A City’s Changing Skyline: Are There Enough Condos in Sarasota?

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December 18, 2023

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(SARASOTA, Fla.) — The charm and character of downtown Sarasota, Florida, is nearly unrecognizable after its ongoing era of redesign. 

The city had been known for beautiful bayfront views with a historical touch and an art hub. It was also a popular hangout area with restaurants and karaoke bars suitable for teens and young adults.

However, over the last decade, those nostalgic memories have been replaced with the construction of luxury high-rise condominiums that residents have not signed off on.

Downtown Sarasota photographed in 1960s [Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources]

The historic Mira Mar Plaza located off of Palm Ave. was sold to a private developer last year after being in business since the early 1900s. One Main Plaza, which housed a karaoke bar, music venue, and a small mall, was also sold earlier this year and is expected to become the site of a 16-story residential condominium building. And residents launched an online petition in June pushing back against a proposal to build another luxury condo on Palm Ave. that’s expected to be called, the Obsidian. 

That building’s proposed 18-story height is the maximum permitted by city zoning ordinance and would make it the tallest building in downtown Sarasota. With only 14 residential units, the proposal requires the demolition of 1260 N. Palm Ave. plaza, where five businesses including Mankind Barber, Softer Clothes, and Von Hartsfield Salon are located.

The proposal for The Obsidian is in the final stages of a review by the Development Review Committee after their  most recent zoning request was denied in September. 

Luxury condominium buildings in downtown Sarasota have altered the city’s skyline and historic feel. Many downtown residents, patrons, and businesses are concerned about the new developments as the proposed condominiums are excused from facing public scrutiny thanks to a loophole labeled, “administrative approval.”

Sarasota Bay skyline 2016 [Credit: Annie Bain]

Sarasota, Florida Skyline and Bridge Across Bay 2023 [Credit: TW Farlow @ iStock]

Administrative approval was designed to exclude the downtown core area of Sarasota from the same approval processes and zoning codes that developers had to follow when proposing a project, according to Section IV-1901 of the city’s zoning codes.

This allows proposals to be approved without the public’s input, any public meetings, or a city commission’s vote.

“It hasn’t hurt my business, yet, but I’m not going anywhere,” Dennis “Hootie” Ford, the owner of Mankind Barber, said. “A building like that would block all views for all the other businesses across the street.” 

Ford said that the city of Sarasota delivered a letter to his business regarding the proposal. The letter notified him of the recent denial for a zoning change request made by the Obsidian’s developers. 

“I’ve been here four years and this whole block’s about to be overdeveloped,” Ford said. 

Luxury condominium buildings have been the main focus for private developers in the area. However, the city of Sarasota had their own idea for the future of downtown Sarasota. 

The recent developments were a part of a pathway for new economic and population growth opportunities. After the 2008 recession, the city of Sarasota hadn’t seen a formal planning department until 2017. The restored planning department was tasked with managing economic development, long-term development planning, and resolving transportation needs.

In 2020, a master plan was approved that set recommendations and guidelines for future redevelopment, especially in downtown Sarasota. 

The major themes of the master plan included connecting downtown Sarasota to the bayfront, designing streets and walkways to encourage more foot traffic, and developing transportation networks such as trolley systems and bike sharing programs.

Ranked as one of the fastest growing locations in the state, Sarasota hasn’t had to keep up with the amount of people coming in a long time. The need for available housing has increased following the population boost between 2020 and 2022, according to the U.S. Census data

[Credit: Pgiam @ iStock]

“We are not even close to meeting the needs and demands,” Steve Cover, the city’s planning director, said. One of the city’s initiatives was to maintain the historical value and creative architecture of downtown Sarasota while increasing population density. 

“These streets have great character and to do an all out change would be a mistake,” Cover said.

However, the most recent developments look different from the 2020 master plan.

The plan designated the Waterfront District is for “upscale high-rise condominium housing” and includes west of N Tamiami Trail up to the Sarasota Bay. 

The demand for luxury urban living and waterfront properties has driven developers to create multi-million dollar innovative condo projects throughout the downtown area that an average Sarasota resident may not afford. In 2022, the median household income for Sarasota was $68,870. The Quay, located next to the Ritz Carlton on N Tamiami Trail, had a unit sold for $11.5 million and One Park Sarasota, located on N Lemon Ave. listed starting at $1.86 million.

With the influx of new developments, there has been a transformation of the cityscape.

According to the city’s development review process, applications for new developments within the downtown zone are categorized as needing administrative review rather than the full review. The process also showed that those requiring only administrative review are not selected for Planning Board or City Commission hearings. 

“It will set a precedent for the area,” Shirl Gauthier, founder of the non-profit organization CityPAC, said. “There is no regulation for compatibility for buildings with the environment.” 

The heart of Sarasota is an epicenter for young professionals and retirees. Heavy construction has led to road closures, an increase in commercial rent, and noise pollution from round-the-clock traffic, bulldozers, and jackhammers. 

“I’m one of the only units in my building with a balcony that I pay extra for, and I don’t even use it,” Sydney Peppers, a resident on Palm Ave. said. Peppers said that the constant noise from the construction across the street has kept her off the balcony and indoors since moving in this summer.

Some residents question if the city’s plans for future development will include attainable housing — affordable-based housing to those with incomes up to 80% of the median income for the area. For the city of Sarasota, households with an income of $55,096 or less qualify for affordable housing.  

The decision to include attainable housing in the zone is awaiting administrative approval.

“Up to this point, the city and housing authorities have been the only ones providing attainable housing. There’s been zero assistance from the private sector,” Cover said.

Sarasota Housing Authority has partnered with the city and county to provide over 60 affordable housing units and are actively searching for more properties. 

In September, Sarasota City Commissioners voted 5-0 approving changes to the zoning codes. These changes would allow an incentive for private developers to build four times the number of units downtown if 15% of units are priced at attainable housing income perimeters.

Cover said that the city hopes to gain more affordable housing throughout the downtown zones through private developers.  

Improvements to transportation to help reduce traffic congestion have been made to make downtown Sarasota a more desirable living destination. 

The city planning department had to explore other means of downtown transportation because of the increased population density. This included the implementation of a shared electric bike and scooter program, downtown trolley system, and the expansion of a popular bike trailway, The Legacy Trail, into downtown.

“There’s a link between transportation and attainable housing.” Cover said. These improvements to transportation will help residents living in attainable housing to have easier access to move throughout the city. 

In the last year, the electric bike program brought in 500,000 users, according to Cover.  

Regarding future development, the master plan’s main goal said, “A fundamental premise of this Master Plan is that it has a twenty-year window. It is not addressing ‘quick-fix’ opportunities, nor is it simply a veiled economic development platform. Rather, the overall goal of this Plan is to strengthen, revitalize and optimize all aspects of urban living.”

The city of Sarasota is no stranger to urbanization and the last decade of development is only the beginning. With continuous construction, downtown Sarasota could look very different in another ten years. Some residents think private developers have taken it too far.

Aerial view of beautiful Downtown Sarasota, Florida [Credit: Ryan McGill @ iStock]

“We aren’t anti-development, we’re just being overdeveloped.” Gauthier said. “With too many concessions for developers and fewer setbacks from the city, there’s been a loss of character for the downtown core.”

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