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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Nov. 14, 2003 14 years ago

Coffee Talk

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This week's items: A chance for 'affordable housing,' but will they take it? Do Gulf Coast residents love ice hockey that much? McKay explains constitutional amendment Hugh Culverhouse Jr. selling 900 acres?

Coffee Talk

A chance for 'affordable housing,' but will they take it?

Sarasota just wants to give its land away, but no one seems able to take it. Since 2000, the city has been trying to give a qualified developer a 2.25-acre parking lot the city owns on Palm Avenue, with a market value of more than $3 million, in exchange for getting a few hundred public parking spots out of the deal. Two previous deals have fallen apart because the developers selected have failed to meet expectations.

Now the city is trying a third time. It has issued a request for proposals, offering to give the land to a qualified developer. The developer can build up to a 10-story condominium or mixed-use building on the 50,000-square-foot footprint, so long as the result provides 290 public parking spaces for the city.

Under the existing zoning (12 units per acre), the condos in the building would be about 3,000 square feet each - another luxury condo building, with ultra-high price points. The requests for proposal does offer extra points to developers who propose lower priced units, but that would require smaller units and a density rezoning. Local government officials have often been quoted saying that density exceptions could and would be made available for a developer of affordable housing, because affordable housing is such a high priority.

Local businessman, entrepreneur and developer Harvey Vengroff is considering submitting a proposal in response to the requests for proposal that includes affordable housing, not luxury condos. Vengroff says he can build automated, stacked parking on the upper levels, as frequently seen in Boston residential buildings. The automation makes it fast and efficient; the stacking allows for more parking in a smaller space.

For the residential portion of the building, Vengroff says a developer could build 1,200-square-foot apartments that would rent for $1,000 per month. Vengroff points to his mixed-use building on Central Avenue, with two-bedroom, two-bath apartments similar to those he would propose, to show that it can be done profitably and attractively.

If Vengroff does submit his proposal, the city may get the chance to put its money where its mouth is.

Do Gulf Coast residents love ice hockey that much?

For four years now, former state senator Bob Johnson and the Sarasota Fair Board have been pushing for a massive redo to Robarts Arena that would turn it into a premier regional entertainment facility with up to 8,000 seats for concerts and sporting events. They have completed studies showing its need and its value.

They have full renderings and plans drawn up in preparation of the construction. Johnson says he has already lined up a minor league ice hockey team that will call the revived Sarasota arena home.

So imagine Johnson's surprise when he learned, only a couple of weeks ago, what developers announced on Nov. 11 in Lakewood Ranch - that they are planning to build a 7,400-seat sports arena that will feature a minor league ice hockey team. They hope to be open for the 2005-2006 hockey season.

The Sarasota Fair Board will present its final application to the city and county for funding for its plans next week. Johnson says he feels confident it will go forward, and he says he is not particularly worried about the economic impact or competition of the Lakewood Ranch project.

"We've been in this ball game for four years," says Johnson. "I have nothing but good wishes for Lakewood Ranch. We will be there long before they will. We should be up and running by early 2006."

McKay explains constitutional amendment

When he served as president of the Florida Senate, John McKay's pet project was the passage of a bill that would do away with many tax exemptions. But that bill never became law. McKay explains that though the bill passed through both houses, the Florida Supreme Court struck it down "on what amounts to a scrivener's error."

So he's not giving up. McKay is now collecting signatures to enable a referendum vote that would add a constitutional amendment on the subject. The "Fair Amendment" would sunset all tax exemptions in 2007; there are about 440 tax exemptions on the books, exempting from sales tax everything from dry cleaning to seeing-eye dogs to escort services. Legislators would have the opportunity to re-enact each separate tax exemption they deem important to serve a public purpose by a 60% vote of both houses.

Critics are concerned about making this a constitutional amendment, rather than simply having the matter handled by the Legislature.

"Many of these exemptions were snuck through the Legislature; I know because I did it a lot," McKay told the Tiger Bay Club on Nov. 6. "No legislator is going to vote down an exemption because it serves as a softball to his opponent in the next election. The opponent will say, 'Senator Smith wants to increase your taxes!' Instead of forcing them to vote something down, this will sunset them all, subject to a vote to re-enact them."

In response to concerns that legislators may have trouble getting a 60% vote on necessary exemptions, McKay said, "I guarantee that if a presiding officer wants the re-enactment of any exemption, he definitely won't have a problem getting 60%."

In response to that latter comment, someone leaned over to Coffee Talk and said, "If the presiding officers of the Legislature have so much power, why do we need a constitutional amendment to make them get this done?"

Etc.

With all the national home builders scouring the Gulf Coast to buy up raw land for future development (see "Dearth of Dirt," Oct. 31) one of Coffee Talk's reliable sources tells us Hugh Culverhouse Jr., owner of Palmer Ranch Holdings Inc., is expected to put a "For sale" sign in his 900 acres that sit on the southern side of the ranch and just north of Oscar Scherer State Park. Reached for comment, Mark Royall, vice president of Palmer Ranch Holdings, would only say: "I can't comment." ¦ Meanwhile, Jason Coles, head of sales for Sarasota-based Jade Homes, tells Coffee Talk that even though North Port is widely known as one of Sarasota County's hot spots, the national builders are also buying raw land for the next frontier - Englewood.

Correction

The Review incorrectly reported last week the name of Williams, Parker, Harrison, Dietz and Getzen, a Sarasota law firm.

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