County staff directed to work on contract with Blue Sky Communities of Tampa and CASL of Sarasota
During negotiations the Sarasota County Commission authorized in early February, the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County and a nonprofit organization called Artspace lowered their offer for county land at 4644 N. Tamiami Trail in Sarasota to around $250,000, county staff reported this week.
Yet, the commissioners had set the minimum sale price for the property — where they want to see an affordable housing development built — at $1,950,000.
As a result, Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, told the commissioners on Oct. 12, staff followed the board direction on Feb. 9 and began to negotiate with the entities that offered the second- and third-ranked proposals.
Then the Arts and Cultural Alliance and Artspace came back with a counterproposal, saying they would pay the $1,950,000, Osterhoudt noted. Their plans, as staff had pointed out in February, were for a “live/work [building] for artists” on the 6.2-acre site.
In making the Feb. 9 motion, Commissioner Christian Ziegler noted the entities on North Tamiami Trail in Sarasota with which the Alliance and Artspace could collaborate, including the Ringling College of Art + Design. “It seemed like a really good fit,” he said during the discussion this week.
Osterhoudt also pointed out on Oct. 12 that the Alliance and Artspace had declined in their later offer — as they had in the initial one — to pay any deposit, unlike the other two entities.
The No. 2 choice of the board members in February was a proposal provided by Blue Sky Communities of Tampa and CASL of Sarasota.
The offer ranked third came from Southport Development of Tampa.
Before the board members unanimously approved Ziegler’s Feb. 9 motion, Commissioner Michael Moran called for “hard money” to be put up. “I just think it’s good, prudent business.”
As a result, Osterhoudt said on Oct. 12, staff included a deposit of $195,000 — 10% — as a factor in the negotiations.
Finally, as noted in Ziegler’s Feb. 9 motion, staff sought a commitment for at least 96 dwelling units to be priced at 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI) for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area, or less.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sets the AMI levels each year. This year, 80% of AMI for a family of four in Sarasota is $61,750.
The AMI for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area for a family of four is $77,200, according to the HUD chart.
On Oct. 12, Osterhoudt asked the commissioners for direction on how staff should move forward.
Ultimately — in spite of pleas that morning from several members of the public — the board members voted unanimously to direct staff to try to conclude the deal with Blue Sky Communities of Tampa and CASL of Sarasota.
A number of concerns
During the Oct. 12 discussion, Commissioner Moran emphasized his displeasure with the Arts and Cultural Alliance and Artspace actions during the negotiations, characterizing them as “wasting staff’s time and energy and taxpayer money.”
The organizations’ changing positions could be considered insulting to staff, Moran pointed out.
“I know you’re being polite here,” Moran told Osterhoudt. “What happened?”
“We kept in communication with the Arts and Cultural Alliance,” Osterhoudt replied, after staff began talking simultaneously with representatives of Blue Sky/CASL and Southport Development.
Osterhoudt indicated that that was why the Alliance/Artspace counterproposal was made in a Sept. 9 letter, which was included in the agenda packet.
“To me, it’s too little, too late,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger said of that offer. “They had the opportunity.”
Moreover, Cutsinger pointed out, the arts groups’ proposal for the property at 4644 N. Tamiami Trail was “very light on details. … So I’d have a real problem going back to that.”
On the other hand, he noted, the Blue Sky/CASL proposal is “very comprehensive.”
“Certainly, my heart’s always with the Arts and Cultural [Alliance],” Commissioner Nancy Detert said. “That’s why we voted unanimously to give them the opportunity to have this piece of property for fire sale prices.”
(In January 2015, the county paid $1.2 million for the site, according to the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office.)
Detert also agreed with Cutsinger that the arts groups’ proposal had too few details. She further noted, “The financing [is] heavily dependent on tax credits. … It’s 10 more government steps” to make the package workable.
“Blue Sky’s got a track record of building these types of things,” Detert pointed out. “I’m looking for who would have the biggest opportunity for success. … The end game is … affordable housing.”
Yet, Detert did note that the Blue Sky/CASL proposal included funding for which it planned to apply to the Florida Housing Finance Corp.
She asked Osterhoudt what would happen if the pair did not receive that money.
Osterhoudt responded that staff could deal with that prospect during the negotiations, if the board members opted for staff to go ahead with its talks with Blue Sky and CASL.
Chair Alan Maio joined his colleagues in their concerns about the Alliance/Artspace negotiations. “I’m very disheartened” about the situation, he said, especially after the board members voiced such enthusiasm for the project in February.
Numbers of dwelling units and pricing
Before taking the new vote this week, commissioners did ask Osterhoudt to remind them about the number of units and the pricing of the units offered by Blue Sky/CASL and Southport.
Blue Sky and CASL submitted two concepts to staff, Osterhoudt replied. The number of dwelling units ranged from 95 to 101, he said. The one-, two- and three-bedroom units would range from 30% of the Area Median Income (AMI) to 60% to 80%, he added.
The Southport proposal called for at least 134 dwelling units at 33% and 60% of AMI, he added. Again, the plans included a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units, he said.
The original offer from the Alliance and Artspace included 50 to 64 units in the first phase of construction “within the prescribed range of AMI for affordable housing in Sarasota County.” The proposal included a park in Phase 2, and it indicated that both the City and County of Sarasota would participate in that project. However, the county commissioners were adamant in February that they had no interest in a park on the site.
Osterhoudt also noted this week that all three of the proposals — including the one from Southport — stipulated that the affordable units would remain affordable for 50 years.
On Oct. 12, Commissioner Moran finally made the motion directing staff to proceed with the negotiations with Blue Sky and CASL, and Commissioner Cutsinger seconded it.
Osterhoudt told the board members that staff would come back to them with a contract for their consideration after the talks concluded.
Because the agenda item about the property located at 4644 N. Tamiami Trail was not a public hearing, several people used the opportunity of the board’s Open to the Public comment period on Tuesday morning to voice support for the Alliance/Artspace proposal.
Among them, Shaun Greenspan, a Sarasota native who is the co-founder of Triforce Pictures, talked of the fact that artists and business owners have been moving back to the county because they, like he, “missed the sense of community” after leaving the area.
Artists, he continued, “are dreamers. They inspire our community and create a brighter future for all of us.” The residents of the Artspace project, he added, would keep the community “fresh and new.”
Greenspan also stressed the need for affordable housing, noting that he cannot hire staff in Sarasota. “It’s just too expensive [to live in the city].”
Nate Jacobs, founder and artistic director of the West Coast Black Theatre Troupe in Sarasota, told the commissioners that at one time he was “basically homeless” following a divorce. He found an apartment on Cocoanut Avenue, he said, but he could not afford the rent.
The landlord recognized him from his theater work, Jacobs continued, and offered to let him live there for free.
“Artists pretty much always struggle with [housing],” Jacobs emphasized. That is one of their primary problems, he added.
“I thoroughly support Artspace. I think it is phenomenal.”
Jay Patel, chair of the North Trail Redevelopment Partnership since 2009, also voiced his support for the Alliance/Artspace proposal. North Tamiami Trail has suffered through the years, he pointed out, because of the lack of foot traffic and support for businesses.
“We really need Artspace on the Trail,” Patel said. “It has the potential of increasing property values,” based on studies that he and the other Partnership leaders have read about Artspace projects in other cities.
Former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, senior vice president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation in Venice, urged the commissioners to proceed with negotiations either with the Alliance/Artspace team or with the Blue Sky/CASL group. “We will make no progress in our homeless dilemma unless we get housing in that price range,” Thaxton stressed of the two groups’ offers.