County commissioners direct staff to negotiate with Sarasota-based Gracewater team on affordable housing development at 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way

Alternate option is proposal submitted by Habitat for Humanity and Benderson Development

A graphic shows the property, which stands at the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Tuttle Avenue, with Myrtle Street to the north. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On July 13, the majority of five speakers who addressed the Sarasota County commissioners on proposals for an affordable housing development on county-owned land located at 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in North Sarasota endorsed a package submitted by a group called North Sarasota Redevelopment Partners/Calston.

That development team “has completed more affordable housing in Sarasota than any other group,” John Colon, chair of the Sarasota Housing Authority, told the commissioners.

Yet, that proposal won only one endorsement. Commissioner Christian Ziegler put it second on his list.

In fact, Commissioner Nancy Detert voiced dismay because that proposal included a soccer field. (Colon said the group already had a Minor League Soccer team under contract to play on the site, if the board members ended up closing the deal with North Sarasota Redevelopment Partners. The formal proposal from North Sarasota said the team has been working with the Sarasota Metropolis Football Club on that aspect of its plans.)

“We have a housing problem in Sarasota County,” Detert emphasized during the discussion. “I’m not looking for a soccer stadium.”

It took only one round of commission comments to narrow the choices to No. 1 and No. 2. The top spot went to Gracewater Community Development. If County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and his staff cannot conclude negotiations successfully with the principles of that organization, the board members authorized them to work with Habitat for Humanity and Benderson Development Co.

This is the Gracewater proposal for the property at 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commissioner Michael Moran, who ended up making the motion for the top two choices, emphasized that Gracewater is offering cash and “no contingencies after the inspection period.”

Moreover, he noted, the fact that Gracewater is redeveloping the former Rolling Green Golf Club, which is adjacent to the property on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way. “I would literally argue,” Moran added, that Gracewater’s principals “have a very vested interest in making sure this [affordable housing] project works.”

Moran had ranked Gracewater first and the Habitat for Humanity/Benderson project second. Commissioner Ron Cutsinger did the same.

The work Gracewater has done in the county, Cutsinger said, “has been outstanding.”

The Gracewater development team includes Eldon E. Johnson Jr., William Merrill III of the Icard Merrill law firm in Sarasota, and Bradford Baker, who, in 1999, “led Florida’s Affordable Housing Agency,” the team’s proposal noted.

As for Habitat for Humanity: Cutsinger pointed out that that organization has “shown beyond words what an excellent job they’ve done in the affordable housing arena.”

This is the Habitat for Humanity/Benderson Development proposal for the property at 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Image courtesy Sarasota County

At the urging of Chair Alan Maio, the motion Moran made for county staff also included direction that the final plans include a grocery store, a pharmacy and a commitment that at least 50% of the affordable housing units would be available at 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI), or less. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sets the AMI each year for every Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Chris Johnson, CEO of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, pointed out during the Open to the Public period at the start of the board’s afternoon session on July 13 that the monthly rent for a household making 60% of the AMI for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton area is $1,158. He urged the board members to call for a mix of affordable housing units at 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, including some that would rent at $579 a month. The latter amount would be the level for a household making 30% of the AMI.

For a family of four, the 2021 AMI is $77,200. Therefore, 60% of AMI would be $46,320 a year.

Maio said that the market rate for a two-bedroom apartment in Sarasota “is probably $2,200. That’s not what we’re after here, I don’t think.”

At one point, Maio reminded his colleagues that, during a 2020 discussion about the potential for an affordable housing project on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way site, they had talked about the fact that the surrounding area is “a food desert.” In other words, dining opportunities are non-existent.

As the board members discussed the proposals this week, Maio asked Deputy County Attorney Joshua Moye whether they could require the group they approved for negotiations to include a grocery store and a pharmacy.

“That would be fine,” Moye replied. The firms had responded to an Invitation to Negotiate for the approximately 115-acre parcel, Moye added. That type of solicitation gives county staff flexibility in negotiations, he said.

However, at one point, Moran referenced a comment in the Gracewater proposal about the food desert issue. Part of the heading for that section said, “You Can’t Legislate ‘Rain.’”

This is the section of the Gracewater proposal that Commissioner Michael Moran referenced. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Gracewater proposal calls for a mix of single-family homes, villas, townhomes and “coach homes,” as noted on a document provided in the board’s meeting packet for July 13.

Moreover, Gracewater offered $4.4 million for the property; the county paid $2.2 million for it in 2013. The site originally was slated to become a regional park.

In its proposal, Gracewater proposed 156 affordable dwelling units; 78 of the four-unit, two-story “coach homes” would be available for 60% AMI for 10 years. Another 78 of those dwellings would be offered at 80% AMI for 10 years. Additionally, 100 coach homes would be sold at market rate, the proposal added. Out of the 620 total units, 134 townhomes would be priced for workforce dwellings, the document added; 54 paired villas would be listed at the “upper range of work-force”; and 176 single-family homes would be built.

The estimated cost of the project was put at $121.3 million.

Additionally, Gracewater noted that its team incorporated “neighborhood input” in its planning.

The Habitat for Humanity/Benderson package offered $3.5 million for the property, with a “minimum of 350 homes for sale or rent, of which at least 175 homes [would be] offered at prices attainable for families [with] incomes of 80% of AMI or less” for 10 years, the county document noted. At least 50% of the dwelling units would be “offered at prices attainable for families with incomes of 60% of AMI or less” for 10 years, the document added.

Further, those plans call for a 30-acre employment center “with office/warehouse/flex space consisting of up to 500,000 [square feet],” plus a park “for the enjoyment of all residents of the community.”

Commissioner Detert also decried the warehouse facet of those plans.

The projected cost of that development was at least $50 million.

Previous discussions

This is a conceptual site plan for the proposed, mixed-use development on the property that was proposed by Woodwater Investments of Miami. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, opened the discussion, he reminded the board members that, in November 2020, they decided to create a competitive public process to receive proposals for the land. Staff had been negotiating with a Miami company, Woodwater Investments, on plans it had submitted to staff — unsolicited, but under guidelines in the Florida Statutes for economic development. However, Detert had begun to voice concerns about the founder and CEO of that firm, Barron Channer. She had been unable to find out much about him, she said, when she had researched him.

During the Open to the Public period on the afternoon of July 13, Alphonso Davis of Sarasota pointed out to the commissioners that he long had been interested in a community project on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way site. In 2018, he added, he began working with Channer to create the proposal that Channer ended up offering for county consideration. “We thought it could be a done deal,” Davis added. Then, “all of a sudden, everyone came out of the woodwork,” seeking opportunities to submit proposals, Davis said.

“Our plan was to serve the community,” including students, teachers and other school district employees who need affordable housing, Davis continued. “And here we are now. … We’re hoping that we win this bid process.”

Channer was among three persons who submitted a proposal through the ITN process, working under the name Kingspointe Sarasota. Its offer for the land was $2,750,000, and its projected number of dwelling units was 620. Of the latter, 78 were to be available at 60% AMI, with another 77 at 80% AMI. The remaining 465 dwellings were to be offered for more than 80% AMI, according to the county matrix that compared all six responses to the ITN.

No commissioner voiced interest in the Kingspointe proposal.

This is the Kingspointe proposal in the response to the Invitation to Negotiate. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Ranking the responses

Detert went first in offering her selections. Her No. 1 pick was a proposal by Blue Sky Communities and CASL (Community Assisted & Supported Living Inc.), which would pay $4 million for the property. For housing, that proposal offered rental apartments at 30% AMI, 60% AMI and 80% AMI.

Additionally, Blue Sky/CASL’s plan included “Permanent supportive housing [for] special needs/emerging from [homelessness],” and permanent supportive housing for young people in transition. Of the latter, Detert said she believed those units would be targeted to youth who had aged out of foster care. “There’s big need for that,” she noted. “So that’s a big plus for me.”

Maio put the Habitat for Humanity/Benderson project in his No. 1 slot, followed by the Gracewater proposal.

Commissioner Ziegler also ranked Gracewater first, though he also said he would like to see the “food desert” issue addressed. “I think that that’s a big need.”

As the commissioners prepared to vote, County Administrator Lewis cautioned them, “Just understand how you word that motion will matter.” He was referring to the call for inclusion of a grocery store, a pharmacy and the specific number of homes at 60% AMI or lower.

This is the 2021 AMI chart produced by HUD. Image courtesy U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

If the board members set those as minimum standards, Lewis added, the negotiations could be short. “Otherwise, we’ll negotiate towards those things.”

Maio then repeated his view that the project “must have a grocery store, must have a pharmacy, must have 50% [of the homes priced] at 60% AMI [or lower].”

If staff could not conclude a deal with either of the top two choices, Maio added, then staff could come back to the commissioners for further discussion.

Commissioner Cutsinger agreed with Maio. It appeared to him, Cutsinger said, that the Gracewater site plan has sufficient space for the businesses.

1 thought on “County commissioners direct staff to negotiate with Sarasota-based Gracewater team on affordable housing development at 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way”

  1. 60% of median is affordable for some–but not for most working families earning less than $50,000. We need more really affordable housing at 30% to 50% of median family income and there must be a way to verify this! Otherwise people will be gaming the system and those earning more will benefit from this lower cost housing.

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