One of my favorite cities is Florence, Italy. Full of art, beauty, bustling with commerce, visiting Florence is a treat. It’s rich city center teems with beautiful architecture, museums, cafes, apartments, lovely shops and outdoor markets. A google earth satellite view of Florence reveals that it’s dynamic city center – where visitors and the rich architectural heritage concentrate – occupies roughly 1.5 square miles. Firenze’s animated hub isn’t much bigger than downtown Sarasota.
A view of Florence via google earth satellite also exhibits vast green space and farmland flanking the city’s northern and southern edges. Just a few miles from the Duomo you can see cultivated fields and pasture. The beautiful fruits, vegetables and meats don’t have far to travel to Firenze’s market, restaurants and cafes. Ditto the local chianti. In Florence, the urban is urban and the rural is rural, and both thrive.
Peruse Florence with google earth’s street view and you won’t find skyscrapers. Piazzas are surrounded by 4 and 5 story buildings. Florence’s buildings aren’t blocky, boring or lacking in details. It’s a city with design standards. Beauty matters. City of Sarasota residents who have been here seven years or more may remember the homogenous Sarasota Quay, torn down in 2007. Six years and counting since its demolition, the old Quay building’s uninviting and unvarying facade is nostalgically recalled by – no one.
One local blog references it, saying “I never really liked that building it just had a “cheesy” feel to me….” Would the old Quay design, positioned on 14 acres of prime downtown real estate, have gotten the stamp of approval in Florence? Io non penso!
There are good reasons to be concerned about Sarasota’s planning standards. The year 2013 ushered in County Commission plans to weaken planning standards at the request of 6 local development firms. Limiting and dismissing public input, the County Commission marches on with plans to neuter Sarasota 2050 – community standards for development outside Sarasota’s urban service boundary. Former County Administrator Randy Reid’s desire to hire an independent academic team to evaluate proposed 2050 changes was cited as a factor in his firing after only 18 months on the job. County Commissioners hired a biased consultant instead, wasting $90,000 on a ridiculous, wholly unreliable report. Sarasota residents have recently been made aware of the significant traffic problems brewing at University and I75 with the opening of new mall, and planned housing subdivisions.
But we do have reasons to be hopeful. In 2013, the City of Sarasota created the Urban Design Studio. Urban planners Karin Murphy and Andrew Georgiadis are working to bring high quality development standards to our City. Such standards hold the promise for great gains in economic development and quality of life. Yes, this is Sarasota. And Sarasota isn’t Florence. But Sarasota has a lot to learn from cities like Florence, and it’s time we started following through and actually implementing those lessons. The beautiful built environment is a huge factor in Florence’s success as a cultural and economic center. In 2014, may the City of Sarasota aspire to our own renaissance.