Advocates for saving historic Colson Hotel in Sarasota urging city’s Historic Preservation Board to deny demolition application

Hearing set for April 9 at City Hall

This is an April 2 post on the Facebook page of the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation.

Advocates for saving historic structures in the city of Sarasota are urging the public to protest plans for the demolition of yet another building:  the Colson Hotel on Eighth Street, in what was Overtown, “the original African American community in Sarasota,” as the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation has pointed out in a post on its Facebook page.

At 3 p.m. on Tuesday, April 9, the City of Sarasota’s Historic Preservation Board will conduct a hearing on a demolition application submitted by the owners of that property, which stands at 1425 Eighth St., the meeting agenda says.

The board will meet in the City Commission Chambers of City Hall, which is located at 1565 First St. in downtown Sarasota.

As the city staff report explains, “The Colson Hotel is a two-story U-Shaped Mediterranean Revival Style building” that was constructed by Owen O. Burns, one of the city’s most notable builders. The structure was named for the Rev. Lewis Colson, the report adds.

“This was the first hotel built in segregated Sarasota to accommodate African American temporary workers and travelers looking for lodging,” the report continues.

The Colson Hotel is listed in the Florida Master Site File as eligible for both national and local designation as a historic building, the report adds, “and it is a contributing structure to the National Overtown Historic District.”

On its Facebook page, the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation emphasizes that the Colson Hotel “is one of the last remaining African American landmarks in the City of Sarasota. … Our community cannot afford to lose this one!”

Along with the Alliance, Friends of “Seagate” Inc. is urging the members of the Historic Preservation Board to deny the demolition application.

In an April 3 statement to The Sarasota News Leader, Kafi Benz, president of Friends of “Seagate” pointed out that the Colson Hotel is “typical of [Owen Burns’ buildings in that] it is a fortress — ripe for preservation, renovation, and return to useful life.”

Owen Burns. Image from Wikipedia

She further noted “that the hotel was intended to serve the Black tourists to town who were prevented by segregation from enjoying other tourist facilities he built, such as El Vernona Hotel, Burns Court, and the Broadway Apartments and, that he named the hotel to honor the Colsons and their contributions to the community.”

Lewis Colson, Benz added, was the first free Black American to settle in Sarasota. Employed by the Florida Land Company, Colson “participated in the initial survey of the community. In 1884, he drove the primary stake that would be used in that process. He and Irene Colson, his wife, donated the land to establish Bethlehem Baptist Church, at which he would serve as pastor from 1899 to 1915.”

Benz asserted that “this hotel is among the last vestiges of the Black community that thrived as ‘Overtown’ on both sides of Sarasota’s Central Avenue to the north of Fruitville Road. So little evidence of that vibrant and prosperous community remains, that its historical site sign that one encounters along Avenue of the Arts seems incongruous to what has been renamed ‘Rosemary’ and is developing as a chic enclave in downtown. Restoring the slumbering Colson Hotel will be a significant step toward making the early history of Sarasota and all of her historical residents better known and understood — rather than it becoming a footnote about the incredible effort required to demolish another building Owen Burns built for the ages.”

As president of Friends of “Seagate,” Benz led the campaign to bring the 1929 winter retreat named Seagate — which was built as a fish camp for Gwendolyn and Powel Crosley — into public ownership.

The developer’s proposal

The owner of the property identified on the demolition application is Maximilian Vollmer of Tampa. Formally, as noted in the records maintained by the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office, the owner is JDMAX Developments LLC, which purchased the property on March 1, 2023 for $550,000. Prior to that, the Colson Hotel was owned for 19 years by Palm Hotel Inc.

According to the Florida Division of Corporations, JDMAX Developments LLC was established in February 2023; Vollmer is listed as a manager of the limited liability company.

On a Facebook page, Vollmer Real Estate, Vollmer is listed as CEO and founder of Vollmer Real Estate LLC.

The Eighth Street parcel comprises 21,522 square feet, the Property Appraiser’s Office record says.

Max Vollmer. Image from his real estate firm’s Facebook page

The city staff report for the Historic Preservation Board meeting notes that the Colson Hotel had stores on the lower level “that were operated by black members of the community. While the commercial space was removed for an office area and laundry room, the rest of the building … retained its original residential use until 2023 when [it] became vacant.” Vollmer Real Estate has submitted an application for a city construction permit for the site, the report adds, noting that the application was being analyzed by the city’s Development Review Committee, which consists of representatives of the various departments and divisions that deal with land use and construction.

The March 28 city development update provided to City Manager Marlon Brown by Lucia Panica, director of the city’s Development Services Department, says that the “Cohen Court Townhomes” would consist of a 10-story, 242-residential unit building on approximately 1.39 acres. “The site is located on the west side of South Washington [Boulevard], between Golf Street to the north and Adams Lane to the south. It is within the Downtown Core (DTC) zone district,” the report adds. “This project utilizes the attainable housing downtown density bonus and includes 26 attainable housing units,” the report points out.

The Development Review Committee completed its review of the application on March 20, Panica’s report indicates; the report also notes that the next step is a complete technical review of the project.

The development is eligible for administrative site plan approval, the report says, meaning that it would not have to be reviewed by either the city’s Planning Board or the City Commission.

The JDMAX Developments demolition application, dated March 4, explained in answers to a questionnaire that the company proposes to “transform this corner [at Eighth Street and Cohen Way] into an exemplary townhome community. This initiative seeks to introduce homeownership and contemporary living to the Rosemary District, distinctively differentiating from the prevalent apartment and condominium developments.”

The Colson Hotel property is outlined in purple. Image courtesy Sarasota County Property Appraiser Bill Furst

“Furthermore,” the application continued, “our project is deliberately designed to be more affordable than adjacent condominium projects and comparable townhome developments, offering highly sought-after living spaces that accommodate a wide range of resident needs while ensuring maximum affordability relative to other available units. Our targeted price range is set between $750,000 and $900,000, with a firm cap at the $1 million threshold.”

The application pointed out that if the demolition of the hotel is approved, JDMAX Developments will be able to add more townhomes to its project.

A Letter of Intent from Vollmer, also included in the demolition application, is undated. However, Voller mentioned finalizing negotiations with the owner of the property located at 1442 and 1934 Ninth St., which “altered the development layout but facilitated further redevelopment and enhancement of this corner within the Rosemary District …”

In that letter, he indicated a preliminary plan to transform the former hotel into an apartment complex with six units.

Pleas for approval of the proposed demolition

The Letter of Intent also explains that JDMAX Developments’ “due diligence did not reveal [the Colson Hotel’s] historical significance — a fact that remained unmentioned by city officials.”

It was only through his engagement with Clifford Smith, the city’s senior planner for historic preservation, “that the building’s historical value came to light,” Volmer continued. Subsequently, he wrote, his initial intent was to renovate and repurpose the building.

However, Vollmer contended, “The intersection of 8th Street and Cohen Way, along with 9th Street and Cohen Way, has historically been a challenging area, necessitating substantial police enforcement and unfortunately becoming a locale often avoided due to safety concerns. Upon my initial acquisition and inspection of the property, I recognized these challenges firsthand. Despite not feeling entirely safe, I was motivated by a sense of mission, understanding it was my responsibility to address and overcome these challenges.”

This is a photo of the Colson Hotel provided by the Bass Fletcher & Associates real estate appraisal firm. It is included in the demolition application for the Historic Preservation Board. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Vollmer went on to explain that he and his partners had engaged a structural engineer, Mark Pina, to analyze the Colson Hotel. Pina’s findings “raised immediate concerns regarding the structural integrity of the building, suggesting that any attempt at renovation would require significant effort, if it were even feasible.”

The development team sought a second opinion, Vollmer added, consulting with Karl Hees, whom he described as “another local structural engineer with experience in historic buildings …” Hees, too, “[highlighted] critical issues with the building’s framing system, floor system, connections, walls, stairs, and foundation, underscoring the extensive challenges associated with any potential renovation.”

Thus, Vollmer pointed out, based on those two analyses, “[I]t has been conclusively determined that the building is unequivocally unsuitable for renovation and should instead be demolished and redeveloped to serve the community’s needs. The structure is deemed unsafe and unfit for occupancy, with the economic burden of bringing the building up to code surpassing reasonable expectations.”

Yet, Vollmer continued, the development team went ahead and “engaged two Florida-licensed General Contractors, renowned for their expertise in renovations and new developments, to inspect the building and provide cost estimates for its renovation.” One estimate came in at $1,963,413, Vollmer noted, while the other was $2,257,924.37.

Moreover, he continued, the team secured an appraisal “of the building’s value post-renovation,” which came in at $910,000, “starkly highlighting the financial impracticality of the renovation. This valuation effectively renders it impossible to secure bank financing for the project, creating an untenable financial liability for any prospective developer,” Vollmer wrote.

The team also “commissioned Jesse White from the Sarasota Architectural Salvage Company to evaluate the building’s potential for salvage,” Vollmer added. “His professional assessment concluded that there are no materials of value for reuse within the property …”

Further, Vollmer wrote, Kyle Johnson of Johnson Housemoving, “having experience with comparable projects, inspected the building and determined that its condition precludes relocation. He estimated that attempting such an endeavor would incur costs exceeding $1 million …”

Thus, Vollmer pointed out, “The unanimous professional feedback has led us to the conclusion that demolition represents the only viable option …”