The City of Bradenton's rush to judgment on a significant development project along the Manatee River just east of downtown begs the question: Why the secrecy? Why this last-minute addition to the agenda?
On Wednesday, the City Council approved a conceptual plan to build a "worker-friendly" complex also described as an "urban, mixed use community" in a "walkable village" on 21 acres in Old Manatee. The proposal features 490 apartments and townhouses as well as retail and live-work areas.
This Villages at Riverwalk development first appeared on a council workshop agenda just two weeks prior to Wednesday's initial approval -- its first public preview -- and then the concept suddenly surfaced on the council agenda on Tuesday, just hours before the vote.
Why the fast-track? How could the public be adequately informed of this swift action?
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This has nothing to do with the merits of the project. The development team includes one of the area's most prominent builders, NDC Construction, and the Atlanta-based Hatfield Development Co. The two are currently constructing the promising Riversong Apartments on the Sandpile behind the Manatee Performing Arts Center.
Imagine the howls of citizen protest should Manatee County commissioners vote on a major project so quickly.
Bradenton Vice Mayor Bemis Smith portrayed this accurately in objecting vociferously to this high-velocity approval: "I'm concerned about the lack of community input and transparency that points to a question of fairness."
Furthermore, Smith stated he did not receive the conceptual plan until Tuesday afternoon, leaving an insufficient amount of time to review the project. One resident of the impacted area, Jackie Atwood, made this startling revelation at the council meeting: "I'm stunned that this wasn't even publicly noticed in our neighborhood."
Smith upped the ante on this objection: "I think it is abominable that we as a council have so little regard to community input to allow this to go forward. We are not being fair to our citizens and not acting in their best interest." He stood on the losing side of the 4-1 vote for approval.
The development concept appears sound -- a vast improvement on the previous plan for that property, condominium towers called Riviera Southshore. The original plan called for 19-story buildings, but a firestorm of citizen protest ensued. Scaled down, the property for the 671-unit complex went into foreclosure in 2007 during the real estate market crash and economic downturn. However, lawsuits against the city over the development continued, but with the initial approval of the Villages of Riverwalk, that legal action could end.
The new project sits between Riverside Drive East and Manatee Avenue East adjacent to the future expansion of Riverwalk. That pedestrian-bicycle link to downtown should prove valuable as a highly desirable live-work-play feature. Village residents would have easy access to restaurants, offices, services and more.
If this project is truly in the best interests of Bradenton, why the secrecy? Particularly, why keep this from the community that it will affect most and their City Council representative, Bemis Smith. Perhaps this is a project we should be celebrating, but because someone else "knows better" what the community needs, instead we took a step back in city government responsibility and concern for the people.
Did the city hustle this proposal through approval to avoid the howls of protest that Riviera Southshore generated?
The project still faces other hurdles as a site plan, costs and timetable must navigate the planning and approval process. However, council approval of the concept guarantees this or a similar design will be developed.
Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law doesn't ban agenda additions to a regularly scheduled meeting, but the state attorney general's office advises boards to delay formal action on controversial items. The opinion states that in "the spirit of the Sunshine Law, the city commission should be sensitive to the community's concerns that it be allowed advance notice and, therefore, meaningful participation on controversial issues coming before the commission."
Bradenton's City Council did indeed break the spirit of the law. No government should conduct the people's business in this fashion. It breaks faith with the public.