SRQ Magazine | January 2017
In Real Estate
Wrecking balls swung into the walls of the pyramid-like Quay building more than a decade ago, the demolition at the time earning daily updates on local real estate blogs, drawing residents in Downtown Sarasota to bring folding chairs curbside to watch a long-time landmark reduced to rubble.
The building, once home to nightclubs, fine dining and numerous professional offices, was cleared from the city skyline to make room for a bigger, bolder development: Sarasota Bayside, a project to expand the very boundaries of downtown and evolve how residents would interact with the bay—and one another. The plan was supposed to bring nearly 700 condo units, a major hotel and new office and retail space online.
Some feared overdevelopment would grind traffic to a halt while others dreamed this new vision would thrust Sarasota into a bright future. Few, it seemed, imagined this 15-acre site remaining mostly vacant for the next 11 years. Yet the land sits undeveloped even now. Wire fencing surrounds a grassy lot, a wasteland between the Hyatt Regency and US 41 with one notable structure—the historic Belle Haven hotel—serving as testament to how little was saved and how much was lost through the pursuit of a failed dream. The Great Recession dismantled Sarasota Bayside dreams, then an Irish banking crisis and years of litigation prevented any movement on the land even after the economy improved. But now, a new development team brings forward a reimagining of the site that could once again give reason to visit the former Quay. But with a renewed plan for the future of the development, overdevelopment fears have returned as well.
To hear Chuck Bell tell it, the new plan for the Quay site represents more than a high-rise development downtown. The project manifests “creative placemaking” and will create a new identity for a hot plot of land overlooking Sarasota Bay. “This is one of the last waterfront redevelopment opportunities on Florida’s east coast,” Bell says. “We envision, at the Quay, the chance to transform this waterfront site into an exciting destination.” Bell, the chief planner working on the new Sarasota Bayside plan for GreenPointe Holdings, may not be the first to say that, but his team seems on track to bring a plan into fruition at last. GreenPointe purchased the Quay site in 2014 and has been working on a general development plan for the 14.69-acre lot ever since. But to understand the scope of the plan requires a trip back in time when a different development almost brought a plan to life, only for a collapsing global economy to dash those hopes.
Developer Patrick Kelly, an Irish businessman with interests in Sarasota, first took an interest in the site in 1999, back when the memorable Sarasota Quay occupied eight acres of space on the bayfront. Kelly and partners ultimately spent about $100 million to buy the Quay site and roughly 10 acres of commercial property around it, then in 2004 announced plans for a major mixed-use development including commercial, residential and hotel space. After lengthy negotiations with the city, Kelly in 2007 won approval from the Sarasota City Commission on an agreement allowing construction of 695 residential units, 175 hotel rooms, 38,972 square feet of office space and 189,050 square feet of new commercial. Most of the development would be concentrated in three high-rise structures. Kelly got so far as tearing the existing Quay (which he described as an “ill-conceived” project) to the ground and clearing the site for his promised Sarasota Bayside development. But the timing proved terrible. An economic recession would stall the development, then Kelly’s own holdings would get wrapped up in lending and foreclosure lawsuits. Additionally, Anglo-Irish Bank was taken over by the Irish government and seized the Quay property. In 2014, GreenPointe announced its intentions to buy the site.
With the land, GreenPointe has the right to develop the site according to Kelly’s plan, but must do so before late 2018 or the approval expires. Instead, the new owners would like to improve upon it with a project of similar scope, but one that will spread development over the property quite differently.
At a Planning Board meeting in August, GreenPointe’s team presented the project in three-dimensional panoramic renderings. “Some things are vastly different,” says Sarasota attorney Charlie Bailey, “and much better than originally designed.” Instead of concentrating development within just three structures, the new plan calls for development to be spread out in six buildings with a main street running through the commercial area parallel with US 41. No structure would be taller than 18 stories, the city limit in this part of town. Bell says that will help preserve the view of the bay enjoyed by many downtown. While the Kelly plan included a controversial move of the historic Belle Haven hotel, the new owners planned their own vision for the property leaving that structure in its existing place.
But the project in many ways remains as controversial as it ever was. Neighbors fearful of traffic remain concerned and unconvinced by a study that shows no net impact to the existing road network. GreenPointe officials say they can help mitigate concerns about traffic by helping pay for and constructing plans to redesign the intersection of Fruitville Road and US 41, similar to the roundabout already in place at US 41 and Gulf Shore a block south. And they also have plans for a bicycle and pedestrian trail that will connect to the bayfront for anyone venturing across Tamiami Trail by foot or pedal.
But many remain doubtful Eileen Normile, a former Sarasota City Commissioner, in 2016 helped form the new neighborhood-based group STOP!, which seeks to draw attention to the lack of infrastructure available to serve new development. She worries that traffic studies being used to anticipate the demand that will be created by new development at the Quay could be relying on out-of-date data. “And if the numbers are off, we are all in trouble,” she says.
Normile stressed she doesn’t oppose having any development occur in the old Quay site. The vacant land abutting resorts like the Hyatt Regency and Ritz-Carlton today serves as one of the city’s most frustrating eyesores. “We are not anti-development so much as pro-infrastructure,” she says. Normile worries traffic studies give developers triple the credit they should get for funding a roundabout or outlets from the proposed commercial district. For example, because of hotel use allowed previously on the site, GreenPointe doesn’t have to account for much of the traffic generated by the new plan, even though no hotel has been operating at the site for well over a decade, because state formulas will include traffic generated by hotels in its formulas for 100 years after a project first goes online.
That’s a problem with state calculations, not this particular plan, Normile says, but it could create congestion that hurts both the quality of life for those already relying on US 41 to get around town and potentially business at the new project. Meanwhile, policies adopted in the city during recovery from the Great Recession greatly reduce demand that the new development meet concurrency rules, and Normile feels the city’s recent focus on multi-modal transportation doesn’t account for the fact that additional car trips to a new hotel or commercial district at the Quay site will require better roads. Still, the Planning Board approved the GreenPointe plan unanimously. Sarasota City Commissioners in December voted 4-1 in favor of a general development plan for the site, as well as some road vacations needed for the multi-block design. But for every block of the expansive project, developers will have to bring site plans in front of commissioners for more public hearings in the future.
The timing of the project creates its own challenges. A revitalization of development in Downtown Sarasota has brought with it new fears from neighborhood and conservation leaders, especially after construction on the imposing The Vue project, the immediate neighbor to the south of the Quay, rose over downtown. Unlike the previous Quay, the new Sarasota Bayside plan involves connections to roads like Boulevard of the Arts and brings the potential to cause backup, both during construction and once a new hotel and shopping district brings visitors to the site. And while the development plan for the site makes room for trails, some bicycle-path enthusiasts openly wonder if that’s just lip service.
Phillip Dasher, once president of the now-closed G. Wiz and a 10-year chairman of the city’s bicycle-pedestrian advisory board, argued in 2006 that the Kelly project could diminish access to bayfront facilities like the museum. This fall, he argued that the GreenPointe plan actually creates dangerous pathways for bikes and walkers. “The traffic report is a compilation of assumptions,” he told Planning Board members. The state mandates that a proper trail require a certain width of road and curves throughout a course so that bikers don’t careen into pedestrians or automobiles, but the GreenPointe plan, he says, labels sharp corners through a commercial district as space for a trail.
Based on some of these concerns, GreenPointe officials made changes before putting a final plan in front of commissioners. Bailey says the trail will now be 12 feet wide at all points, and it will be installed before any new vertical construction to ensure the buildings get planned around the pathway, not the other way around. That allayed some concerns from cyclists, according to Mike Lasche, head of Bicycle Pedestrian Advocates, but he still worries the path remains disconnected from other local trails.
While city planners have endorsed the new plan, some elected officials remain skeptical. City Commissioner Susan Chapman, the lone vote against the new development plan in December, wonders why the developers don’t simply move on the previously approved Kelly plan. “I don’t think they want to build that project,” she says. Chapman worries whether the new project, supposedly less imposing than the prior plan, will truly bring human-scale development downtown. While renderings show a mix of three-story buildings alongside some very tall structures, Chapman notes nothing now stops GreenPointe from bringing plans for nine buildings that each stand 18 stories; Kelly’s approved plan only allowed three buildings of that scope.
“They will say this makes it a better plan,” she says, “which means making it a more marketable project.” But the new request also calls for a 10-year extension in the time allowed to get the new project up and running, and it extends the lifespan of the development intensely negotiated by Kelly many years ago.
Also, years of legal concerns have not necessarily drawn to a conclusion. At multiple hearings on the new project, attorneys for the adjacent SRQus (pronounced “circus”) say their plans to develop a mooring field on a part of the project remain locked in legal dispute, and that the GreenPointe plan includes land where ownership of the property remains in question.
Bailey says the new development team, which just got control of this site in the past two years, needs time to properly implement its general development plan. Even with the approval of a general plan, the matter will still need to go through legal hoops, including multiple site plan approvals, before developers can break ground.
Bill Oliver, a traffic consultant working with the city, says many parts of the planning around the project, including a finalized design on the Fruitville roundabout, remain in a state of flux. But even if the new plan were abandoned, Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly says a development could still move forward in the near future, just with Kelly’s designs. “They still have the ability until late 2018 to get that building permit,” he says.
GreenPointe officials have committed to working with groups like Bayfront 20:20, an independent organization working now on plans for a cultural district on city-owned land just north of the proposed Quay site. So the current discussions may simply be the opening salvo for the coming debate.