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30 March 2004


Planners push for a shadier, more livable downtown

By Lisa Rab

SARASOTA -- At the corner of Main Street and Central Avenue, a 16-story tower featuring street-level retail shops below offices and condominiums is taking shape.

One block west, at Main and Palm Avenue, a developer plans 17 stories of shops and condos. A similar mixed-used project is planned behind Sarasota News & Books, near the same intersection.

The three projects are signs of a transformation that city planners hope will spread along Main and Palm.

The idea is to make downtown an attractive place to live and work, with enticing storefronts and shaded sidewalks.

The city's planners want the City Commission to adopt a new zoning code this spring to encourage mixed-use developments and require street-level retail establishments with shaded sidewalks on Main Street, North Palm Avenue and Central Avenue.

The code would create new mixed-used development zones and set design standards for new buildings on all major downtown streets.

If approved by the City Commission, it could lead to the rezoning of more than 1,800 properties, and eventually change the look of downtown.

How much of that transformation should be regulated by the city -- and how much should be left to developers -- is the subject of some debate.

City planners are seeking "a degree of visual harmony" downtown, deputy planning director Michael Taylor said. "We don't want every building to look identical."

But some business owners and architects say the new rules will promote contrived, Disney-style design.

"They're playing architect and they shouldn't be," said Brad Gaubatz, past president of the Gulf Coast chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Andres Duany, a Miami-based planner the city hired several years ago to create a downtown master plan, called for a walkable city where residents could live, shop and work downtown.

In the code city officials are considering, that translates into rules governing building materials and the shapes of windows and rooftops for every new development on a major downtown street.

Ground-floor retail businesses shaded by awnings, galleries or columned overhangs would be required on Main, North Palm and parts of Central.

The amount of glass allowed on the outside of some buildings would be limited, and windows facing major streets would have to be vertical or square.

"If you're looking to create a retail environment, the thought is you'd like to have a covered street," Taylor said.

Gaubatz and other architects agree with the pedestrian-friendly idea, but don't want to be told how to do it.

"We're suggesting you say what you want to accomplish. You don't say how to accomplish it," Gaubatz said.

Duany's "smart growth," anti-sprawl plan includes a mix of residential and commercial development.

To help concentrate more intense development in one downtown core, the planners decided to replace the approximately 20 downtown development zones with four mixed-use zones.

Under the new zones, most of the area north of Fruitville Road would be designated for residential development, with height limits of three stories.

Along the bayfront, mixed-use developments of up to 18 stories would be allowed, while in the core of downtown, those developments would be capped at 10 stories. In a so-called edge zone, such as along Fruitville Road, buildings would be limited to five stories.

Robert Seth-Ward, who owns Churchills Furniture store on the north side of Fruitville at Lemon Avenue, is caught in the middle of the proposed zoning change.

Under the proposal, Fruitville -- a four-lane street now lined with antique shops, thrift stores, bank parking lots and assorted other commercial developments -- would become the dividing line between the center city and downtown neighborhoods.

Seth-Ward's property, purchased for $1.8 million two years ago, straddles the line between the two zones.

Seth-Ward said a prospective buyer knocked his offer down from $4 million to $3 million because of that. Since then, Seth-Ward said, he has spent $8,000 hiring an attorney and land planner to protest the new code. He's sure there are others like him.

"If they do it, it's unconstitutional; it's un-American; it's unfair," he said.

Churchills is not the only property that would change.

On the south side of Fruitville, one- and two-story thrift shops could eventually be replaced with 10-story developments. On Lemon Avenue, just north of Seth-Ward's land, antiques stores, a new coffee shop, a tire store and an auto repair store would be zoned residential.

If the code is adopted, planners are proposing to rezone all the properties at public hearings beginning this fall. Existing businesses like Seth-Ward's could stay on the land, but if they were to sell or expand they would have to be converted to residential uses, Taylor said.

"The idea was to paint a picture of change. That change would occur over time," Taylor said.

But Seth-Ward is not comforted by that promise. Like the architects who question the design standards, he wonders whether such a major revision of the zoning code is necessary.

"I don't understand why we need it," Seth-Ward said. "What is so broken right now?"

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Sarasota picks Palm Avenue developer


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SARASOTA -- A developer who wants to build a 1 million- square-foot hotel, condominium and retail complex on a city-owned Palm Avenue parking lot won the chance to negotiate with city leaders Friday.

The city commissioners selected Houston-based Ersa Grae Corp. -- the developer of the nearby Plaza at Five Points tower -- as their first choice to build on the 2.25-acre lot.

Plans for "Plaza Verdi" include a 96-room hotel, 111 condominiums and town houses, 52,000 square feet of retail shops, offices and 840 parking spaces.

The developer also wants to revamp Five Points Park, move the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre from Pineapple to Cocoanut avenues, and move portions of the Sarasota Opera House.

With an estimated $142.2 million price tag, Plaza Verdi was the largest of the five development proposals presented to the commissioners Friday, and it prompted some criticism from the panel.

"I really think that it is over-ambitious," said Vice Mayor Richard Martin.

Commissioner Mary Anne Servian called it "overkill."

But the other three commissioners praised Plaza Verdi's ability to be a "critical mass" for retail shops in the area, bringing more jobs and residents downtown.

"I believe this would work," Commissioner Fredd Atkins said.

Another concern was Ersa Grae's request for about $5.8 million in municipal bonds for the project, to be repaid over an estimated nine years.

This loan and other details will be discussed in negotiations between the developers and city staff over the next 90 days. If an agreement is reached, the commissioners, acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, must approve it before the project can move forward.

If the deal falls through, the commissioners will turn to the second-ranked development team -- the Boca Raton company that plans to build a 17-story condo complex on Main Street. Sarasota Main Street LLC proposed a $72 million project with a pair of 10-story condo buildings, retail shops and a 701-space parking garage.

But city leaders are hoping for successful negotiations with Ersa Grae.

Plaza Verdi marks the third time in four years the city has tried to woo developers to the lot -- which the city values at $4.1 million -- behind Sarasota News & Books. One attempt failed when the development team split up, and another died when the developers couldn't reach a deal with the city.

"Three times and you're out," Mayor Lou Ann Palmer said. "This one has got to make it."

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15 April 2004

Condo developer goes all out

Richard Zipes kicks off sales of the 124 units in his proposed 18-story Metropolitan downtown.

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SARASOTA -- New York- born developer Richard Zipes, who describes himself as a maverick, had a few things to prove to Sarasota.

The developer of the opulent condominium project called The Metropolitan not only wanted to show off his multimillion-dollar condos, laden with marble floors, built-in wine coolers, French doors and acres of custom cabinetry.

Wednesday night, before a crowd of 500 real estate brokers, bankers, politicians and well-heeled prospective condo buyers, Zipes seemed intent on outshining all the other condominium projects jostling to reshape Sarasota's skyline.

"There's nothing else like this," said the tanned, robust 64-year-old, referring to his proposed 18-story complex at U.S. 41 and Gulf Stream Avenue in downtown Sarasota.

But he could just as well have been talking about the party he had organized that night to kick off sales of the 124 units, which start at $1.8 million and top out at more than $5 million.

Zipes, who promised to "blow the doors off" other condo projects popping up downtown, pushed the envelope with his sales-pitch party.

Richard Zipes is surrounded by the Parry family -- Julian Parry, left, and sisters Sian Cluett and Karin Leereveld -- whose father had owned the property.

The guests, including Zipes' friend, ex-Dolphin great Dan Marino, gathered at 6 p.m. at the sales office, converted from the old Denny's and now equipped with coffee-dark wood floors and twin Doric columns.

An hour later, escorted by a brass band clad in Miami Dolphins jerseys, the crowd poured into a carpeted white tent where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers lookalikes swept across the dance floor.

Waiters poured Roederer Estate champagne and offered hors d'oeuvres of shrimp, Peking duck encased in mu shu pancakes and beignets stuffed with proscuitto ham, basil and mozzarella. The bar was open.

Zipes wouldn't say what the party had cost but conceded that the food alone, catered by Morton's Market, had set him back $100,000.

"That's a pretty accurate number," said the developer, adding that the money he was shelling out to woo buyers wasn't the point. "I only do things one way: the right way."

What he did was stage a sales kickoff party of such opulent proportions that the brokers and others who attended could only shake their heads when asked to recall anything of a similar scale.

"It's nothing I've ever seen, and I'm from Atlanta, the number one sales market in the country," said Libby Oskamp, a sales agent for Coldwell Banker's The Condo Store.

A tan and fit Marino ascended the stage to applause and escorted by a stunning Sophia Lauren lookalike in a red gown.

Marino, a spokesman for Zipes' Tarragon Realty Investors Inc., thanked Zipes for the invitation, then spoke briefly about the developer's other condo projects, including the Las Olas River House in Fort Lauderdale, where Marino owns a unit. Then he talked about the Dan Marino foundation, which benefits autistic children.

A crowd of women bedecked in jeweled dresses pressed forward and oohed and ahhed reverently as photos showing a younger Marino flashed across two screens flanking the stage.

"I've been asked over and over again: 'Why Dan Marino?'" Zipes said to the crowd. "He is here because he happens to be a good friend."

Sales associate Deborah Dickens said the party's intent was twofold: to introduce The Metropolitan to Sarasota on a grand scale, and to "get people talking, and that's what it's doing."

Zipes makes no apologies for the grandeur. He was equally unapologetic when asked why he's using his own sales team, instead of a local realty, to represent his units.

"I'm a maverick and I like to run my own team," said Zipes. "It's just the way I do things, but I'm not singling anybody out and I hope to work with all of the brokers."

His style, said Bob Gassie, a senior vice president at National City Bank, which has financed several of Zipes' projects, is to rely on his own team, "and when he does something, he does it right."

Whether that translates into sales has yet to be seen.

"The traffic is a concern to me and I'm just not sure where the market is headed," said Kristen Beury, president of Medical Resource Association Inc. and one of those prospective buyers. "For the same price, I could buy a stand-alone house with waterfront views. And I think a lot of people are wondering will it attract the nouveau-riche or old money."

When they open in late 2006, The Metropolitan's units will be the costliest in Sarasota. But unlike other high rises, its units will offer north and south exposures, run 3,200 to 3,600 square feet and offer such opulent standard features as extra-deep sunken bathtubs and wood-paneled appliances.

"It's an investment location," said broker Tom Hanly of St. Armands Circle. "I wouldn't be surprised to see a 25 percent appreciation within a year."

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Main Street changes bring worries

Sarasota store owners fear rising rents will put them out of business

By Lisa Rab

SARASOTA -- For 24 years Ann Jackson has used an eye for fashion and an intensely personal touch to draw a loyal following of women to her Main Street clothing shop.

But with millions of dollars worth of new condominiums, retail and office space breaking ground downtown, Jackson and other Main Street merchants worry that mom-and-pop shops like hers will disappear, priced out by national retail chains.

"If they raise the rents so high that only the chain stores can come in, then it's just like an outdoor mall and it's not going to attract anybody," said Jackson, who has owned PJ's Boutique since 1980.

National retail chains and speciality stores are exactly what some local business leaders have in mind as they push for changes downtown. An Ohio-based commercial development company has already bought the former Ovo Cafe at State Street and Lemon Avenue, and is looking to buy more downtown properties in a multimillion dollar takeover plan it hopes will attract national chains.

"We're really going to get behind changing the face of Main Street," said Kerry Kirschner, executive director of the business-oriented Argus Foundation.

With about $1 billion in development proposed or constructed since late 2001, and another $1 billion proposed to redevelop the waterfront Sarasota Quay, the transition has already begun.

Real estate brokers say rising property values have caused Main Street rental rates to jump in the last year, and many store owners say that have been asked to sell their properties.

Merchants who have weathered decades of economic ups and downs are excited about the customers that new condos and offices will bring. But they don't want to lose the independent stores -- selling everything from hardware to comic books -- they say give Main Street its character.

"They need to keep Main Street nostalgic," said Francis Misantone, owner of The Bullet Hole gun shop near the intersection of Orange Avenue and Main.

Small-town flavor

Many shops on the street still close at 5 p.m. on weekdays and stay shuttered on Sundays. Newcomers say that tradition needs to end if the district wants to attract a more diverse, younger group of buyers.

Rebecca Volz, who owns the antique shop Main Street Traders, said she stayed open on Sundays during this year's tourist season and wishes her colleagues would do the same.

"I think we just owe that to our customers," said Volz, who opened her shop three years ago.

The switch from mom-and-pop stores to retail chains is common in downtowns experiencing development booms after years of drought, said Tim Chapin, assistant professor of urban and regional planning at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Orlando and Tallahassee are already seeing independent stores priced out by redevelopment, he said.

"When money comes along, real estate values go up and a lot of the business that made an area interesting can't afford to stay there anymore," Chapin said.

But shoppers are divided in their opinions of what should happen to Sarasota's Main Street, where a handful of vacant storefronts stand out among the otherwise bustling assortment of restaurants and stores.

Courtney Balok, a fund-raiser for the Sarasota Opera, said she would like to see national chain stores like The Gap or Urban Outfitters downtown.

"Something to draw younger people down here," she said during a recent trip downtown.

Balok often browses Main Street shops during her lunch break, but said she does most of her shopping at malls.

Yet some older customers crave the comfort of smaller shops where the proprietors know them personally. For example, in addition to its inventory of brightly colored skirts and tops, PJ's Boutique offers older women tailoring advice and will special order items that are not in stock

Sarasota resident Marilyn Sharpe, who was headed to the Encore! & More Consignment Shop last week, said she prefers independent stores because they support local business people.

"We actually avoid places like Wal-Mart and Target

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Article published Jul 1, 2004

Plaza Verdi plan wins city's OK


SARASOTA -- The City Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved a developer's plan for a $141 million project on a city-owned parking lot on Palm Avenue downtown.

The commission, sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, also pledged $4 million toward the project to offset the cost of constructing 300 public parking spaces and making potential improvements to Five Points Park.

The Ersa Grae Corp.'s plan for Plaza Verdi calls for the construction of condominiums, hotel rooms, offices, retail space and 840 parking spaces in a pair of towers just north of Main Street, behind Sarasota News and Books.

When Plaza Verdi is completed in 2009, one of its towers will rise 10 floors, the other 18.

The project, which is expected to incorporate parts of the Sarasota Opera House, the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre and the park, is one of the most ambitious ever planned for downtown.

Ersa Grae intends to link Plaza Verdi by a pedestrian arcade with the $75 million, 16-story Plaza at Five Points building it is constructing at Main Street and Pineapple Avenue.

"When the end product is there I think we'll all say we did a great job," said Commissioner Danny Bilyeu.

The unanimous approval, however, came only after hours of angst-filled, rancorous discussion and criticism of the project and its finances.

Plaza Verdi becomes the latest in a series of downtown projects to receive tax increment financing support from the city in the past year.

During that period, Casto Southeast Inc. received city land, fee reimbursements and other money for public parking for its Whole Foods Market Centre, which is under construction on First Street. In all, the city provided Casto with roughly $9 million in incentives.

The New York Times Co. received $768,000 in reimbursements for fees and a storm-water vault required for a $12 million headquarters for the Herald-Tribune. The media company intends to move 360 employees to 1741 Main St. in early 2006.

Ersa Grae intends to use half the $4 million it was promised by the city to offset the parking development costs, which it estimates at $6 million. The city contributed its 2.25 acres to cover the rest of the parking expenses.

The developer will use the balance of the city contribution to move utilities and make changes to Five Points Park.

Economic Research Associates, a Washington, D.C., consultant the city hired to evaluate Plaza Verdi's request, said the project needed tax incentives to proceed.

Without the tax subsidy, Plaza Verdi's profit percentage would be "too low to justify moving forward with a project that is inherently highly complex and more complicated as a result of the mix of uses and physical configuration," according to ERA's May analysis.

Ersa Grae expects to generate a profit of $16 million from Plaza Verdi, though an ERA official acknowledged in early June that its profit margin would likely be "somewhat higher" once the developer obtains a mortgage for the project.

"Whose interests are being considered here today?" asked Richard Sheldon, a Laurel Park resident. "I'm concerned about (tax increment) money being used this way."

Janice Green, organizer of a group opposed to changes in Sarasota's scale and the pace of development, also objected to the $4 million contribution and potential changes to the park.

"All of a sudden it's being changed," Green said. "We don't know how it's going to change."

City officials and Ersa Grae representatives countered that any changes to the park would be discussed in a public forum and would have to be approved by the commission.

Ersa Grae also appeared displeased at times.

"We need to have some assurance, to some degree, on the permit process," said Ersa Grae President Ali Ebrahimi.

Even with the redevelopment agency approval, Plaza Verdi must clear numerous hurdles before Ersa Grae can begin construction.

The project must have commission approval and a blessing on a series of street vacations and other variances.

And the developer still must come to an agreement with the opera house and the dinner theater.

Ersa Grae said earlier this month that it had set aside $10 million to incorporate or relocate the theaters, but officials from both cultural groups said they had not had "meaningful discussions" regarding financial terms with the developer.

City officials, too, said that Plaza Verdi's future hinges on reaching a deal with the opera house and Golden Apple.

In a memorandum earlier this week, City Attorney Robert Fournier said he couldn't recommend that the Community Redevelopment Agency enter into an agreement with Ersa Grae until it had sales contracts with the opera and the Golden Apple.

"Non binding Term Sheets will not suffice," Fournier added.

Ersa Grae representatives said they hope to finalize a development agreement with the city by the end of this year.


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Article published Jul 1, 2004

Rumors surround Metropolitan project


SARASOTA -- Perhaps the talk was inevitable.

After all, it's not often that a developer swoops in from out of town and plans a $100 million tower at the corner of one of downtown's busiest intersections, even in white-hot Sarasota.

And it's not every day that a condo project receives a six-figure, debutante coming-out ball and enough advertising to make a presidential candidate blush.

And most developers don't give the brushoff to the region's premier real estate firm.

With all the superlatives and rarities associated with the project, it should be no surprise that Fort Lauderdale developer Richard Zipes' Metropolitan has been the subject of rapt discussion.

But the planned 18-story condo has garnered the kind of chatter Zipes could do without.

Since April, when Zipes threw a lavish party unveiling the 124-unit project, the Metropolitan has been a source of rampant speculation.

Rumors have swirled that Zipes is abandoning the Metropolitan, that he's shopping the property for sale, that he's slashing prices. There's been conjecture, too, that Zipes himself has purchased many of the units that have traded hands, in an effort to inflate sales perceptions.

To the speculation, Zipes offers a blunt debunking.

"It's absolutely false," Zipes said.

"We have a plan for the project and we're not going to abandon it," he said in a telephone interview.

He hasn't considered selling the land at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulf Stream Avenue where the Metropolitan will be built, either.

"It hasn't been discussed," Zipes said.

To date, Zipes said he has invested $15 million -- cash -- in the Metropolitan, to cover land costs, design, legal fees and marketing. Moreover, Zipes isn't lowering prices, which are slated to start at $1.8 million and go up to $5 million. Just the opposite. Zipes predicts the prices will increase over time.

Still, he acknowledges that sales have been "slow." He refused to reveal how many of the Metropolitan's units are under contract or identify buyers.

"It's slow, but our traffic has been good, and right now we're on target," he said.

That hasn't stopped the conjecture, though.

"Sarasota is a city that runs on rumors, particularly in the summer," said Michael Saunders, whose premier real estate brokerage has handled virtually all the sales of high-profile local condominium projects since 2000. It was her firm Zipes passed on.

"It doesn't make sense," Saunders said of the notion Zipes was bailing out, adding that she had also heard the gossip. "It's not been on the market that long. If it were a year, a year and a half from now, well, maybe. But with every high-profile development or developer, there are always rumors."

Zipes' project isn't the first one downtown to become grist for the rumor mill.

In the late 1990s, the chatter centered on developers Robert Buford and Kevin Daves, after the Kansas pair acquired an 11-acre tract near the Sarasota Quay and the land sat dormant.

Today, the property contains the 266-room Ritz-Carlton Hotel and a 17-story condominium tower. And while Zipes doesn't take much comfort in his well-heeled neighbor, he isn't dwelling on the conjecture, either.

"I don't look at the other guy. I just keep looking straight ahead."


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