The Historic Preservation Board unanimously refused the request to tear down Mira Mar in order to build 70 condos.
This article has been updated with the board vote.
Sarasota’s Historic Preservation Board has unanimously rejected a local developer’s request to knock down the Mira Mar building on South Palm Avenue to make way for a project that would include 70 condominiums and a two-story retail building.
The decision came at a June 14 meeting. The developer, Seaward Development, pleaded to take down the existing building, citing structural issues that have led a local engineering firm to recommend inspections every three days.
But those concerns, and a half-hour presentation that even a city official said was the most thorough he’d seen, was turned aside as about a half dozen residents stood up to oppose the demolition. The local citizens, in general, said demolition would continue to alter the city’s character, further risking turning Sarasota into, as one speaker put it, “Everytown, USA.”
The Mira Mar building was built in 1922 and over the decades has been updated, renovated and rebuilt. Many see it as a historic property that harkens back to Sarasota’s early boom days and brings a charm some see as fading as construction projects downtown get bigger and more modern.
Seaward officials agree with that sentiment and say their plans for the property would be true to the original design and spirit of the Mira Mar while modernizing it and addressing serious structural issues.
But, Patrick DiPinto, Seaward’s managing partner, argues that can only be done if the current building is brought down and rebuilt. He says knocking it down won’t affect the historical import because what people see today is a “remake of the original. The building was 60%, 70% rebuilt in the '80s.”
“We all love the charm and character of the building. We do,” he says. Seaward, which is under contract to buy the building for an undisclosed amount, has been a tenant in the Mira Mar for the past five years.
The real problem, the firm says, is the building has fallen into such disrepair it’s too costly to maintain or to simply fix. In the presentation, it says the building has been assessed by Sarasota County at $2 million but needs $22 million to fix, a project that could take three years.
Bridge to somewhere
The Seaward presentation wasn’t merely part of a sales pitch.
The city of Sarasota inspected the safety of the Mira Mar building June 13, the day before the Historic Preservation Board took up the demolition request.
The inspector, according to a city spokesperson, visited the building and has reached out to the building’s engineer of record with plans to look at the engineer’s latest report. The inspector, the spokesperson says, did not make a formal response or take any immediate recommendations, including asking tenants to move out.
This despite an email to the building’s current owner, Mark Kauffman, from an outside engineering firm recommending safety inspections of the north portion of the building every three days. “We propose to install more crack measuring gauges and propose to do regular monitoring,” says the email from Karins Engineering, a copy of which was provided to the Business Observer.
The city’s inspection is not tied to the demolition request.
The Mira Mar building is actually two buildings connected by a bridge. Seaward’s application for demolition covers the entire property. Although the Mira Mar is considered historic to many in the community, it is not the original building that sits on the site and so many renovations and changes have been made in the past century that its application to the National Register for Historic Places was rejected in 1983.
Today, according to Seaward and Kauffman, engineers have said despite the work done to keep the property intact, the 100-year-old wood frame is badly damaged, including drastically undersized foundations, corroded structural wood wall studs, extensive insect damage and wood rot. This, the developer says, calls “into question the load path for gravity loads and walls observed with no lateral resistance to wind loads.”
“I don’t think you have to be a structural engineer to realize that the building has challenges,” DiPinto says. “And, again, that’s nobody’s fault. It’s a 100-year-old wood frame building that was built in 42 days, on compromised soil, 100 years ago.”
But the board disagreed that the building needed to come down, voting 4-0 to deny the request. A fifth member, Ramsey Frangie, abstained citing prior dealings with Seaward.
Roberto Gonzalez, the board’s vice chair, says he’s concerned about the health and safety of tenants but wanted to see if the steps taken by engineers first worked. “It feels premature to jump to that point” just now, he says of the demolition.
That was a sentiment taken by other board members as well.
As for the seven citizens who spoke, they too unanimously opposed the proposal, saying demolishing the Mira Mar would affect the fabric of the city and that the building is a jewel.
And Clifford Smith, a senior planner with the city, says the building is still eligible for national historic designations despite being turned down in 1983, in part because when the Mira Mar was built it “was a first to the city.”
Smith, as the city staffer overseeing the case, had already recommended the board turn down the request.
The plan ran into opposition even before the meeting, with one of the owners of a prominent restaurant in the Mira Mar taking to social media the night before the meeting to take issue with the plan and to reassure customers the restaurant wasn’t going anywhere.
Paul Caragiulo, who owns Caragiulos Italian Restaurant at 69 S. Palm Ave. with his brothers and family, says in the social media post that the restaurant is in the south building and that the major issues are in the other building. He writes “our landlord has assured us that at present, the building is safe.”
In the Facebook post he wrote, “We are not privy to the lease terms of other tenants of Mira Mar, but we can tell you for certain that Caragiulos has a lease term which concludes in 2040.”
Caragiulo, who is out of the country, says in a phone interview with the Business Observer that the restaurant has about 18 years left on its current lease and reiterates the building is safe and he intends to live out the rest of the terms of that lease. As for what happens if the city does eventually grant Seaward permission to demolish the building, he won’t comment.
“I have nothing to say regarding what is happening in that meeting today. Nothing to say about the project. It has nothing to do with me,” he says.
Caragiulo's assurances are a far cry from what Mira Mar’s current owner, Mark Kauffman, says.
Kauffman, in a statement, says “Mira Mar has now passed its useful life. A confluence of situations have led to the professional realization that repairs, and restorations are not a fiscal option for the permanent sustained future of the Mira Mar.”
As for the lease term, Kauffman said June 13 that if the permission is denied to bring down the building, he will allow leases to run out over the next two years and then close the building down and fence it off.
That sentiment drew some recriminations, including from Gonzalez, the board vice chair, who said he was offended by it.
DiPinto says the company cannot comment on existing leases but that the firm is willing to work other tenants in the building.
“Nothing would make us happier than if many of the existing tenants came with us into a new safe building,” he says. “We are working with commercial real estate brokers to help relocate many of them and assist them during any transition if necessary. But our main concern right now is whether the building is safe, as one of 40 tenants in the building ourselves.”
After the meeting, Seaward officials said they were disappointed and would regroup before deciding whether to appeal the decision to the Sarasota City Commission.