Living in downtown doesn’t have to mean a multimillion dollar condo on the 10th floor. Sure, there’s high-rise life in Sarasota, and it’s growing straight up in visible fashion. But there’s also activity in Gillespie Park, Laurel Park, Alta Vista and the Rosemary District— communities within walking distance of the city core but with walkways to expansive park space. Real estate professionals say whether individuals want the privacy of living in their own single-family home or the bustle of condominium life, there’s huge appeal to locating near the center of nightlife and commerce in Sarasota. “Everybody wants to be downtown,” says Frank Lambert, a broker associate with Premier Sotheby’s International Realty.

Frank Lambert, broker associate with Premier Sotheby’s International Realty. Photography by Wyatt Kostygan.

He’s sold property for years in the Rosemary District, which enjoyed a well-documented renaissance over the past four years spurred largely by a city push for redevelopment and revitalization. He points to developments like Zahrada, a cluster of a half-dozen three-story condo projects priced at $1.5 million and up—a level of luxury unthinkable in the neighborhood a decade ago and still a steal compared to high-rises in the heart of downtown.

With 32 development projects completed in the district over the past four years, interest has started to stem out in nearby communities like Gillespie Park. “That’s becoming the most amazing story, even more than Rosemary,” Lambert says. “Five or six years ago, people were afraid to move to that area.” But, improvements to the 10-acre namesake park and the opening of a police substation, successful efforts to redevelop turned Gillespie into one of the hottest words in local real estate. Lambert recently handled a sale on an empty lot that went for $429,000 where new owners plan to build a single-family home.

The target market, he suggests, can be buyers anywhere from 29 to 89, whether it’s young professionals with office jobs who want to live, work and play in downtown, or it’s retirees who long for the metropolitan amenities Sarasota has to offer but want to leave the bustle of life in a major city. Gillespie offers the proximity to downtown with a neighborhood atmosphere. “For me, one of the things I love to see now is individuals just walking their dogs at 5am, or even at night when the sun starts to go down,” Lambert says.

Architect Jesse Balaity moved into Gillespie Park a couple years ago, and his company Balaity Property Enhancement has multiple projects underway. One of those is a new modern home for Balaity himself, who believes in the community enough to make his own long-term investment there. “This is my own little dream home,” he says. He’s building a 2,700-square-foot space that wraps around a pool courtyard. He’s excited by natural aspects like a grand oak on the property, but also by the fact that Gillespie Park has become a community where traditional properties can stand on the same street as ultramodern homes. His own property sits down the street from a lighthouse-style home, and there’s 1960s ranch homes and 1920s Mediterranean homes there as well. The market as a whole is leaning toward modern architecture in the region, Balaity says, and he’s also working on a similar home for a client on the same street.

While some avenues in Gillespie Park are primarily dotted with cottages and bungalows, a range of style and history can be spotted out the window. Balaity describes his home as built on minimalist clean boxes, though with a cost greater than $300 per square foot it certainly counts as a luxury build, and he’s employing the benefits of running his own firm to add plenty of bells and whistles—from high-end plumbing fittings to custom doors and a private hot tub. Ultimately, the neighborhood calls to Balaity, though, primarily because of its history. “I bought two existing houses as teardowns, and one of the things I did was strip the cypress siding to use for the interior,” he says. “I may be the only one who knows that, but I know the transition for the neighborhood here is important.”

As Gillespie becomes a more desirable location for high-end builds, it means a change in the racial and socioeconomic makeup of the community. That gentrification weighs on Balaity; he’s actually discouraged some clients from buying homes for teardown that were still in relatively good shape. For now, he sees new development replacing blighted and dilapidated properties. That’s a positive gentrification, one that hopefully lifts values for those living in Gillespie Park for years while bringing excited new residents to the community.

Balaity also notes the homes built in the city 80 years ago could even be constructed under today’s zoning codes. The days of 20-foot setbacks and suburban garages fronting the street disappeared as the prevailing thoughts on planning evolved and shifted. In Sarasota, significant modernization arrived beginning with code updates in 1994 and stepped forward further with the Downtown Master Plan. But that also makes room for a higher level of construction. “I can make this every bit as nice as if I was building in the West of Trail neighborhoods,” he says. Of course, this isn’t the only place around downtown where such an evolution takes place before the eyes of the community. It’s for better or worse, but real estate experts generally benefit winning out.

Jesse Balaity of Balaity Property Enhancement on a home site under construction in Gillespie. Photography by Wyatt Kostygan.

Jonathan Abrams, an agent with Michael Saunders & Company, sees enormous interest in Laurel Park, where residents enjoy close proximity to commercial amenities in Burns Court and cultural treasures in Towles Court. He has seen homes selling in Laurel anywhere from $550,000 for a townhome unit or nearly $2 million for a new modern home. There’s a huge range of customers that can take part in the rush for downtown, whether someone wants to drop $200,000 to $300,000 for a bungalow in Gillespie Park or the Rosemary District or they want to build something for a couple million, tricked out with smart features.

“Of course the main segment is always looking for move-in ready,” Abrams says. Especially in this year’s rush to downtown, many buyers from out of state put the highest priority on finding a property in Sarasota where they can close in 30 to 45 days. But there’s still plenty of interest in new builds as well. David Weekley Homes just sold out of newly constructed units at the Enclave at Laurel Park City Homes, with a series of three- and four-story townhomes priced around $600,000 a unit. And there are plenty of people looking to move here. While the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on real estate in early 2019 the same as for other businesses, one of the surprise developments of the economic downturn is that it didn’t set back residential real estate—at least not in Florida. Rather, it seems to have spurred some customers from the Northeast to finally make that retirement move to the region, or even to advance their move by a few years thanks to an ability to work from home and take it with them anywhere in the country. Realtors also say the lockdowns in other states, for better or worse, have pushed more buyers to Florida, where cultural options from group gatherings to a simple night out remain available.

David Crawford of Catalist Realty says that early-on, there were some questions about whether the pandemic would deliver an especially hard punch to downtowns. Indeed, some restaurants have closed because, restrictions or none, the number of working professionals commuting to offices dwindled as more people started working from home. But as the dawn that the pandemic wouldn’t shut the world down forever came to be, the market has shown itself to be strong and reliable. “When we became a little more flexible in our rules and people saw we were open for business, that’s when they started to come here,” Crawford says.

David Crawford of Catalist Realty. Photography by Wyatt Kostygan.

And there’s a range of price points that buyers want to find when they search downtown. Long-established neighborhoods like Laurel Park can be exclusive and expensive, he said. But as commerce grows downtown, it’s actually pushed the boundaries out a bit, and many buyers are looking to neighborhoods like Alta Vista. Farther inland, the neighborhood doesn’t offer high-rise views of Sarasota Bay, but it does have many existing homes that are move-in ready and provides easy access to one of the city’s most expansive green spaces, Payne Park.

Luxury brokers like Lambert don’t see as much interest that far east of Tamiami Trail, but that leaves room for buyers seeking a place downtown who don’t have six figures to put on a down payment. Crawford says many buyers coming into the region for the first time see a lot of desirability hunting down smaller homes in established neighborhoods.

“You have a little more affordable price point in Alta Vista,” Crawford says, noting townhomes are available for even young workers and singles looking for a place to own for under $300,000. “There’s growing interest in homes, in particular that boast east access, both to Payne Park and to east Downtown. “There’s a lot of pull for a place where you are able to walk to Payne Park or to the Bayfront.” Different neighborhoods will allow different types of construction around Sarasota. As just a short primer on local zoning, Gillespie Park is considered by the city as a Downtown Neighborhood, which means you can build single-family houses and even put a guesthouse on the lot, but don’t expect any mixed-use construction with restaurants and condos in the same structure. Mixed use can be found in the Rosemary District, which is zoned as Downtown Edge. Laurel Park has its own zoning overlay district, allowing a range of developments but with some hoops that builders must jump through to get permission in the city. Alta Vista is zoned as a traditional residential neighborhood, so single-family homes rule there.

As for what buyers want in homes, there’s definitely a hunger for the new, Lambert said. “People want all the toys,” he said. Whether that’s smart home security and integrated home entertainment, there’s a premium placed on new technology and creature comforts. Abrams said many people in search of new homes insist on a pool, more important in the downtown outskirts neighborhoods than the views hungered for by the condo dwellers on Palm Avenue. “It doesn’t have to be a huge pool, but maybe a splash pool,” he said.

There seems to be no slowing in the push for coastal contemporary architecture and finishes on homes. White and gray paints and Shaker cabinets hang in the kitchens of many units. And with Sarasota’s clientele, Lambert says one piece of home technology in recent years has become a must: an elevator. Particularly when clients build on the small lots around downtown, sometimes on lots of less than 6,000 square feet, where more home gets packed in with a second or third story. With many newcomers to Sarasota arriving at the age of 70 or older, flights of stairs don’t make for a great selling feature.

“Elevators have become the norm in multistory, even in single-family homes,” he says. “Our market needs that.” He recalls a few years ago realizing when a three-story condo unit opened in the Rosemary District with a rooftop bar but no lift, even many active culture-philes had no interest. “There’s lots of those people who are in their 70s and want a cocktail before they go to the opera, but they don’t want to walk up three flights of stairs.”

Of course, there’s still always a place for those city dwellers who want to overlook the Bay. Abrams right now is selling units at The Collection, a luxury condominium tower being completed in May with a penthouse unit still available with a $4 million asking price. With views of the city skyline and the Bay from its Second Street location, he sees it further raising the bar on condo life downtown, which continues to see more luxury each year. It seems there’s a place for the well-monied retiree and the upstart young professional within walking distance of downtown, with price depending only on how many fancy elements you want at move-in and how many steps you are willing to walk to reach the Sarasota Opera House.

That’s ultimately the great attractor to the area, Balaity says. It’s a way to enjoy the independence, privacy and primacy that comes with a home, while also benefiting from the amenities living in the heart of the city. He notes that before deciding to build in Gillespie, he and his partner looked around Sarasota, both toward townhome developments in the area or to condos. “Nothing seemed like a good value compared to a custom home that’s still only four blocks from Main Street,” he says.   SRQ