Historic Preservation Board denies permit for demolition of Mira Mar Plaza on Palm Avenue in Sarasota

Company planning to purchase property cites numerous concerns about structural integrity of buildings

This is a view of part of Mira Mar Plaza on South Palm Avenue. Image from Google Maps

On a unanimous vote this week, the City of Sarasota’s Historic Preservation Board members denied the application for a demolition permit for the Mira Mar Plaza buildings on Palm Avenue in downtown Sarasota.

One member — Ramsey Frangie — recused himself from the June 14 public hearing. Member Robert Connor ended up making the motion that won approval, and Vice Chair Roberto Gonzalez seconded it.

Two representatives of Seaward Development of Sarasota, which has been working on plans to purchase the buildings, tear them down and construct retail space and residences in their place, told the Historic Preservation Board members that alterations to Mira Mar Plaza in the 1980s nullified the prospect that the buildings could win designation as historic properties.

Seaward is the company that built the Epoch and 7 One One Palm condominium complexes in downtown Sarasota, as well as the Park Residences of Lido Key, its website notes.

This aerial view shows the location of the buildings in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County Property Appraiser Bill Furst

However, materials that City of Sarasota Senior Planner Clifford Smith provided to the board members in advance of their June 14 meeting explained that the South Palm Avenue buildings are on the Florida Master Site File (FMSF), which is the state’s official inventory of historical and cultural resources. They are eligible for Local Designation as historic structures, he wrote, but not for National Designation. Additionally, Smith noted, they are classified as contributing structures to the National Downtown Historic District.

The North Building is located between 41 and 53 S. Palm; the South Building, between 69 and 77 S. Palm, according to the agenda materials.

Although they were physically altered in the early 1980s, Clifford continued in his report, their eligibility falls under “Criterion A in the areas of Commerce and Community Planning and Development as they are the first modern apartment buildings constructed in the city,” they are associated with the beginning of the 1920s land boom in Sarasota, and they were “the first major example of Mediterranean Revival style” in Sarasota.

He told the board members on June 14 that Sarasota developer Andrew McAnsh constructed the original buildings to serve as the first modern hotel, an apartment complex and an auditorium.

The two-story buildings mirror each other and are connected by a second-story walkway, the staff report also noted. They have flat roofs “with wide overhanging eaves and exposed rafter tail details and front gable extensions.”

“This is a substantial, significant building to the City of Sarasota,” Smith stressed to the board members during the public hearing. “It is in the core of the Downtown Historic District,” taking up much of one side of Palm Avenue, he added.

(Attorney Dan Lobeck, one of 10 members of the public who pleaded on June 14 for the board to deny the permit, talked of the importance of the plaza to the downtown: “a whole block of gorgeous buildings.”)

This is a view of the DeMarcay Hotel, which was demolished several years ago. Image courtesy of the Sarasota History Alive! website

And while the Seaward Development representatives have maintained that since the City Commission allowed the demolition of the historic DeMarcay Hotel next to Mira Mar Plaza, that demolition was approved prior to changes in the city’s zoning code, Smith explained. “There was no historic review for nationally designated buildings” at the time the City Commission approved the application to take down the DeMarcay, Smith added.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader question, City of Sarasota Communications Specialist Jason Bartolone wrote in a June 15 email that the Historic Preservation Board makes the final determination on permit applications such as the one Seaward Development had filed. “However, the applicant does have the ability to appeal to the City Commission if they wish,” Bartonoe added. “They have 10 days from the meeting to file an appeal.”

Plans for a replacement structure

In a news release issued prior to the June 14 hearing, Seaward Development, which describes itself as “a boutique property development firm,” announced that it was under contract to purchase the Mira Mar buildings. The release pointed out that the firm is a tenant in the plaza.

During its due diligence, the release continued, Seaward Development learned from engineering inspections ordered by the property owner that “the 100-year-old wood frame building has drastically undersized foundations, badly corroded structural wood wall studs, extensive insect damage and wood rot, and other extensive damage.”

Matt Leake, president of Seaward Development, told the board members on June 14 that the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office put the 2021 value of the plaza at $2,048,400. Yet, the estimate for repairs that Seaward has obtained was $22,018,758, he added — “Ten times the assessed value of the property.” That called into question, he said, “the financial feasibility and the reasonable nature for repairs.”

(The Property Appraiser’s Office put the market value of the land and building at $6,648,400 in 2021. The parcel comprises 48,420 square feet, which is approximately 1.1 acre.)

The likely timeline for all of the necessary repairs is 30 months, Leake noted, and that work probably would necessitate all of the tenants having to leave.

Given delays that occur in home remodeling projects, Seaward Principal Patrick DiPinto III pointed out, it likely would take longer than 30 months for the repairs to be completed. “We can barely build a single-family home in two-and-a-half years.”

In the news release, DiPinto was quoted as saying, “We love the building just like the community does, but due to its declining state, renovation is not feasible, which is why we are asking for a demolition permit.” The firm’s goal, he added, “is to bring Miramar back to life so that the community can enjoy it for the next 100 years as a true legacy project.”

This section of the City of Sarasota Zoning Code provides details about the Downtown Core district. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

If the demolition proposal were approved, the release pointed out, Seaward planned to keep the current Downtown Core zoning, which allows for a 10-story building “with two floors of retail fronting Palm Avenue, and the addition of a residential component set back behind the commercial component as homage to the original look and design of the property when the Mira Mar Hotel stood tall in the early 1900s.”

Erin DiFazio. Image courtesy Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation

Yet, one of the speakers during the June 14 hearing — Erin DiFazio, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation — told the Historic Preservation Board members, “The community is outraged by the potential destruction of the precious remains of its historic downtown.”

Another speaker, Jessica Arman Valdivia, added, “We have already demolished so much. I will fight … however I can to [keep the building in place]. It has so much meaning to the city.”

A former member of the Historic Preservation Board, Sarasota architect Dan Ionescu, talked about the fact that the plaza is one of the few buildings remaining in Sarasota “that has a rhythm to it, a character.”

He then referenced two 18-story condominium structures on Gulfstream Avenue that appear to be one building from the perspective of a 360-degree view. “We’re starting to build on postage stamp lots and change the character of the city,” Ionescu said. “In my view, Palme Avenue has a texture and a fabric. Let’s maintain it. Mira Mar is one of the key elements [of that].”

Yet another speaker, real estate agent Jana Marie Gouwens, apologized for her voice breaking as she began her comments. She grew up in Sarasota and works in the plaza, she explained.

“We’re losing the charm of this town because we keep tearing things down,” Gouwens continued. Then, in a whisper, she said, “We can’t do that.”

Mira Mar Plaza has 40 unique businesses as tenants, Gouwens also pointed out. “Forty small businesses. That is an ecosystem all its own that’s going to be going away” if the demolition permit were approved.

This is a rendering of the commercial portion of the new structure that Seaward Development has proposed to build in place of Mira Mar Plaza. One speaker during the June 14 hearing noted that the rendering did not include any indication of the plans for a 10-story residential complex, which Seaward also has proposed. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In the Seaward news release, the owner of the property, Dr. Mark Kauffman — who long has been involved in downtown Sarasota development — said that if the demolition permit were denied, he would allow the tenants’ leases “to run out over [the] next two years” and then close the buildings, fence them off, and allow them to decay, “as we cannot afford the repairs anymore …”

Formally, Miramar Plaza Associates Ltd. owns the property, the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s website notes. That company’s registered agent is Mindy E. Kauffman of Red Property Management LLC. Dr. Kauffman is Mindy’s father.

‘Something we did not know’

During their June 14 presentation to the Historic Preservation Board members, Seaward’s two representatives emphasized details they had learned as they pursued due diligence ahead of the firm’s planned purchase of the plaza.

Noting a 1983 letter from state officials regarding alterations to the buildings, DiPinto said, “That’s something that we did not know … [that the structures] had been remodeled so many times that the State of Florida deems [the plaza] not historical.”

This graphic shows locations that Karins Engineering has opened up in the second floors of the buildings, to keep a check on structural deterioration. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
This graphic shows conditions at Location 14 on the Karins Engineering graphic. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Leake and DiPinto also showed the board members numerous slides depicting structural problems that have been discovered. Representatives of Karins Engineering of Sarasota have opened up 19 locations in the two buildings to keep an eye on the situation, Leake said. “They all have extensive insect and water damage,” Leake stressed.

On Sunday, June 12, he noted, the engineering firm provided an updated report to them, explaining that Karins personnel would plan on visiting the buildings “probably every third day or so,” to check on the problems. “As a tenant with family members and children,” Leake added, “it’s scary, to be honest.”

DiPinto also pointed out that Karins personnel had discovered that the foundation for the north building was “deemed drastically undersized 100 years ago.”

These are the conditions at Location 5 as discovered by Karins Engineering. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

He and Leake said that that foundation is only about 6 inches thick. “I can promise you,” DiPinto told the board members, that that “is substantially smaller than the foundation in your single-family homes.”

The presumption, DiPinto continued, is that the foundation in the south building also measures just 6 inches.

The plaza was constructed in about 40 days, he further noted, based on information that Dr. Kauffman had provided Seaward. “The whole building!” DiPinto emphasized.

Leake said that it was constructed on beach sand that was not compacted.

Additionally, they showed the board members photos depicting a crack in a concrete wall on May 20 and again on June 9. That crack is “growing literally by the day,” Leake stressed, and the concrete walls have no reinforcement.

Real estate agent Gouwens told the board members that cracks did not appear until work began on the DeMarcay condominium complex next door. “I watched those cracks happen,” she said. “They terrified me.”

This slide shows one of the cracks discussed during the hearing. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Moreover, Gouwens stressed, “The neglect of this property is disgusting.” The conditions shown in the slides “didn’t happen overnight,” she pointed out.

In response to a question from board Chair Joyce Hart, DiPinto acknowledged that Seaward employees “have seen more cracks in recent months,” since construction began on the adjacent DeMarcay complex.

For another example of the deterioration, DiPinto and Leake presented a slide with photos illustrating the fact that the steel bridge that connects the two buildings is “supported by [a] badly corroded wood beam.” That bridge, Leake said, is directly over the outdoor dining area of Caragiulo’s Italian American restaurant in the plaza.

The city Building Official was on-site on June 13, Leake added; he deemed the bridge unsafe and said it “needs to be shut down” until it can be shored up.

Further, they reported, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. recently cancelled the wind coverage for the plaza because of the buildings’ poor condition.

If the city would not allow the structures to be demolished, and the owner no longer could get insurance policies to provide coverage, DiPinto asked, who would bear the responsibility for liability in the aftermath of an accident? “We’re trying to get that question answered,” he added. “It’s a problem.”