, in which normally less than 15 percent of residents turn out to vote. Pay attention and speak up. The future of Sarasota is in the hands of those who show up.
Jesse Biter is an entrepreneur and business owner who lives in downtown Sarasota with his wife and two children.