City Development Services director denies one requested adjustment for proposed Obsidian complex on North Palm and says a second one must be heard by Planning Board

Regardless of Planning Board vote, result could be appealed to City Commission

This engineering drawing in a May 25 document provided to city staff shows plans for the ground floor of the Obsidian. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The director of the City of Sarasota’s Development Services Department has informed the agent for the Obsidian condominium project on North Palm Avenue that staff has denied one of the developer’s requests regarding a Zoning Code adjustment and that a second adjustment request must be decided by the city’s Planning Board, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

A third adjustment that was requested, which has been approved, would allow the façade of the structure parallel to the front lot line to be reduced by 21% — from 134.1 feet to 106 feet.

As proposed, the 18-story, 14-unit residential tower planned with frontage at 1260 N. Palm Ave. has been a topic of considerable controversy, as evidenced by comments that residents have been making to the City Commission since May 1.

The site is zoned Downtown Bayfront, which allows up to 18 stories. However, it is how the applicant wishes to make use of those stories that has been the crux of complaints.

The application was submitted to city staff in late October 2022. Downtown condominium owners — especially those who live in Bay Plaza, which is immediately adjacent to the site — have objected to the fact that the Obsidian would be the highest structure in the city, at approximately 340 feet.

However, city commissioners have explained that, under the guidelines of the City Code, the project is subject only to “administrative approval.” In other words, the Development Services Department staff would decide whether the proposal complied with all of the necessary city guidelines. No City Commission hearing on the project would be conducted.

Yet, given the necessity of the Planning Board hearing on the adjustment issue, City Attorney Robert Fournier explained to the News Leader in a Sept. 25 email that the Planning Board decision could be appealed to the City Commission, regardless of whether the Planning Board approves or denies the adjustment.

He added that the applicant “would have to file a notice of appeal in the form of a letter with the City Auditor and Clerk’s office within ten days of the Planning Board decision. The City Commission would then be obliged to schedule a public hearing to determine whether to affirm, affirm with conditions or reverse the decision of the Planning Board.”

The applicant/developer is Matt Kihnke, president of MK Equity. On its website, that firm notes that the Sansara condominium project, in the Burns Court District in downtown Sarasota, also is one of its projects.

Formally, the owner of the Obsidian site is 1260 Palm Properties LLC. The Florida Division of Corporations shows that that limited liability company dates to December 2021. Kihnke is identified in those records as the manager. In early January 2022, the company bought the 12,355-square-foot parcel located at 1274 Palm Ave. for $3,790,000, the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office website says.

As Joel Freedman, of Freedman Consulting & Development LLC in Sarasota — the agent for 1260 Palm Properties — noted in the application for the Obsidian, the site consists of eight parcels, seven of which have “small commercial spaces” comprising 6,350 square feet.

“The new project will raze the existing building and develop a … luxury condominium building” with 640 square feet of retail space on the ground level. “A single access driveway” would be on Palm Avenue, Freedman added.

This engineering drawing shows the design of the Obsidian from the west. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The Sept. 22 letter, sent by Lucia Panica, director of the city’s Development Services Department, to Freedman, explains that the second proposed adjustment — in regard to a reduction of the habitable space by 23.3% on the ground floor (from 106 feet to 81 feet, 4 inches) and by 8.6% on the second floor (from 146 feet, 7 inches to 134 feet) — does not meet “all of the required criteria.” Panica specifically pointed to the following sections of the City Code, which staff had to take into consideration:

  • “Granting the adjustment will equally or better meet the purpose of the regulation to be adjusted.”
  • “The proposal will not significantly detract from the livability or appearance of the downtown neighborhood zone district or the proposal will be consistent with the desired character of the Downtown Bayfront zone district.”

Finally, the third adjustment sought a reduction in the required retail frontage by 30.5%, to 66 feet of frontage, where 95 feet would be required, assuming the façade adjustment were approved.

Planning Board approval for that third request is necessary, Panica pointed out, because the reduction exceeds 25%. She added that “staff’s position is that all of the required criteria for granting adjustments have not been satisfied for the adjustment to the required retail frontage.” She specifically referenced Section IV-1903(e)(2) criteria. Among those, she explained, the Zoning Code’s intent is that the city “desires … features that promote the safety, comfort, and convenience of the pedestrian” in certain areas because of their locations.

Panica added, “The required retail designation specifies the building must contain a retail sales or service use or an office use at the sidewalk level the entire length of the frontage to encourage pedestrian activity and provide a high level of positive stimulus and interaction for the pedestrian.” That portion of North Palm Avenue, she continued, is designated for retail frontage, “as this area of the downtown is very active, heavily trafficked by pedestrians …” It is a priority area for the encouragement of pedestrian activity, she noted.

Moreover, she wrote, referencing another section of the City Code, “Granting the adjustment to reduce the retail frontage requirement will result in a residential structure with minimal retail space on the ground floor. The desired character of the DTB [Downtown Bayfront] zone district involves a dense mixed-use area.”
Further, Panica pointed out, the City Code requires that if more than one adjustment is requested, “the cumulative effect of the adjustments results in a project which is still consistent with the overall purpose of the zone.”

The height issue

A Dec. 5, 2022 memo sent to Freedman from Alison Christie, chief planner on the city’s Development Review Committee (DRC), noted the issue that would become the basis for most of residents’ complaints about the Obsidian: “It appears there are several floors proposed with additional space beyond the maximum 14-foot measurement of a story. Please clarify where interstitial space is being proposed …”
Further, Christie wrote, “There appears to be large amounts of interstitial space proposed between the 4th and 5th stories, 17th and 18th stories, and 18th story and the rooftop. Please provide a narrative explaining the purpose for this additional space. If the intent is to have higher ceilings, these floors will count as two stories per the downtown code.”

The website for the Obsidian says, “Soaring to entirely new heights along downtown Sarasota’s waterfront, Obsidian is the tallest building in the city’s history.” The website also notes that the units will have “[e]levated ceiling heights.” The condominiums, the website adds, would range from 4,200 square feet to 7,200 square feet under air conditioning, with “[360-degree] views of the city with most residences featuring sweeping bay, gulf, and island views.”

This engineering drawing shows a typical layout for condominiums on floors 5 through 8 of the Obsidian. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Then, on April 3, in advance of another Development Review Committee discussion of the project, Chief Planner Christie wrote Freedman again, after the project team had provided engineering drawings of the structure to city staff. “As more clearly shown in the provided building sections,” she pointed out, “there is 70 feet of interstitial space proposed. Per the Zoning Code definition of a story, this amounts to an additional 5 stories of building height in interstitial space alone. The downtown code measures building height in stories rather than feet and does not regulate the space between stories. As currently proposed, this amount of interstitial space does not meet the intent of the downtown code and its ability to regulate building height.”

Then, on June 20, Christie sent Freedman yet another memo, in preparation for the DRC discussion of the project the following day.

Reiterating her April 3 comments about the interstitial space, she then pointed out, “[T]here are ways in which the configuration of the development could be changed which would mitigate or improve the effect of the development on adjoining and nearby properties and on the community. As proposed,” she continued, “the total building height is 342 feet, which is significantly taller than neighboring buildings and other buildings within this zone district and the rest of the City. The proposed development is surrounded on three sides by one condominium building that is less than half its height. [She was referring to Bay Plaza.] The overall building height could be reduced to improve the effects on this adjoining property.”

During the May 1 City Commission meeting — the first time, based on News Leader research — that a multitude of individuals addressed the board members about the proposed Obsidian, a variety of complaints were aired.

For example, Bay Plaza resident Phyllis Dreyfuss emphasized “this project’s unusual height …” She noted “the incredibly small space between 1260 [North Palm] and Bay Plaza,” saying the buildings would be “dangerously close to each other …”

Further, Dreyfuss told the commissioners, Bay Plaza is an older building; while it is structurally sound, “No one can predict what damage our building could sustain during the construction process [involving] a skyscraper [with] a quarter-acre footprint with so little room for error.”

Another speaker that morning, Leah Vartanian, said that she and her husband have been Bay Plaza residents since 1999. “Remember the phrase, ‘a square peg into a round hole’?” she asked the board members. “According to Webster, it means someone or something who does not fit in a particular place or situation,” Vartanian continued. The Obsidian “fits that definition perfectly,” she said, “both physically and literally. Physically, it will be the tallest building downtown in literally the smallest place possible, and it is not situationally perfect, partly because it will block the view and morning sun of the majority of the 100 Bay Plaza residents.”

This is the site planned for the Obsidian, outlined in purple. Bay Plaza is shown adjacent to the parcels. Image courtesy of the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office

A third person that morning, Ron Shapiro, said he and his wife have lived in Bay Plaza for three years. He added that, over the past couple of months, he had “informally talked to dozens of people about [the Obsidian plans] — not just people that live nearby, [but also] the people going to or from the Epicure restaurant, to or from Florida Studio Theatre or coming in and out of one of the seven businesses [that the Obsidian would supplant]. After I described the development,” Shapiro continued, “Everyone has two common reactions. The first one is, ‘Wow! That’s crazy. A building of that size and scope doesn’t fit in that small space, and a building that tall doesn’t fit in this neighborhood.’ ”
The second reaction, he said, is, “ ‘Well, of course, there’s no way the city is going to let that happen.’ My response to that is, ‘Don’t be so sure, and, in fact, it very well could get approved by the city.’ So I’m here today to encourage the city to follow the instinctive common sense that’s been expressed by dozens of people to this project: Don’t allow it to happen.”

Yet a fourth speaker that morning, Jim Sullivan, a member of the board — and a past president — of The Jewel condominium homeowners association (1301 Main St.), presented the commissioners a petition signed by owners of the units in The Jewel, opposing the construction of the Obsidian.

“It’s a bad idea,” Sullivan said of the Obsidian.

Jim Lampl, another owner of a condominium in The Jewel, pointed out, “No one is saying, ‘Don’t build a building or a condo [on the site proposed for the Obsidian].’ We’re saying that this is totally out of scale and there are a lot of compatibility reasons that this doesn’t work.”