Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Pineapple Square Decision Time?

We keep hearing that the city may be ready to move forward with the Pineapple Square decision. We also hear that the CRA Advisory Board has given no input.

We hope Tuesday’s commission meeting is exploratory in nature and doesn’t give the "full speed ahead" signal without doing all the homework. The commission has been stung twice recently by the perceived need to go forward with limited information. Both the Plaza Verdi and Orange Dolphin proposals have resulted in harsh reactions and calls for the city manager to resign. As we noted yesterday, if the reasoning for a decision is not clearly communicated, troubled waters lay ahead. The residents of Sarasota have much higher expectations than a slick selling job on yet another high end condo/retail proposal.

The Duany Plan observes that experience with other cities of similar size and circumstances indicates that large scale retail is not likely to be a financially feasible option for downtown Sarasota, though this retail "may be desirable to anchor different sectors of Main Street." The plan strongly urges a well-designed, in depth retail study of downtown be made. Has this been done and will the results of the study be an important element in the upcoming decision making process?

Does the city’s retail plan call for Pineapple Avenue to be downtown Sarasota’s focal point? What of our theater district and bustling downtown restaurants and shops that have contributed so faithfully to the revitalization and vibrancy of downtown? Perhaps they deserve a large parking garage on Palm Avenue to serve their patrons, with some retail as part of the mix and, if possible, some affordable units. As one of the Palm Avenue business owners asked, in a letter to the editor recently, "Do we really need more high end condos?" He then suggested Sarasota take care of and appreciate those already here as it also looks to the future and encourages new arrivals.

If this were a private sector only development, the free market would take care of questions of risk/competition, etc. But when public assets are to be expended, such as in the Pineapple Square proposal, which requires significant public land and dollars and the vacation of a public street, how does the commission ascertain these assets will be used to support the highest and best public use, benefit as large a constituency as possible, and that risk will be at a minimum?

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Heat is Rising

Recent headlines:

Bilyeu pledges to continue efforts to unseat McNees

Compromised city manager signals need for change

The clash over McNees

Question of McNees' departure has not been put to rest

McNees botched message to planners

Commissioners back out of costly garage deal

More warts sprout on Burns Court deal

There has been lots of news stories and columns recently about communication or maybe more accurately mis-communication. The common element is our City Manager, Mike McNees. He has managed to remain at the center of attention ever since the "quicky" announcement about the Orange Dolphin deal and the subsequent CRA vote to seal the deal - which later fell through.

Because of that incident, the focus of the public eye shifted again on McNees’ communications ability. With two commissioners publicly saying it is time for a change, the split commission is likely headed for some rough times. The questioning from columnists, editorial calls for a change and the news stories have brought more attention and resulted in strained relationships. This makes for a tough work environment in City Hall these days.

All of this comes at a time when two very critical issues about the future of downtown Sarasota are to be discussed: what to do about the "Plaza Verdi" site and what to do with the Pineapple Square proposal. With a gun shy City Manager and Commission, and strained relationships, if there isn’t community buy-in on these proposals, the heat will just get higher and higher. It may even spill over to some of the commissioners.

We would urge the commissioners to take a deep breath, slow down and thoroughly look at these proposals before jumping to a decision - particularly the Pineapple Square proposal. This has some of the very same pitfalls that the Orange Dolphin deal had. A developer/owner is telling the city that time is of the essence and that they must act rapidly because competition is knocking at the door. We would urge a deliberative look at the options. For example, what are the options for the State Street parking lot, other than as part of the Pineapple Square proposal? Why not issue the RFP to solicit ideas from other potential developers. Jumping to a quick conclusion on the Pineapple Square proposal could prove to create quite a few hot seats.

Community buy-in without communication will be tough. If another quick decision is made, there will be many more questions. The prudent path is to ask all the right questions, make sure the community is behind you, then make a deliberative decision that is best for the entire community for the long term.

Communication of every aspect of these decisions is critical.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

A Blast From the Past

Check this story published in the St Pete Times 3 1/2 years ago.

A few teasers:

SARASOTA -- Michael McNees, the lanky new city manager in Sarasota, has almost mastered the Boy Scout pledge of the city's myriad virtues.

"We in Sarasota feel like we've got a unique mix of urban amenities, particularly cultural amenities, natural resources, beaches that rank among the best in the world, an active, engaged populace, a thriving business community," says McNees, now entering his third month on the job. "Did I forget to mention the educational system?"

That is about as tidy a summary as you will find of the criteria Money magazine cited this month when, for the second year running, it picked Sarasota as the Best Small City in America. The magazine's editors said they were looking for "areas that have avoided urban sprawl and overcrowding, where city fathers have put a premium on green space, culture and having an accessible city center."

Unlike Tampa's downtown, for example, Sarasota's is more than just the physical center of the city. It defines the city's personality. Walking the district reveals clues to the city's identity that are lost driving.

Like the tiny sign on U.S. 301 pointing the way to the Towles Court artists colony.

Keep walking west and you enter Laurel Park, one of a handful of small and healthy neighborhoods that ring the downtown. The houses aren't grand. Most of them are single-story bungalows, but they are occupied. Along with small downtown businesses, neighborhoods such as these were the first casualties of the explosive growth in the suburbs. Duany, the town planner who likes to promote walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, was reportedly dumbstruck to find so much to work with in Sarasota.

"He thought it was a fluke," says Thorning Little, an architect who is chairman of the city's Historic Preservation Board.

Money magazine cited Burns Court as one of the city's best neighborhoods to live in, though in truth half of the structures are occupied by small businesses, restaurants, art galleries and the like. Duany cited the short street as an architectural precedent that should be emulated in any new construction.

It's the little things, the decisions made block by block, resident by resident, that make Sarasota work.

Was that the good old days, back before the mad dash for 18 stories and the actual and threatened suits as we pursued a better Sarasota? It is an interesting perspective, even looking back a few short years.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Design Matters

Here's a comment from the Aug 25 entry at Cool Town Studios, an organization whose goal is to help build an urban infill projects that serves as both a model and anchor for future surrounding development designed to attract creative, entrepreneurial markets that significantly increase quality of life and local economic development.

'Been there, done that' doesn't always fly.

Ever walk into a neighborhood that people rave about, then wonder what all the fuss was about? At the same time, wonder why there are so many beautiful neighborhoods that people rarely talk about?

When a person gushes about their neighborhood, they'll often mention the great restaurants, hangouts and entertainment, that it's affordable, walkable and convenient, and that they like the people. It's a bit rare for them to say how well designed the architecture, parks and streets are, yet that's mostly all that visitors to their neighborhood will experience.

So... if such a great neighborhood doesn't have well-designed streets, buildings and public places, which is the case nine times out of ten, it elicits that 'been there done that' response from visitors. The unfortunate result? Developers and city officials will think the well-designed places don't need much character (ie chains, corporate housing and offices), and that the places with unique character don't need good design.

There are some excellent thoughts here as we continue implementation of our Downtown Master Plan. To create a memorable place, we need to consider design. We need to consider design of the entire place, including streets, public space, buildings and streetscape. We want Sarasota to build on its unique character, its unique sense of place. A memorable Sarasota would serve us well.

Dale Parks has raised the issue of including design in the CRA Advisory Board review of proposed projects. We believe he has raised some good questions that need to be addressed. Dale is a member of the CRA Advisory Board and he fills a position designated for an individual involved in planning or design. Design needs to be considered as we review the proposals for downtown Sarasota. We need independent, knowledgeable review in order to get the best end result. A memorable Sarasota is an excellent end result.

Planning and Exit Ramps

In case you missed Bill Zoller's excellent comments in today's SHT, we reprint it here with his blessing:


In the article on the I-75 problems in today's paper, the reporters state: "By their very nature, exit ramps promote commercial and residential growth." This is not correct. By their nature, exit ramps get cars on and off the interstate... that is all they are designed to do. The nature of the planning around these interchanges promotes or discourages or controls growth. In 1976, two government publications addressed these issues: the "1976 Report on National Growth and Development: The changing Issues for National Growth" and "The Growth Shapers: The Land Use Impacts of Infrastructure Investments". Both of these Federal Government documents detailed the experience of communities around the country where interstates already existed (we did not yet have I-75), and they spoke of the need to limit development around the interchanges because of the induced sprawl, congestion, and lowering of air quality that had been found to result.

Unfortunately for us, we seemed oblivious to this experience and information, and we designed what we now have.... our own terrible planning has brought us to this point. It is not the "growth" that has done it... it is our planning (or lack thereof) for the growth. As Pogo said long ago, "We have met the enemy, and he is us".

Our bad planning continues even now. Recently, the BCC ignored its own Comprehensive Plan and voted to change the MEC designation at the University Parkway interchange to commercial, to allow an immense retail development (SIPOC). Amazingly, the Economic Development Council (EDC), which had championed the need for MEC land, remained strangely silent as the BCC removed what was, potentially, one of the EDC's prime MEC parcels. It was one with a direct link to the airport and to Lakewood Ranch via University Parkway. One has to wonder whether the EDC, which is under the financial thumb of the county administration, somehow lacked the courage to fight for this MEC designation. Kevin Connelly's recent letter regarding this issue should cause the EDC to hide their heads in shame. Someone recently said to me that a meeting of the EDC felt like a county staff meeting.

In any event, there is nothing mysterious or surprising in the situation at the interchanges. We have, through poor planning and greed, created these situations. I mention greed, because several BCC members were chirping with great enthusiasm about the sales tax dollars that the SIPOC development would bring. We seem to allow these considerations to blind us to the greater reality of the destruction we are causing down the "road", long after the sales tax dollars have proved sorely inadequate in paying for the costs that the development has created. To repeat: we planned for the situation that we have.

Sincerely yours,

William C. Zoller
6375 McKown Road

Thursday, August 25, 2005

On the Way to Mixed Use

As we travel down the road to "mixed use", especially in downtown Sarasota, we sometimes find arguments that say traditional mixed use is not enough to achieve a lively, pedestrian friendly, livable community.

Consider the recent Washington Post article: 'Mixed-Use Districts' Often Get Mixed Reviews.

Public space, experts say, is crucial, so that people will go to the communities for leisurely activities, bringing life into a development. Public transit is another good way to bring in visitors.

"You have to cast a pretty critical eye on some and ask, 'Is this something more than a reconfigured shopping center? Is there something like real public space there, where people can do something even if they weren't shopping there?' " said Chuck Bohl, a professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture.

As we continue with the downtown master plan implementation, it seems that a lot of attention has been paid to the condo part of the equation and we agree that getting people to live downtown is a crucial part of success. However, if the condos are all high priced, basically a second home for the wealthy traveler, are we creating a "dead zone" in terms of seasonal population. Apparently no one knows the answer to this question.

We keep hearing that affordable housing does not make sense downtown because of the high price of land, yet the city puts a high priority on finding ways to convert public land to parking garages. Parking garages, even those surrounded by retail frontage will be dead zones - look at the Whole Foods parking garage.

Public space, especially inviting public space, has a chance to become a lively space that people will frequent. Shade trees, benches, fountains or the like will draw more people than the lonely hot dog vendor currently hanging out at the Lemon St public space north of Mattison's. The hot dog guy, some decidedly non-shade worthy Hi-Rise oaks and no other features make this another dead zone, unless an event is held there.

Next on the horizon may be Pineapple Square - basically a mall situated in downtown Sarasota. The "breezeway" element is the only open space, but it is designed to serve the retail customers, not the leisure visitor to downtown. There is no real public space around this development and nothing in our plans show how this key element of a livable downtown would be incorporated into this part of the city. It seems that people intent on going there will drive up to the included parking lot, meander through the stores there, go back to their cars and go home. Not much activity or inviting public space is planned around the development to engage them in "lively city life."

We ask the questions posed above: with public space designed for leisure activity missing, no discussion at all about public transportation, and the primary emphasis being placed on high priced condos and retail, will downtown become anything more than a seasonal mall located downtown? It seems like we are moving toward a dead zone rather than a lively downtown.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Pricing the Downtown Makeover

The two properties shown below have recently been acquired by a developer that proposes a mixed use condo and retail project for the 720 S Orange site and a residential project for the 635 S Orange property.

720 S Orange

635 S Orange

With the announcement that another property has been sold on S Orange Ave, we thought a comparison of recent sales was warranted - along with the proposed Orange Dolphin parking lot deal.

  • The proposed Orange Dolphin deal, 1530 Dolphin, was $4.4M for 21,263 sq ft, or $207 per sq ft.
  • The property at 1533 Dolphin (3,995 sq ft) sold in May of 2005 for $640,000 or $160 per sq ft.
  • The property at 401 Pineapple (8610 sq ft) sold in Jan. 2005 for $1.6M or $186 per sq ft. This is contiguous to the 1530 Dolphin property.

Two blocks to the south on Orange, two other properties recently changed ownership:

  • 720 S Orange (54,994sq ft) sold in August of 2005 for $4.8M or $87 per sq ft.
  • 635 S Orange (37,139 sq ft) sold in February of 2005 for $2.75M or $74 per sq ft.

With this kind of price range within a two block area it would seem that if the city continues to pursue land acquisition strategies, part of the process should be to get competent advice (and good appraisals) before signing a contract.

We also wonder if another buyer will surface for the Orange Dolphin property. We were told that several developers were lined up: "We are in competition with, I would say, three or four large scale, pretty deep pocketed development interests for this land and for the other things we’re trying to accomplish downtown." And "All I can tell you is, I believe very firmly that if we don’t lock down this property, it won’t be there in a week."

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

How Are We Doing? - A Continuing Saga

A letter to the editor by Ian Black revives the discussion about Sarasota's form of government. His letter was apparently prompted by recent events concerning some commissioners' criticism of the city manager's performance and other commissioners' reaction as to the appropriateness of the timing for this. The timing of Mr. Black's comments is excellent and his comments are appropriate.

The Tiger Bay Club's next program also targets this and related issues:

AHOY City Hall !
Sink or swim City of Sarasota !
Who is going to send you a life line?
Would an elected Mayor provide the anchor you need or should the County come to the rescue?
Mayoral form of Government or Consolidation?

Nora Patterson, County Commissioner
Kerry Kirschner, Executive Director Argus
Wayne Poston, Bradenton Mayor
Mary Anne Servian, City Commissioner

Recent events are bringing this discussion back to the forefront. The Tiger Bay discussion should be interesting - we hope they don't hold back. Tell us what you really think!

Monday, August 22, 2005

Whose Performance are We Measuring?

The hot discussion surrounding our City Manager’s performance over the two recent issues (sewage spill and Orange Dolphin) seems to have moderated for the time being, while McNees spends a week away from Sarasota scaling peaks in Wyoming (must pay attention to detail and don't gamble while engaging in this activity). We hope that the commissioners take a measured look at his performance. If there were no standards for the manager, then we would like to know why? Our expectation of the commissioners is no less than their expectation of the manager.

As this story continues to its conclusion we hope to see those responsible take a hard look at themselves as well as those working for them. Were the expectations spelled out and were they reviewed for progress? Is the process for doing this open? We believe we have some of the answers to the sewage spill issue at least at the lower levels of the organization, but what was the responsibility at the commission level? How was this handled? Are there procedures, reviews or audits needed at this level?

Similar questions can be posed for the parking lot issue. Is there not an accepted, professional way to acquire property - even in a "hot" real estate market? Do we have the skills and knowledge in house or should we find that expertise outside? What is our policy on property acquisition? Is it working the way it needs to work under today's conditions? To improve, we will need change at all levels of city government, not just the bottom or middle or close to the top.

We have high expectations of our commissioners. They must be competent and work together to find ways to make Sarasota's health, welfare and safety achieve the highest standards. Stumbling like we have seen recently does not inspire confidence. If we can learn from mistakes, change how we operate and communicate with all stakeholders, progress can be made. If not, maybe some new players need to be found for the team.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Hurricanes, Gators and Speculators - Oh My

Larry Evans column Sunday scored a fine point. In discussing the issue of college sport team mascots and the political correctness of the names he said:

Athletic teams at Florida State University might be forced to drop the use of "Seminoles" and become the "Fire Ants," the "Red Tide," the "Raging Armadillos" or some other nickname that reflects Florida's fauna, flora, weather or contemporary culture. "Gators" and "Hurricanes" are already taken, of course, and it's hard to imagine that any fleet-footed wide receiver would want his chest emblazoned with the word "Speculators" or "Developers."

Shows you what are worst fears are coming to be - hurricane, gator, speculator, developer or maybe even "lawyer"? What happy thoughts we have here in paradise.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

A Little Humor

Psst, hey there. You. Yes, you. I'm talking to you.

For all you speculators, T-Shirt Humor may have something for you.

Mr. Housing Bubble gives advice about real estate investing. Things like risk. That kind of stuff.

Be sure you check all reliable sources available before signing up for the next deal. And be sure to remember that risk can be managed. Of course you know that already.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Plaza Verdi Swan Song

The city commission allowed the Plaza Verdi plan to slip away last night. The pull out of the Opera made the project too different from the original RFP, resulting in a recommendation from City Attorney Fournier that a new proposal must be considered.

The concept was bold, but in the end there was just too much complexity. All four participants (the city, Ersa Grae, the Opera and the Golden Apple) all had visions of what was needed from their own perspective but not everyone could be accommodated. In the end the Golden Apple and the Opera dropped out.

Like a Verdi opera, the twists and turns of the attempts to turn this property into public parking kept taking unpredictable paths - and ultimately commented on the human condition, our condition and our inability to satisfy everyone.

Commissioner Atkins commented that "We sit down here really dreaming and hoping with great expectations for something major to happen that involves parking, Every time we stick our neck out, somebody chops it off." Andy Dorr, project manager at Ersa Grae said he felt like he was attending his own funeral.

Frustration was apparent all around. Aside from the symbolic death, the real aspects of comedy and tragedy, combined with the frustration of not being able to fulfill dreams provided all the elements of a lively opera. Of course this is real life.

We think that the complexity of the proposal (the physical constraints, construction timing issues, the needs of the Opera and Golden Apple to maximize their income during the relatively short season available) was just too much to get a good grip on.

We wish the Opera and the Golden Apple well as they pursue their future destiny. Both have been (and continue to be) among the great Sarasota institutions that have done so much for our city. We also know that the city will get the needed parking at some point.

We would also like to see the city put more effort into looking at viable ways to reduce the number of cars downtown as this would lessen the parking need and make the downtown more pedestrian friendly and improve the atmosphere (literally and figuratively). We know there is no quick fix, but more attention in this area will pay dividends.

I liked Commissioner Atkins closing statement: "Be prepared for something to happen in downtown Sarasota, for all the nay-sayers out there." Maybe this is a continuing (soap?) opera and we haven’t seen the final act.

More about this in the SHT story.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Got Shade?

Removing shade trees in downtown Sarasota in favor of arcades may cause some problems even we have not brought to the commissioners attention. Check this story from

LARGO - With two defibrillators and a pacemaker implanted in his wife's chest, Gerry Milot, 70, said he tries to do all he can to keep her out of the heat, including parking his car in the shade when they run errands.

Milot and his wife, June, 66, found such a spot Monday in the Wal-Mart parking lot on Missouri Avenue, where they had gone to buy toothpaste, an air conditioner filter and dishwashing soap.
Henry Gawlik, 81, saw the space, too.

As June Milot stood in the space until Gerry Milot could move their Nissan Maxima from two spots over, Gawlik laid claim to the same spot and pushed his way in.

With his Cadillac, authorities say.

When it was all over, Gawlik was in a different vehicle - a Largo Police Department squad car - on his way to the Pinellas County Jail. He was charged with one count of aggravated battery with a motor vehicle - police say he bumped June Milot to move her out of the space - and a count for punching Gerry Milot repeatedly when he intervened on his wife's behalf.

The rest of the story is at An excellent read indeed.

Let’s keep our shade trees, add new ones and keep the peace!

Sunday, August 14, 2005

TIF Summary

The August SRQ Magazine has a good summary of the TIF dollars spent so far. It shows:

Surface Parking $4.141 million
Bayfront Park $3.6589 million
Five Points Park $3.034 million
Whole Foods $2.593 million
Lemon Avenue Streetscape $2.461 million
Main Street Streetscape $ 2.386 million
Storefront Rehab $196,549
City Center Improvements $200,000
Downtown Redevelopment $187, 866
Pineapple Park $75,955

Total $18.868 million

The article notes that there is a growing advocacy for spending some TIF dollars outside the original CRA, specifically in the Newtown Development area.

The City Commissioners appear to favor this idea, although some objection has been voiced by downtown individuals. At the current time SRQ indicates that the City projects an $80 million surplus over the next 11 years.

North Sarasota does need investment and TIF dollars would be a great source.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

A Frustrated Friday

The frustration bubbled over last night at the special City Commission meeting called to review the sewage pump failures last year and this year. The pump station failures left residents angry and frustrated a the slow response from the city.

More recently, a number of issues surrounding the current building boom in downtown Sarasota has resulted in criticism of city leadership from a number of sources concerning a many different issues. The recent major flap over the parking lot acquisition deal added to the frustration level.

Last night’s meeting, reviewing the pump station issue and who was responsible, resulted in answers that were not satisfactory to all. This added more fuel to the frustration level.

The upcoming Monday night regular City Commission meeting could result in further frustration as commissioners tackle the Plaza Verdi agreement (or more accurately non-agreement) issues another time. This particular "public-private partnership" apparently has been rife with the private sector components each trying to maximize their own portion at the expense of the other parties (including the city). This is a poster child for the downside to these "partnerships".

The commissioners have had a string of tough issues to face. They have come up short of their own expectations too many times and are now feeling the pressure of the both issues and the resultant scrutiny. Will they be able to pull together and find good solutions or will the frustrations make leadership even more difficult?

Monday’s meeting should be interesting.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Curtain Time at Plaza Verdi?

According to the SHT in an article titled "It's Curtains for Plaza Verde":

The Sarasota Opera has backed out of the Plaza Verdi development, a move that City Attorney Bob Fournier says will "effectively kill" the $141 million project that involved the city, the opera and a private developer.

Apparently the Opera sees the project as too complicated and disruptive of their schedule when construction coincides with their season.

A regular reader of this blog notes: Now that the Commissioners are "back at square one" according to Bob Fournier, they should now get a legitimate, full blown, certified appraisal of the property, preferably by someone who does not have a "horse in the race". The 4.1 million dollar figure they had on it for Ersa Grae is ludicrous.

Seems like the right thing to do.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Private-Public Partnerships for Open Space

Here's an idea that is catching on around the country - requiring developers to chip in for parks and open space. In Sarasota developers extract every cubic inch of volume possible from the space above their land holdings. The residents and visitors are excluded from viewing through this space - so why not add to the "public-private parnership" concept by requiring a little more from the private part of the equation?

From NYC comes this article :

In an ideal world, government would bear the full responsibility of providing and maintaining parks. But in today's real world of unfunded federal mandates and local-level anti-tax pressure, a patchwork quilt of public-private partnerships has grown up. If developers are making money building housing for new residents, it seems reasonable to ask them to provide some new parkland, too.

Many communities around the country require developers to donate land or pay in-lieu fees to help governments acquire parkland. Known as "developer exactions" or "developer impact fees," the concept is generally thought of as suburban – setting aside parcels for playing fields or stream-valley trails among the new tract houses. But it's also the law in Atlanta, Portland, Oregon and Los Angeles and in very densely populated Chicago, Miami and Long Beach, California.

Miami charges developers $157 for every 1,000 square feet of downtown residential construction and $104 for every 1,000 square feet of downtown commercial construction. The money must be spent in the general vicinity of the new building, it must be spent within six years, and it can only be spent for capital purposes (buying land or constructing a park facility), not ongoing maintenance.

Chicago's Open Space Impact Fee is similar, though somewhat steeper -- about $313 for a small apartment and up to $1,253 for a large one. Affordable (below-market) housing units are assessed a flat fee of $100. The city has seven years to spend the money or it must return it to the developer. In case of larger planned developments, the city prefers to receive not money but a comparable gift of land.

While Sarasota has lots of open space by the beaches, open space near downtown is limited (although Payne Park is a great open space with high expectations). Open space in the neighborhoods is also limited.

A recent editorial in the SHT indicates that Sarasota should somehow find a way to save the historical buildings (on a permanent site) that need to be removed due to a proposed development. Our question is why is this only a responsibility for residents - there is a group of volunteers that is spending a great amount of time and energy trying to fund the moving and preservation of these buildings. Nearly all residents agree this is a good thing to do. Yet the city cannot find funding and the developer apparently has no requirement to help.

Sarasota can do better than this. Many other cities are stepping up and requiring the "private" entity in the "public- private" partnership to do more than just build parking places with tax dollars on land given to the private partner by the public.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Living in Paradise

In the Tampa Tribune comes this story.

The Sarasota skyline is dotted with construction cranes, with at least 25 condo projects in the works.

Kevin Brown couldn't believe how easy it was to make so much money so fast. The 28-year-old St. Petersburg yacht broker heard his clients' tales about clinching lucrative deals in real estate and decided to give it a try.

He pocketed $50,000 on a three-bedroom, 1,664-square- foot condominium on Harbour Island in 10 months' time. He has since bought 10 more condo units in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Orlando, selling most before the closing date, or ``flipping'' the units.
If he couldn't find buyers and had to go to settlement on every contract, it could spell disaster. The potential gains thrill him, but he can't ignore the nagging fear that one failed deal could send his plans tumbling like dominoes.

Condo flippers such as Brown are snatching up high- rise units throughout the state, fueling price increases that could deflate if interest rates rise or too many condos flood the market. In some projects, investors have purchased as much as 70 percent of the units, hoping to flip.

Such speculation has set off a race. Investors scramble to close deals in case the situation sours. Developers hustle to build complexes before banks halt financing. On the sidelines are venture capitalists with big pockets ready to pounce on the worst-case scenario: The bubble bursts, leaving empty high rises dotting the state and investors wanting to bail out and sell cheap.

The price appreciation in the condo market is forcing real estate brokers to change the way they do business. Many are seizing the opportunity to double-dip on commissions by selling and then helping buyers flip the same units.

Their competition increases daily.

Matt Orr, a Sarasota real estate agent with Michael Saunders & Company, says his buyers are a mixture of investors, baby boomers wanting a second home and locals who want to move from the beaches.

Ah, the good life. Life in the frothy real estate market. Aren't we lucky to live in paradise?

Dolphin Time

We think the commissioners did the right thing by pausing in their pursuit of parking. More thought, and consideration of a measured move (as opposed to a speculative mad dash) is required when the stakes are this high. It is always risky to make decisions in a tight time frame, particularly when options exist but have not been thoroughly explored.

The commissioners did the right thing and we applaud them.

Now let's hope that the parking "need" is for real - public input on the parking master plan will help determine this. At some point the commissioners really need to look at public transportation options as a way to prevent cars from choking downtown as well as making downtown a truly pedestrian friendly environment.

There are excellent trolley systems available that could be utilized in the "downtown - cultural district - St Armands - bayfront" loop. In the long run this might make much better sense for the entire community than more concrete parking garages downtown.

The SHT story covers the details of the Dolphin decision.

Monday, August 01, 2005

CRA Advisory Board Meeting Notes - Orange Dolphin Project

These are notes taken at the recent CRA Advisory Board Meeting. In this part of the meeting, City Manager , Mike McNees gave a report on Orange Dolphin Project:

McNees: Am going to speak about 1) the process that led to getting us out of the blue. 2) How acquisition took place. 3) Questions

All are straightforward and simple issues. Downtown Master Plan 2020 called for civic reservations…what land does the city need to set aside for a successful CRA? What are “could be” places for civic parking/buildings/space/public art? One identified parking area was across the street from the Orange Dolphin. It seems contrary to the Duany Plan to institutionalize parking, but municipal parking can save downtowns. This was identified as a place for parking to serve downtown.

When he arrived here he studied the plans and realized that many things the city was doing were dependent upon adequate parking. He asked how parking needs were being addressed and was told nothing was being done. So they did a City Downtown Parking Plan which included: 1) inventory and utilization study and charrette with downtown stakeholders, 2) future needs assessment 8/2004), 3) strategic study on how to operate (4/2005), and 4) plan to tie all together with who pays what and where (goes to Commission next month).

Consultants recommended best places (showed map) for top priority parking. 1) Palm Avenue, 2) State and Lemon for which RFP will go out or not go out on August 15, and 3) S Orange and Pineapple. The Saunders property shows up, but that is not available. However the site across the street is. It has a new façade on an old building.

McNees heard it was for sale and initially thought, “That’s great, but it’s too expensive.” 2-3 months ago he asked the Engineering Department to look at the property and see if it was viable. They found if city used this property and either vacated the alley or narrowed Dolphin Street (which is very wide), they could get 335 spaces at a cost of $23-24,000 each. Although this is high end price, it is not out of range of costs in other areas.

The owner had a falling out with someone she was in negotiations with and eventually McNees got to the attorney for the property owner. At this time the mayor asked why they were waiting for the parking planning study with all the development going on. Why not ratchet up the effort to find spaces rather than waiting for study to be finished? Commission was in unanimous agreement McNees should go out and beat the bushes. One week later he had a call from the owner and had two days to decide. The price was $4.4 million and there were offers for that much and maybe a few hundred thousand more from others. However, the owner was interested in selling for the public benefit. She also did not want to deal with tenant issues from abroad.

Mayor, auditor and clerk agreed this needed to get before the CRA quickly. They were not being played… there were two other parties bidding and he knows of a third. Option was to get to CRA immediately or lose out. CRA needed to decide, not the city manager…it was his job to bring this forward. The Commission voted 4-1 in favor of proceeding.

There is now a contract with two contingencies: A Phase II environmental study will be done (Phase I study was done two years ago). DEP is aware of a plume of chlorinated solvents from dry cleaning company in the vicinity and have drilled a well, will let it set a week, and then pull samples.

Secondly, they will have to take out 5 leases. One expires 6/2005, but between the time McNees got the authority to negotiate and agreement was reached the property owner had extended the lease to 2013. This will be a real issue. [Editor comment: if you are trying to sell property and have three bidders plus the city interested, would you really jeopardize a sale by extending a lease?]

Owners are in a state of shock, have only been there a short time and like the great parking at their strip mall. [Editor comment: how can our city apparently run rough shod over these small business owners?]

City will talk with them about their business needs and about relocating them immediately or in a year.

At the CRA Monday (Aug 1) McNees will present the worse and best cases of costs to take out the leases. [Editor comment:Remember McNees talked with some of the property owners the Saturday of the negotiation weekend. He announced on Monday at the CRA that the owner would have hard copies of the leases in hand the next day. Why is he still unsure of what the leases say, or is he just unsure of what it will cost to “take them out”?]

An owner of property to the west has approached city and wants to aggregate both properties and do parking and liner retail with housing atop. That developer will be at CRA on Monday, probably even with renderings.

Would recover significant land cost this way and put property back on the tax rolls and have a good public/private building project.

[Editors note: Commissioners have been hinting that this deal is much more complex than the public knows and everyone will be very happy when they know the whole story. We may know Monday.]

Why didn’t he bring an appraisal to the CRA? Because he didn’t have time. It would have been his preference.

Robbins: What about the county administrative building parking property where city has air rights?

McNees: The lot to the south intrudes on Laurel Park and we don’t want to slap in 4-5 stories by single family residential. It is also a block further away. We’re in the best position if we have total control of land. Have learned this by hard experience. [Editor comment: How big is the west county lot that doesn’t abut Laurel Park single family residential?]

Meyer: Did you consider an emergency meeting so the CRA Advisory Board would have the opportunity to advise the CRA on this decision?

McNees: No. If he had to do over again would do that. Was a hurricane in the Gulf at the time that were concerned with as well. Hope never to be in that position again.

Meyer: If you go down the same road again, pull us together so we can be of assistance. Could have a joint meeting with CRA.

Ron McCullough: Is $23-24,000 the total cost per space?

McNees: That figure doesn’t factor in taking out tenants and this deal will very much hinge on attractiveness of partnership project and ability to share that cost. Tenant issues could hurt this. Monday will tell the story.

McCullough: It this comparable to other numbers for parking spaces?

McNees: Pineapple Square puts cost at $20-21,000 per space. Ursa Grae costs have risen, which is one of the reasons we are not going to reappraise the land.

This cost is right at the top of the acceptable range. As to why we didn’t do this two years ago…it took too long and the private sector took it from us. [Editor comment: No, McNees decided to back off bringing request to make offer to Verizon of $1,600,000 and go for lease at $40,000 a year with Michael Saunders, who bought the property for $1,500,000. Documents show it was to go on the Commission agenda 3/3/03, but never got there. 3/17/2004 letter from Paula Rees, VP of Operations for Michael Saunders offers a "guaranteed two-year term with two one-year options to renew." ...."However, in the event the Michael Saunders enters into an agreement to develop the property, the renewals will be denied". So now Saunders is going to develop the property and McNees has to scramble for parking.]

I feel comfortable with this investment and feel confident it will not crash in next couple of years. [Editor comment: apparently now our City has become a speculator.]

Marcia Wood: I’m a big supporter of yours, but not on this one. Is no rational reason to pay two times the highest price ever paid for Sarasota property and taking the property off the tax rolls. Why not give Michael Saunders a height bonus and get 300 spaces. You did have an option…the option to say no.

McNees: We are still in conversations with her, but parking is not in her plan. She had the contract before we did and got there first. The neighborhood needs more parking than it has. Retailers and cinema will all benefit. Were no other viable options to provide this parking. Met with Saunders just two days ago. Are 4,000 realtors here. Let someone can bring me a viable property for less money. It is not twice the cost…he challenges that figure.

Wood: Am not talking about the cost of the building, because that will be torn down, just about the land. That is an outrageous price and can’t understand how she got it. Only salvation will be if you get a joint venture and get some return. TIF funds should only be spent if there is some redeeming value.

McNees: Dimensions do not allow much to be done or liner buildings. One of the provisions of the new code, however, is that the City can make exceptions. I keep telling that to developers. [Editor comment: the new code not yet in place and the city is already talking exceptions.] Is important that we be in control of the land. Do not think it is below market value.

Kathy Baylis: Is good to have parking for Burns Court. Carl’s suggestion about joint meeting is good, although do understand the need for expediency. If this is the market cost, the problem is, how do we know that when there was no appraisal. Could that have been in the contract?

McNees: That was not acceptable to the seller. Merchants need parking and it is part of the philosophy of the Master Plan to provide parking to leverage other development. In Naples a downtown parking garage was the catalyst to development.