Thursday, June 30, 2005

Keeping Time with William Murtagh

A couple months ago, we posted (March 11) information about the Sarasota Alliance for Historical Preservation meeting that featured a talk by Dr. William Murtagh. Dr. Murtagh is the founder of the National Registrar of Historic Places. He has been known as the "Keeper of the National Registry."

In an interview with him, printed Tuesday in the SHT, he discussed his life long love affair with historical places. He has developed a keen awareness of the relationship of older structures and their ability to speak to future generations about their own time and place. This connection to the past is vital if we are to build upon the best that has come before us.

Murtagh is quoted as saying "I’m appalled at what little attention Sarasota has paid to the concept of preservation. There’s not been much of a sense of community identity and maybe it’s because of the snowbirds; I don’t know. It may also be the problem that they’re older people, and the older people only look upon where they came from as historic." He added "Also, most (real estate developers) are really in the business of making money. I have never seen this to the excess it is in Florida, where people are turning properties on a spade."

Sarasota has organizations that try very hard to preserve the best of our past. We are fortunate to have several organizations that have many dedicated members striving to do just that. However, the pressure of real estate development profits is extremely strong here. Without a commitment of dollars by local governments to save historical places they succumb to the development pressure.

We are getting better at this, but the process needs more help. Opportunities are all around us for involvement - currently a group is working very hard to find a permanent place for the Crocker Church and the Luke-Bidwell House, both important structures with stories to tell about the early days of Sarasota.
See if you can find a way to help. We need to up the ante for preservation.

WalMart’s Coming to Town - Newtown That Is

A recent "neighborhood workshop" gave WalMart representatives the opportunity to explain to the Newtown community what might be in the cards. WalMart is considering a Super Center at the NE corner of 301 and MLK Way.

An article in the SHT described the confab in these terms: "Wal-Mart hasn't presented a formal offer to the city. Thursday night's meeting at Booker High School was part of the company's research process, to ensure any store built is a reflection of the community."

Attorney Brenda Patten, the local WalMart development rep, painted a pretty picture of what WalMart could be. "What would you like to see Wal-Mart do for this community?" she said. Wal-Mart would "kick start" the Newtown revitalization process, working to "draw people into your community," Patten said. "They'll come with their dollars."

Every suggestion was answered with something like "that can be done" or "we’ll look into that", although no commitments were made.

This group of interested residents had done their homework and much skepticism was expressed. Job training, jobs for Newtown residents, health care benefits, child care, traffic and many other issues were brought up. The issue of using the 18 acre brown-field site and its clean up cost was also discussed.

In the end it seemed that while most could see some benefit (after all the picture was pretty), the sense was that it would take a lot of community involvement to get real benefit for the Newtown community. There are potential pluses and there are definite minuses in the WalMart equation. To tip the balance to favor the community will require much effort, involvement and creativity. The community made a good start by showing up in force and asking tough questions.

Commissioner Fredd Atkins closed the meeting with an animated summation: "this is the beginning of a process "... he referred to as "a negotiation with a gorilla." " This struggle is going to require all of us to get ropes around it, so it works for us."

Amen, Fredd!

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Profit, Profit, Profit

"They come here to buy and flip," she said.

This comment is from a story in the SHT yesterday about (what else?) booming real estate prices. This time it was referring to overseas buyers, particularly from Europe. "Many foreign buyers are investors who send representatives to closings, never setting foot in a property" the article says.

That is the reality today. Instead of investing in your community, your community becomes the latest speculative sandbox in which to play. For those investors it matters not what happens in the community, only the expected profit matters.

It used to be that real estate folks preached location, location, location. Now the mantra is likely to be profit, profit, profit.

The real estate folks also complain about the lack of "inventory" (makes it easier to sell "profit" by using business terms instead of life style terms). Of course if you put your house into the "inventory", where will you find a place to live? Maybe the lack of inventory is a good thing. Forces the speculators to chase the same houses around and around.

Makes you wonder about the end game.

Monday, June 27, 2005

RE:View of the Bay

Views of the bay at Island Park are rapidly becoming extinct - see the pictures below. We used to be able to see the bay, look across the water at the city skyline or see people walking along side the water. Interesting and nice views. Now we see the back end of boats. And more of this type view is coming. The docks are creeping closer to the end of the peninsula.

Apparently this is another effect of growth. Parking for the cars and parking for the boats. We hear about the need for more boating access in Sarasota and how Marina Jack is helping address this. If so, why are most of the boats registered in far-away places and hardly ever taken from their dock. It would appear that they are owned by out of town (rich) people that take up space in case they want to visit.

We all hear that growth happens. And we hear the market speaking to us again: sold to the highest bidder!. This view belongs only to those that can afford it. The rest can look at the back of the boat.

A view from an Island Park bench. You can actually see the bay! Warning - this view is about to become extinct. The encroaching dock pilings you see are the harbinger of new docks and the accompanying back end view of used boats.

Another view of the bay from a bench at Island Park. Is this a pleasant view or what?

Model Behavior

Downtown Sarasota has seen a number of very questionable developments. The current list includes giving away four stories of public space above the sidewalk at 1350 Main St, the give away of a portion of the public street (as well as the sidewalk) as part of the concession for 100 Central, the extremely narrow sidewalk abutting Fruitville in front of Marquee En Ville, and the poor design of the Whole Foods loading dock that forces trucks to drive up onto the sidewalk across Second St in order to back into the dock space.

Architectural drawings and renderings are apparently inadequate to prevent visualization of poor design. As we noted in a recent post, The Pelican Press quoted:

[Sarasota City Planner] Murphy countered, “We struggle with drawings. Developers want certainty. We could probably get a model out of them, but drawings, they’re not prepared to spend $350,000 to do that.” Board member Carl Meyer said he “feels the tail is wagging the dog. It’s a cost of doing business for developers. What we need is a process in this city so developers don’t run over our city."

Save Our Sarasota strongly recommends that our Planning Department require scale models of proposed major buildings in their downtown site to prevent future problems.

This is particularly important for the proposed Pineapple Square project. With no details presented, we hope problems like we have already seen are not repeated.

How proposed and current buildings fit together in our downtown space has not been addressed. We need to be able to see how downtown will be shaping up - this can only be done with the use of scale models of a size that can show interrelationships within the built environment.

We need an accurate model of our downtown that shows all the impacts of development.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Lots of room at the back of the Marquee En Ville as you can clearly see in this shot. On the other hand the developer has used every square inch of his land. No need for trees, flowers, shrubs, grass here. Nothing but concrete.

Looking east at the Marquee En Ville from Fruitville and 41. Nothing like a little sidewalk space. And I mean LITTLE! Is this the Sarasota of the future? No setbacks from the sidewalk. Even across the street from this, the Encore townhouses have a small setback filled with greenery.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

EAR - Can You Hear?

Tonight the Planning Board reviewed the draft of the Evaluation and Appraisal Report (EAR) - long title for suggested changes to our Comprehensive Plan. The most discussion was generated about Laurel Park.

Kate Lowman, Julliett Reynolds, Ed Chase and Bruce Franklin all spoke eloquently about the draft recommendation to keep the same land use currently in place, and not change to the new Downtown Code. All of these people live in Laurel Park. And yes, it was that Bruce Franklin, the developer's agent, actually siding with the residents. In public! In front of the Planning Board! Wow!

As described in a previous post, the residents living in Laurel Park have overwhelmingly indicated their preference to keep the current land use classification and zoning as it represents the best way to protect this neighborhood.

It was interesting to hear Bruce Franklin speaking as a resident and presenting the case for keeping the status quo. Mr. Franklin was involved in crafting the current land use classification and zoning in the early 90's and says that what has resulted is exactly what the city and residents wanted to happen. He echoed the other residents by saying "Stop! Leave us alone!" at any hint of suggestions to change the zoning.

Of course Diana Hamilton again brought up her pitch to change the neighborhood to allow more surface coverage, higher houses, more density and more commercial - all of which have been rejected by more than 3/4 of the residents. And we read in today’s SHT, Devin Rutkowski’s (the "premier" Laurel Park developer) pitch to change Laurel park so he can build higher, build more and commercialize.

Later in the discussion Planning Board chair, Michael Shelton asked of the Planning staff "How can we put this issue to bed? So it doesn’t keep coming back?" We all know what the residents want, why keep bringing it up again? We all agree with them. How do we put it to bed?

So what happens? New board member Shawn Fulker raising the issue again. He indicated that he had spoken with the residents and was glad to hear "the other side" of the issue (apparently he had only heard the developer side until then). He said that while he understood perfectly the residents desire to preserve what they had, he first questioned whether the "sampling" was high enough to really indicate the residents’ desire. Further, he said he thought the best way to "protect" the neighborhood was to first change to the downtown neighborhood land use then look at a secondary change to the interior of the neighborhood - apparently to allow higher houses, commercial and more density on the edges.

Apparently Mr Fulker couldn’t hear the residents very well and he couldn’t hear the rest of the board and planning staff. He certainly listened to the developers quite well. Time and time again the residents say clearly what they want. However those whose interests are speculating and profiting from changing land use for their own personal benefit do not hear the residents, they listen only to the dollar.

For openers, it does not appear that Mr. Fulker will listen to all sides of the issue. Instead it appears that his interest is narrowly defined and was set before the public hearing. We hope he can become more open and listen to the residents. Otherwise we will be heading down a troubling path.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Greed vs the Common Good in a Civil Society

Where are we headed?

A recent SHT editorial took downtown landowners to task.

"Landowners and business interests challenged the Duany plan in 2002. The city made concessions to keep the master plan from bogging down in legal mud.

But now, with the regulations still in limbo and more challenges threatened, it appears that the "settlement" was just a temporary reprieve.

Must this disputatious ground be plowed over and over? Will the community's vision ever be realized?

Property rights are vital to a civil society, but so is the voice of consensus -- and the people spoke plainly five years ago. We urge potential challengers to aim for the common good. The master plan can serve it, if given a chance."

Save Our Sarasota agrees wholeheartedly with these statements. Why are these land owners denying the rights of the residents to bring about the vision we have for our city.? Does greed trump vision? Those "civic leaders" who are rushing to cash in on the old code allowance for 16 story buildings are also greedily pushing the system to establish their place in the line waiting to cash in on what is left of Sarasota.

A few days later we read about David Band and Wayne Ruben’s project for twin 16 story towers at Fruitville and Washington. Of course this version has many more condos than announced previously. A city planning staff is quoted: "It's a really excellent plan for one of the premier downtown intersections in all the city," said Allen Parsons, a senior city planner. "We want to see this corner celebrated."

Creating a major traffic problem and tying it up with more parking issues is not an excellent plan and hardly a way of celebrating. I suppose that the developers are celebrating their expected profits, and once again their ability to say "screw the residents, I have my rights.’"

Then we read that Michael Saunders is going to be nice and buffer her 16 story building from Laurel Park. It was great of Bruce Franklin to advise her to forget the commercial space idea and go for condos. After all, the market speaks louder than the residents.

Apparently they all know the speculators are lined up to purchase condos.

But, there’s that nagging vision thing. The residents (read voters) are not thrilled at all by the massive building and disregard for traffic, green space, good planning, and affordable housing. Instead we get excuses and inaction.

We urge City Commissioners to say "enough!" If the developers want to take the city to court, stop all development downtown until the code is in place and all challenges have been disposed. Hire the best legal team we can find to preserve our vision and our rights. We believe there is plenty of support for this approach.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Live Shade

Recently (Jun 6) the city received a report from the Public Works Dept concerning trees and downtown. This was a follow up to the report of the "ad hoc Tree Committee". Two options for adding trees, as recommended by the ad hoc Tree Committee, were given.

Public Works reported that the cost of a bulb out, an irrigation system (using re-cycled water as requested) and moving a city water line would cost about $17K per tree. Our mayor was surprised at this cost - apparently assuming it would be much lower. After all, the city had recently upped the required payment for removing a downtown tree from $250 to $2500. This was all sparked by Barnacle Bill’s desire for an awning instead of a tree and was supposed to be the replacement cost for a tree.

Now that we know the real cost of adding a tree, we would suggest the city re-visit their off-the-cuff $2500 fee and consider something more realistic (and based on data). If a property owner wishes to remove a downtown tree, the true cost for replacement is a reasonable charge. After all, the city did pay for the installation of all the trees on Main St and all are thriving.

The Commissioners indicated that now was not the time to proceed with installing the new bulb outs and trees since a number of Main St parking places have been temporarily lost because of construction and because the city has not yet constructed enough off-street parking - although it is interesting to note that the Whole Foods public parking always has lots of empty spaces.

We have no problem with delaying the installation of the new trees in bulb outs. We know the Commissioners committed to installing these trees and they will eventually make good on their promise.


Saturday, June 18, 2005

Concrete Chunk Appears in the Middle of Central Ave!

Finally some newspaper coverage about a problem we have been harping about for some time now!

Giving away public space has reached a new high (or low depending on your view). The Pelican Press has a great article about the lack of design input and expertise for many of our downtown projects. Dale Parks, architect for the superb bus transfer station, also is a member of the CRA Advisory Board and has been trying for a long time to inject some design sense into our downtown redevelopment.

The latest screw up is the realization that we have somehow given away a portion of the street so condo owners can have easier access to their private residences. When SOS asked Commissioner Ken Shelin recently about this issue, he said that when this project was reviewed by the Planning Board - he was a member of the PB at that time - the porte-cochere was not on the plans. He indicated that somehow it showed up after their review and he does not know why.

We read in the Pelican article:

That way, the board hopes, it won’t have "the wool pulled over its eyes," as has happened in the past, according to Parks. He gives, as a most recent example, the porte cochere presently rising out of Central Avenue as part of the 100 Central project.

When that was mentioned at a recent advisory panel meeting, city redevelopment specialist Karin Murphy rose to the porte cochere’s defense. "I went over and took a look," Murphy said, "and it depends somewhat on how we measured the 24 feet. I think it [Central Avenue] will end up the same width as Lemon."

"If so, that’s insane," Park replied of the new narrow-appearing street between the new bus station and Whole Foods Market.

Sarasota’s Chief Planner John Burg commented, "All of us would make changes if we could. But it was a wonderful opportunity bringing Whole Foods to town. We all learned. We’ll all get better.

"Downtown projects are getting larger and developers are coming to town wanting to take over streets – and now we’ve got a chunk of concrete in the middle of Central Avenue."

Murphy countered, "We struggle with drawings. Developers want certainty. We could probably get a model out of them, but drawings, they’re not prepared to spend $350,000 to do that."

Apparently planning found a way to measure the street so that giving away public space is OK, although another planner says they are still learning. It didn’t take Parks long to learn we have a chunk of concrete in the middle of the street.

It’s nice that developers want certainty; we, however, demand certainty. We have the right to expect that screw ups like this do not happen in Sarasota. We have too many of them. Giving away the sidewalk air space at 1350 Main (a first in Florida!), no set backs on Fruitville for a new condo development thus putting the front door 4 feet from 30+mph traffic, a Whole Foods delivery dock design that requires the truck to drive on the sidewalk across the street in order to back into the dock.

What actions will our leaders take to correct this? Are we still learning and can we look forward to more screw ups?

Developers love to show pretty pictures with misleading perspective and fanciful settings. Real life ends up a lot different. This is basic stuff, everyone knows this happens as part of the pitch to sell a project. The amazing thing is how many of our leaders get sucked in by this developer tactic.

Is there any accountability or will our leaders just run for cover?

Porte-cochere covering public street surface, 100 Central

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Speculating on Affordable Housing

There is a lot in the news lately about real estate prices, speculators and whether there is a bubble and if it will burst.

On the Sarasota scene we read commentary from William Seider, a real estate lawyer from the firm Williams Parker Harrison Dietz & Getzen. He comments "For the first time since perhaps the 1980s I think that a majority of our condominium product is being sold to speculators, which is a troubling concept. Brokers are showing up not to bring buyers, but just to buy for their own account, and with the intent of never actually closing on the unit but 'flipping' the contract."

He also advises new speculators to be very cautious.

Further away, but still in Florida, the Miami Herald has published an excellent series about the current massive building boom there and the speculation that is going on. Comments like:
  • "Citywide, developers are proposing more than 61,000 new condominium units -- eight times the number built during the past decade"
  • "Development underway here in Miami that is unprecedented, bigger than anything, bigger than Hong Kong in the boom years of development"
  • "It also raises serious concerns. In the absence of a ready plan, how will the city cope with thousands of expected new residents and the traffic they will generate, given antiquated infrastructure, limited public transit and a shortage of parks and open space? Will Miami residents, among the nation's poorest urban dwellers, be displaced or priced out of new housing"
  • "Then there is the other factor, anecdotal and unquantifiable: the speculator. "
  • ''As much as 85 percent of all condominium sales in [downtown Miami] are accounted for by investors and speculators,'' housing analysts at investment firm Raymond James warned in a March report.
    Banks have started to back off lending on condo projects, or have instituted new rules to avoid giving mortgages to investors"
  • "Spiegelman sold the condo units in the Marina Blue condo going up on Biscayne Boulevard.
    ''One hundred percent of the buyers were investors and speculators,'' he said. "Anyone who tells you their projects are different are deluding themselves.''
  • "Yet there's relatively little in the new downtown priced for working families. ''The missing link here is in creating housing that the middle class can afford,''

What is happening in Miami is mirrored here in Sarasota, albeit on a much smaller scale. We face the same issues: there is no infrastructure in place to handle the expected growth; traffic and parking issues are significant. Affordable housing in far away locations (North Port?) will result in either more cars and parking requirements as workers commute from further away or simply a loss of people willing to work in these conditions.

Meanwhile back in the newspaper we read in Rod Thomson’s opinion column that some in Sarasota are worried that their children will not be able to afford a home here. "The county should dismiss the blathering negativists and look at all options for opening up housing that the next generation can afford while protecting current assets." He offers the concepts of waiving road capacity requirements in the name of affordable housing as well as indicating that our county program of acquiring environmentally sensitive lands adds to the affordable housing crisis.

The real question, of course, is why do people want to live here? The answer is that it is a very desirable place to live, driven in a large part by the environment. Covering the land with concrete will make Sarasota an undesirable place to live and will naturally decrease the housing demand and lower prices. That is not the reason I want to live here. Allowing substandard infrastructure (roads, etc.) is absolutely the wrong way to maintain quality of life (have you read about North Port’s road problems lately?). If this is "blathering negativism" then count me in.

An important factor, if not the major factor, in driving up home prices is the artificial demand created by those who have no intention of living in the home - the speculator. While Mr. Thomson is right about supply and demand, his demand answers need more scrutiny - making Sarasota undesirable and disregarding the effect of speculators is not the way to bring about positive change.

Both the county and city are looking at concepts for making land costs less expensive (land trust); what this does is remove the speculator effect. This is a positive step. My only complaint is that it is taking so long.

Another positive step would be to reduce the cost of housing construction. Density is one way to do this. There is another way to significantly reduce construction costs that does not require density changes. This is to use modern "factory built" home construction techniques. These techniques produce higher quality results than traditional methods and allow a number of styles capable of blending with almost all neighborhoods.

There is a least one very capable fellow in Sarasota working on the concept of forming a non-profit organization that would provide high quality home manufacturing to go along with land trust concepts thus providing an affordable, high quality home for middle class buyers while shutting out the speculators. This is a very positive step indeed, not the usual hand wringing inaction we usually see or the name calling that is used to typecast those that refuse to give in to "business as usual".

Monday, June 13, 2005

Soul to Remain Downtown

We applaud the decision of First United Methodist to remain downtown.

While our reasons are likely different than the church members', both would agree that First United Methodist adds much to our downtown.

Noted architecture critic and historian, Vincent Scully said of buildings "the best ones speak eloquently of human aspirations and human experience".

Scully was quoted as he remarked on the drastic changes in Miami’s skyline ''Cities used to be dominated by churches and public buildings. They had real civic meaning. Think of the dome of St. Peter's in Rome, ....These are just great big cash registers. How can these move you? They can't. You don't associate them with any fundamental meaning. You identify them with making money and people sitting in offices pushing around pieces of paper.''

Our downtown churches provide an anchor for civic life. On the practical side they provide public space, inexpensive and large meeting space for civic events, traditional architecture and the possibility of a quiet and contemplative place. On the spiritual side they provide a very different dimension to the diversity and liveliness of our downtown. We can identify with our downtown churches.

We hope they have at least another 100+ years of success in downtown Sarasota!

Sunday, June 12, 2005

City "Planning"?

During the last couple years as Sarasota’s downtown has exploded with growth, a number of issues have come up that cause us to wonder whether future construction will cause more problems. If our recent past is an indicator of what lies ahead, we are in trouble.

The Whole Foods delivery truck dock space is poorly designed. The standard semi-trucks cannot back into the loading dock without first driving onto the sidewalk across Second St from the loading dock. This is highly unusual as well as unsafe and likely to cause an ongoing maintenance issue.

The condos on the south side of Fruitville (Marquee en Ville) abut the very narrow sidewalk giving no space between the sidewalk and the building front. This seems like a very poorly designed sidewalk interface as well as a safety issue. Where is the needed setback?

The project at 1350 Main was given 4 floors of public space, 12 ft wide, above the sidewalk on Main St. Not only is this giveaway valued at $3.5M, it also brings the building almost to the curb (to within 3 ft). Visually this will present a narrowing of Main, create a canyon and will reduce the small town ambience of tree shaded lively streets. It will stick out like a sore thumb.

Over on Central, the entry way to the 100 Central building has a porte-cochere sticking out from the building past the sidewalk into a downtown street. This is on a public street! What is going on here?

Our code will allow developers to by-pass the Duany requirement that the downtown buildings be stepped back at the 4th floor - to avoid the canyon effect. Instead it was changed to allow the developer the option of stepping-forward with an arcade with 3 floors of habitable space (at least 12 ft wide and the length of the building) as an incentive to build here. This is in the most desirable city in the entire state of Florida. We make our already narrow streets into canyons to entice developers who are chomping at the bit to build here. We have talked with numerous planning officials all over Florida and all are amazed at this; it is a first as far as anyone knows. Is something wrong with this picture?

We have allowed Marina Jack to build many more docks and mooring spots. The result is that it is no longer possible to see the water from Bayfront Dr until you drive south past Ringling Dr. In addition, out on the peninsula many more docking spots have been added along the park walking path. Again blocking the view. Now instead of water views we have a used boat lot to look at. Why do we allow this? Is this construed to be some kind of investment in Sarasota's future?

Is this the kind of "planning" that Sarasota deserves. Do we need to continue to give away public property to developers, allow poorly designed buildings and close off water views so out of town people can have a convenient place to park their boats? Save Our Sarasota believes that our city leaders - elected and hired - need to think a whole lot more about what is happening and where we are headed. We also hope it doesn’t take long to get on a new track. A track that preserves what is admired and cherished about Sarasota instead of selling every piece of space that can generate some cash. We do not need "investments", we need to hold tightly to the treasures we already have.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Space - Downtown's Last Frontier

Our downtown is a fairly large area, yet we have only a few open or public spaces.

We have the small fountain and a few benches at the Main and Links corner, we have the small fountain with a couple benches at Pineapple and Lemon, we have the 5-Points Plaza which may be the largest of the public spaces but is usually vacant and we have the small plaza on Lemon just north of Mattison’s.

None of these provide a place to comfortably sit in the shade - to read a book or watch people. Probably the liveliest place is the Links Ave area, it has nearby stores to get something to drink or read and has lots of people passing by (at least at noon). The other spaces are nearly always vacant. Of course during the Farmers Market the Lemon St plaza is quite lively.

We do have the large public space at the western edge of downtown - between Gulfstream and Bayfront Dr. But there is never anyone there. It has trees, fountains, ponds but no people.

Just across Bayfront Dr (Hwy 41) is Island Park. This is generally quite lively with benches, trees, O’Leary’s "restaurant’, the kid’s fountain, the dolphin fountain and the nice walk around the point, the bay views and water splashing on the shore line.

So why are some of these places great people spaces and others a waste of space? Primarily it is related to the diversity of things happening that in turn draws a diverse crowd of people. While there is a need for small, quiet contemplative places; there is also a need for vibrant, busy places. The key is to include a variety of things to do (think of Island Park on a larger scale and the Links space on a small scale. Both have some degree of success. Of course when Lemon is packed with vendors at the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market, the same thing occurs. Concern for safety is another factor. This may be a factor in the space between Gulfstream and Hwy 41.

We need more lively public spaces in downtown. We need more green space and shade. In our vision for downtown it would seem that more attention needs to be placed on this. Lively downtowns need people on the street. This means public space that people want to be in. Instead of "selling" the publically owned land downtown, we really need to find ways to increase publically owned great places downtown.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Vultures Circling

Two articles juxtaposed in today’s Sarasota Herald-Tribune real Estate section tell a great deal about our times.

One article talks about how investing in real estate in Florida has beat the stock market returns for several years. Several stories relate how real estate agents are delivering the goods to investors and speculators. We read such comments as:

"I get calls from builders and developers because they know I have the buyers," he said. "With new product, you make money if you're the first in."

"It was appreciating for buyers while it was being built," said Riley, who has handled 51 resales. "We've seen the first resale there at $1 million." His client originally bought it for $552,000 and resold it for about $825,000. That buyer then made about $175,000 on it. Riley was involved in all three sales."

"I've been watching the same bubble for 20 years. Sarasota has the quality of life, the arts, location, environment and resort living everyday. Investment opportunities are not going to stop."

On the same page is the headline "Entrepreneurs preparing to snap up bargains if prices fall". Here we read about the expected slow down or fall in real estate values and the new breed of speculators that are waiting for this to happen.

"Yale economist Robert Shiller, who forecast the stock market decline and the dot-com implosion in his book "Irrational Exuberance," says that significant corrections in housing prices in some of the fastest-appreciating markets are now virtually inevitable."

"Jack McCabe of McCabe Research & Consulting, a project feasibility adviser to large residential developers and apartment owners, shares Shiller's bearish views. But he's getting ready to pick up the pieces after the storm. He is putting together a series of what he calls "opportunity funds" -- pools of investor capital -- to acquire new and converted condominium units purchased by speculators."

"Some condo projects in the Miami-Dade County area have sold "70 to 80 percent" of their units to speculators, "who think they're getting into a gold rush and expect to flip" the units within the year. In reality, McCabe believes, many of these investors will lose their shirts trying to resell at ever-inflating prices"

Who will be the winners, and who the losers? Undoubtedly some speculators (née, investors) will lose. For sure, the big losers will include the work force population, the artists, the teachers who will no longer be able to find affordable housing and work for the institutions and corporations that need their talents. Consider the considerable talent volunteered by our retiree community to our terrific non-profit organizations. These institutions and organizations make up our community and they are already seeing the effect of the speculation in the real estate market.

What about the money changers (née, real estate agent) that now want to be called "investor advisor"? They will get rich at the expense of their reputation and their community. Instead of building up their communities they are tearing them down. They will never admit this, but that’s the way money talks. Kind of like vultures circling for the easy pickings.

But we go merrily along. Bright times are most assuredly ahead, as the developers of the Pineapple Square project have proclaimed: "You haven't seen anything yet!"

Thursday, June 02, 2005

What's Up at the Marina?

Have you noticed the marina lately? We used to have a nice view out to the bay when you drove south along the Trail from the John Ringling Blvd intersection. Now we have a view of a used boat yard - can’t see the water unless you're south of Ringling Blvd.

On the Island Park peninsula, new boat docks are creeping to the north. Maybe the plan is to just fill the bay with out of town boat parking. Gives a new meaning to the name Island "Park".

The views of the bay have long been blocked by the condos, now the views are blocked by the boats. (You know, back during the "bridge too high controversy" I always thought it was more than a little strange that some condo dwellers complained about their view being blocked). Now I suppose the boat captains will want a gated entry to the sidewalk along the peninsula.

We all love the water views, but too many seem to want to lock their piece up and disregard anyone else. Instead of "nice room with view’ its more like "I got the view, screw you". Money seems to talk like that.

The Marina used to be called "Marina-Mar", I guess it was hitching on to the Mira Mar Hotel name recognition. Now we can call it Marina-Marred.

Boat parking lot at Marina-Marred.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Good Old Days - But How Did We Get to Here?

Charlie Huisking wrote a terrific article in the SHT Sunday about Jeff LaHurd, a Sarasota author and historian who grew up here in the 50's - and hasn’t left yet.

Jeff has just written new book, "Gulf Coast Chronicles: Remembering Sarasota’s Past." Huisking says this book "is an elegy for a Sarasota that no longer exists - a small, uncrowded but sophisticated town with undeveloped offshore islands, distinctive architecture and a character all its own."

LaHurd says in the introduction that Sarasota was not like it is today, "the community had a sense of its identity. We were unique - and we knew it."

The article describes LaHurd’s memories of Sarasota’s past - fishing from the pier at the foot of Main St, living in a small town that had great beaches, a superb Museum, circus winter quarters, an active artist and writer’s colony and major league spring training baseball.

A friend of mine also grew up in Sarasota in the 50's. His recollections and comments:

"Looking around today, it’s tough to be an old timer here, after having the run of Sarasota from the time I was 7 years old. Swamping a boat on the bay, camping and parties on Longboat Key or South Lido. Shucking oysters and eating them during November in Little Sarasota Bay. Watching huge herds of colorful Fiddler Crabs on the bay beaches, or huge flocks of birds flying east to their rookeries in the evening. Life was great.Now, you had better not eat the oysters, the King Mackerel, the large Grouper, Snapper, or any other large fish, because of the high levels of mercury. There are no fiddler crabs, and if you see a few wading birds flying, you are very lucky. There is less of everything in nature including trees. All within my lifetime. It is hard to believe."

Time has not treated Sarasota well. True, many have discovered the pleasures of living here, and that fact continues to stress our small town. We all know that growth puts great pressure on the resources in a community and no community can resist these forces forever. Sarasota has seen such tremendous growth in the last few years that it is overwhelming most people's sensibilities.

A quote from LaHurd puts our growth in perspective:

"Growth was inevitable. But it didn’t have to be unbridled growth. And our leaders should have found ways to protect our landmarks.

You know, I talk to a lot of visitors who have returned to Sarasota after being away for many years. I’ve never heard anyone say, "Wow, we really love what you’ve done with the place.’"

Our sentiment exactly!