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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 16, 2016 2 years ago

The art of compromise

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David Weekley Homes' plan for residences in Sarasota could have met a wall of resistance. It's met with praise instead.
by: Kevin McQuaid Commercial Real Estate Editor

David Weekley Homes had every right to expect opposition to its plans for residences on a failed 8-acre retail and warehouse site just outside downtown Sarasota.

After all, a previous development program had met with years of fierce opposition from a politically active neighborhood group. A plan to build a Wal-Mart Supercenter on a neighboring parcel stalled amid protests and administrative wrangling, too.

Instead, the Houston-based homebuilder is being lauded by neighborhood leaders and city officials for being inclusive, and for a proactive willingness to compromise on density and scale.

At the same time, the company has received kudos for a forward-looking design that will incorporate pedestrian-friendly elements and stitch together an entire area.

“I think what was different in our approach was, right up front we went to the neighborhood association and said, 'Let's talk. What are your concerns?'” says Martin Frame, a David Weekley land acquisition manager for Tampa, Sarasota and Bradenton.

“Our willingness to listen helped a lot in convincing the neighborhood of our intentions,” Frame says. “Some developers don't take that tact.”

The company also differentiated itself by showing up to an initial neighborhood meeting complete with site plans, showing what it wanted to build, and where, and why.

Although David Weekley's decision to downsize — to 135 residences from as many as 460 under a previous proposal — certainly played a significant role in assuaging resident concerns, at the same time its willingness to compromise could serve as a template for developers interested in breaking through the loggerheads that sometimes derail commercial real estate projects throughout the Gulf Coast.

“David Weekley is smart enough to realize that in the development business, you have to listen first, and then draw final plans, and they did,” says Jerry Sparkman, a partner in the Sarasota-based Sweet Sparkman Architects design firm and a member of the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association, which opposed prior plans for the site.

“They did a great job of striking a tough balance between coming up with a project in which the numbers work and one that is a thoughtful development in scale,” he adds.

If Sarasota officials approve David Weekley's plans early next year, as is expected, the company hopes to finalize its purchase of the former Scotty's hardware store site in March, and begin infrastructure work next summer. Model homes would open in the first quarter of 2018, with the first residents moving in to the $65 million project later that year.

Prices for the residences — a mix of 66 duplexes, 32 townhomes and 33 single-family homes — are expected to range from $300,000 to $600,000.

David Weekley's plans — and its efforts at inclusion with the Alta Vista neighborhood — stand in stark contrast to the plans proposed in 2005 by developer Ron Burks.

Initially, Burks wanted to develop 460 condos on the site, in a series of seven-story buildings. When Alta Vista residents balked, Burks dug in.

He enlisted the support of city officials and, during a neighborhood workshop, told residents he had no intention of altering his plans.

“It was a pretty horrible experience,” Sparkman says. “He took a very myopic view of how things are developed. It was very much 'my way or the highway.'”

In response, residents dug in, as well. Relations between Burks and the neighborhood soured further. Things became so contentious that Alta Vista Neighborhood leader Kelly Kirschner ran for Sarasota's City Commission on a platform opposed to dense, outsized growth — and won.

Burks eventually relented, and agreed after a series of meetings to a mixed-use proposal that include retail space, a hotel and residences in buildings capped at five stories. Sarasota's City Commission approved the scaled-down version in February 2009.

But his decision to abandon his strident tone came too late to save his Payne Park Village. By 2009, the most severe economic recession since the 1930s had steamrolled over Burks' plans.

Burks eventually listed the property for sale at $11 million — roughly the same amount he'd paid to assemble the tract.

Neither Burks nor real estate maven Michael Saunders, Burks' companion of many years and an investor in the site, could be reached for comment. Lee DeLieto Sr., a commercial agent with Saunders' real estate firm who has listed the property for sale and negotiated with David Weekley, declined to comment.

David Weekley executives were introduced to the property in summer 2015, during a site selection field trip.

It was a few months later that Frame and consultant Joel Freedman of Freedman Consulting & Development LLC met with Kirschner and other Alta Vista residents, on couches in the community room of an office building in the shadow of the former Scotty's.

Residents didn't want any project that would be gated. They wanted to be able to walk their dogs through the area and have the land be an extension of their existing neighborhood. Fair enough, Frame thought.

City officials asked for wider sidewalks than what was originally proposed. They got their request, too.

Alta Vista leaders seemed impressed by David Weekley's experience. In addition to being the nation's largest privately held homebuilder, the company was the first builder invited to construct homes in the master-planned Florida community of Celebration, a nod largely to its reputation.

Frame and designers from the Houston-based builder eventually presented plans that called for Key West- and West Indies-inspired architecture, which suited residents' tastes, as well.

And it wasn't lost on anyone from Alta Vista that the proposal would be two-thirds less dense than Burks' initial plan.

“The neighborhood recognized that this development would be bringing more people to Payne Park, and that was a good thing,” says Freedman. “And in terms of design, it's a no brainer. This plan is the perfect step-down for the neighborhood from downtown, and it's going to increase everyone's property values, too.”

Freedman also notes that residential units will have attached garages — not a “sea of asphalt” for parking.

“It wasn't hard to convince us once we saw their plans,” Kirschner says. “They came in with sketches and a grid system and other material, and the plan is in keeping with the scale of our neighborhood.”

Not everyone was immediately swayed, though.

It wasn't until last month that an internal review committee within David Weekley gave the green light to the project, which differs considerably from many of the builder's communities with its mix of duplexes, townhomes and single-family structures.

“It's going to be a very unique project for us,” Frame says. “And not just because of how unique the property is. It's required us to come in with some different ideas.”

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