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Office Users Go Away ?

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  • | 6:00 p.m. October 8, 2004
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Office Users Go Away ?

Business owners say the Sarasota City Commission should alter the retail portion of the downtown master plan.

By Sean Roth

Real Estate Editor

Sarasota's downtown 2020 master plan and quantum physics share commonalities. Both provide a context for their own respective field of study. Both use pointed words that make perfect sense to their drafters based on years of research and study. And both are voluminous, complex and require constant explanation.

Since the master plan was adopted by the Sarasota City Commission in June, portions of it have emerged as points of renewed conflict and discussion. Chalk it up to the size of the document and the immediacy of a rezone application codifying the city code, but people are now concerned about several topics that weren't hotly debated during the original discussions, which occurred over a four-year period.

The newest debate: Required retail frontage in the downtown area that would restrict office development on several streets.

Essentially, the city is requiring that all properties along certain roads in the downtown southwestern core and Central Avenue (see map) must have ground floor retail.

Office use would not be allowed, and retail use would not extend to banks or real estate brokerages. Existing buildings that have office users on their bottom floors are exempt unless the use ceases for 24 consecutive months. However, the city's planning director may grant an additional 12-month extension, if the property owner applies for it. Buildings that don't have ground floor retail at the time of the rezone would lose the option to put an office user there.

"Simply put - this one slipped past us," says John Harshman, president of real estate company Harshman & Co. Inc. and a downtown property owner. "We think this is something they need to revisit. There are properties that have been vacant for longer than two years. On Main Street there are spaces that have been vacant for three years or more. That's not unreasonable given a downturn in the market and history proves this."

Harshman, contractor Pat Ball and Samuel Holladay, an architect with SeibertArchitects PA, are meeting with property owners and city commissioners to get the provision reexamined.

"The big question is when is that transition period expected to take place?" says Holladay. " Is it going to just take the three years or will the market need five? Will the downtown be able to support itself with all this retail? We just don't want to see a bunch of empty space down here."

Harshman contends that general office users tend to be more reliable and that storefront office users, which are a rarity, add to the vitality of the downtown market on a year-round basis. But what really concerns the commercial property and business owners is the loss of the option of considering office users.

In addition, the retail requirement could depress rates.

"Retail is just a much more volatile market," Harshman says. "Sarasota is a banking area. With banks you know people are going to be there five days a week from eight to five. That adds consistency to the vitality of Sarasota's season."

There is also the issue of Central Avenue, where Ball, Holladay and GCBR now have offices. Central is a mixture of retail and office buildings surrounded by residences, where a steady stream of retail customers comes from the surrounding offices.

"We are really the only traffic to support them," Ball says.

Reducing the number of office users, they argue, could negatively impact new retail.

No surprise

"This shouldn't surprise them," says Mike Taylor, the city's deputy director of planning and redevelopment. "These are old issues. These plans have been discussed for four years and have gone through several public hearings. This is a transition that is intended to occur over time. This is not unlike what has been out on St. Armand's Circle for several years."

Taylor says the city commission has reduced the scope of the required frontage to areas where 90% of the users were already retail.

"This has been determined by the marketplace already," Taylor says. "If you look at the total number of streets included in this; it's not a large area. If this were unsuccessful I would be very surprised. (And) if economic conditions were to change I'm sure the city and the city commission could change the requirement at that time. This is a work in progress; this is not going to happen overnight."

However, most commissioners appeared sympathetic.

"Right now, the whole downtown code is in a tweaking period," says Commissioner Danny Bilyeu, who met with the concerned businessmen on Sept. 27. "We want to make at least certain that they can rent their space - so they can pay their taxes. This is going to be discussed. We will all come to the table with an open mind. We may be asking for too much retail."

Mayor Richards Martin acknowledges the zoning change would cause problems if it overrules what the market dictates.

"I'm meeting with some folks on this," Martin says. "This has been through the vetting process before. Really what we want is for people walking on the sidewalks to not be met with a blank wall. Instead we want a building with a window, ideally with a retail user inside there. That pedestrian experience is key. We are open to consideration. There may ultimately be demand for retail ... or if it's a burden maybe they need a few more options."

Martin says the commission is considering the requirement that ground floor buildings in the targeted areas have a retail look, similar to what has been suggested for the optional retail frontage.

"I am really not convinced that there is not the demand for retail there," Martin says. "But maybe someone has a market study that shows that. Clearly with all the retail development down here such as Plaza Verdi ... there should be accompanying demand for retail. But the commission is a realist. We don't want to put an undue burden on the development that is not based on reality."


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