Last Modified: Thursday, March 24, 2016 at 1:02 p.m.
Sarasota has always been about growth and development. They are the threads that run throughout our history, extending from the Scot Colony, which arrived in 1885, expecting to find a town, to the construction of the high-rise buildings being shoehorned throughout the community. Today, though, it is rampant.
There was a hiatus after the real-estate crash of 1926 that continued through the Great Depression and World War II. But that was an unintentional aberration.
In May 1955, Professor Ellis Freeman, who had been vacationing in Sarasota since the 1930s and who built the Four Seasons Apartments on Ben Franklin Drive, wrote of the beauty and atmosphere of the area: “The town had the tone and charm of a fishing village ... Artists and writers and professors like myself loved it for the complete absence of resort commercialism. It was what one hoped to find on Cape Cod and never did.”
Too bad the Sarasota he described did not take a page out of the handbook that Boca Grande planner's used. Better yet, an entire chapter: The one titled, “When Is Enough Enough?” That beautiful community to the south did not sell out; it did not build itself into extinction.
Instead, we embrace wholesale development on a scale certain to erase the very qualities that made Sarasota so singularly beautiful, relaxed and appealing to tourists and residents.
Look at an aerial photograph of the Sarasota core of 1955 and compare it with a contemporary shot. You do not have to be a misty-eyed sentimentalist to understand how much was sacrificed.
The lovely aesthetic that characterized yesteryear is continually razed in favor of a mind-set that believes that more is better. Despite some political resistance, in the end Sarasota never met a developer or a project that it did not embrace wholeheartedly.
It is worse than ever, and there seems to be no end in sight. Adjacent to already clogged streets, more hotels, apartments and condominiums, housing developments and shopping centers are planned. For motorists already angry and frustrated at the interminable delays, it is akin to stuffing 20 pounds of potatoes into a 10-pound sack.
Yesterday's charm has devolved into today's congestion.
During the post-World War II boom of the mid-'50s, local author Mary Freeman warned that Sarasota might turn into “an imitation Miami.” She offered hopefully, “But we can still take things in hand ... but the citizens must make a more intelligent and louder noise than the speculator. Otherwise he'll destroy our unique assets ...”
And we have raised our voices. When U.S. 41 was cut through Luke Wood Park in the mid-'50s, writer Betty Burkett spoke for many when she called it “A deed so ugly that it will remain like a welt across the minds of our people for decades to come.” It made no difference.
And it mattered not at all when there was public outcry against the removal of the Memorial Oak Trees beginning in 1955 — it was in the name of progress, we were told. Same with the years of struggle to save the John Ringling Towers and the Karl Bickel House in the late 1990s. Oftentimes citizens railed against the demolition of a cherished part of their past and to no avail. We even voted to save the Lido Casino — it was razed.
Perhaps the Jack Cartlidge sculpture outside City Hall explains it best. It's called “Nobody's listening.”
I read in the Herald-Tribune recently that, in spite of all the new construction, some of the millennials are having a difficult time finding affordable housing and are leaving Sarasota.
I empathize with them, but for me and my generation of Baby Boomers, we don't have to worry about leaving Sarasota. It has left us.
Jeff LaHurd is a Sarasota resident, historian and author.
Comment by Bill Z:
Those of us who grew up here, or have been here for a long time, know exactly what Jeff is talking about. Bit by bit, development nibbled, then chomped away at those things that gave Sarasota its sleepy charm. Florida boosterism continued its incessant message to "come on down", and, sure enough, they came. For a long time, the numbers were not too alarming, and development proceeded fairly slowly and in small bites. Soon, though, the rumble of earthscrapers, bulldozers, and the like was a constant hum as roads were widened, new roads were built, and more and more houses grew. It became very profitable to grow houses instead of food, so agricultural uses were pushed farther and farther out, which meant to the east. In the "old days", folks had chickens in their back yards...no special CLUCK ordinances needed.
As development and its costs, in loss of environment and in money, continued apace, voices were, indeed raised in calls for better plans, for control, for better rules of the game. For a long time, these voices were actually listened to, and bad proposals were often turned down. It did not take too long, though, for those who wanted free rein to do what they wanted, to figure out that the easiest solution to the getting rid of pesky limitations would be simply to elect those who made the final decisions...the city and county commissioners. They realized that all it took was a lot of money to get enough publicity out for the candidates they wanted, and against the candidates they did not want, and, voila, a docile board of commissioners! Before they learned how to play this game very skillfully, we actually had some commissioners who had the long-term interests of the entire county at heart...Jon Thaxton comes to mind immediately. After Jon was termed out several years ago, he applied to be appointed to the Planning Commission...and was denied a seat! Jono Miller, one of the top environmentalists here, ran for County Commission and was targeted by development interests in an exceedingly vicious advertising campaign...he was defeated. Lourdes Ramirez, another leading neighborhood advocate and an expert in Sarasota's land use issues, ran for County Commission and was not only targeted in another vicious advertising campaign, but Bob Waechter, a development activist, actually committed a felony identity theft thing in order to discredit her with voters. Think about it: given the experiences of those who oppose rampant, unchecked development in recent elections, would you want to subject yourself to the same thing?
There is one thing, though: citizens can propose charter amendments, get 13,000 petitions, and get them on the ballot... it is the only thing that cannot be controlled by the FOD (Forces Of Darkness). They can mount advertising campaigns against them, as they did when Citizens for Sensible Growth proposed its amendments, but the amendments passed overwhelmingly, because the voters understood what was at stake.... Even county commissioners cannot overrule the charter!