Historic Preservation Board members vote unanimously to deny demolition application for Colson Hotel

Structure served as first hotel to accommodate African Americans in Sarasota

This is a slide that developer Max Vollmer showed the Historic Preservation Board members on April 9. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

It would be inconsistent with City of Sarasota policy to allow the demolition of the historic Colson Hotel on Eighth Street.

That was the unanimous decision of the five members of the city’s Historic Preservation Board on April 9.

Their vote came after a nearly two-hour-long public hearing, followed by about 5 minutes of discussion and an exchange with city Senior Planner Clifford Smith, staff liaison to the board. Ramsey Frangie, owner and founder of Ramate Construction in Sarasota, made the motion to deny the application for demolition.

As The Sarasota News Leader has reported, the hotel was constructed in 1925 by Owen O. Burns, one of the city’s most prominent builders. It  “was the first hotel built in segregated Sarasota to accommodate African American temporary workers and travelers looking for lodging,” the city staff report explained. “It is listed in the Florida Master Site File as eligible for both national and local designation as a historic building, the report added, “and it is a contributing structure to the National Overtown Historic District.”

The Overtown district “served as the first formal African American neighborhood in Sarasota,” the report noted.

Vickie Oldham, president and CEO of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition, told the Historic Preservation Board members that the owner of the property, JDMAX Developments LLC, may find the building “nothing more than an old structure to demolish, [but] there are Black history stories inside brick and mortar.”
For examples, she noted that John “Buck” O’Neil, a member of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and a Sarasota resident, mentioned in his memoir that he stayed in the hotel “with Negro baseball League players and teammates.” Additionally, she said, “Entertainers on the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ stayed there.”

As several people pointed out during the hearing, the hotel was listed in the famous “Green Book,” which Black travelers used during the Jim Crow era to find safe accommodations when they traveled in the South.

“I lived the Green Book,” Brenda Watty, who was one of the Marvelettes, told the Historic Preservation Board members, adding that she traveled the Chitlin’ Circuit. “If we didn’t have these Black hotels,” she added, “Where were we going to stay? In our car? … So it is very important to preserve this history.”

Walter Gilbert, who identified himself as a fourth-generation Sarasota resident, talked about “running around in Overtown” as a child. Now, he pointed out, what was Overtown is known as the Rosemary District.

Referring to the hotel, Gilbert continued, “That building is one of the few buildings that’s left in that area from that era, so the significance that that building has to the entire community is great.”

Altogether, 16 members of the public urged the board members to deny the application. Several of them read letters on behalf of other people who were unable to attend the session. Liz Nathan, for example, quoted Christopher Wilson, a member of the faculty of the Ringling College of Art + Design: “There’s not another building in town like [the Colson Hotel]. Therefore, its demolition would mean the literal erasure of history.”

This is part of the documentation of the historic value of the hotel, provided by historian Charles Burks of Sarasota to city staff. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The cost of renovation and plans for new development

The principal of JDMAX Developments, Max Vollmer of Tampa, laid out for the board the steps he had taken to try to preserve the structure. It stands on the site of a proposed townhome development, for which a representative of his company submitted an application to the city Development Services Department staff on Feb. 14, city records show.

Vollmer referenced reports of several consultants he had hired to underscore the effort he had put into saving the Colson Hotel.

As he showed the board members a series of slides, he noted, “Obviously, there is visible mold and water damage,” along with destruction wrought by termites. Cracks had been found in the load-bearing walls, he continued.

Vollmer also talked of how unsafe the area encompassing the hotel is, showing the board members another slide listing a wide variety of crimes in the environs, documented by the Sarasota Police Department. The block where the hotel stands, he said, “is probably the crime hot spot of downtown Sarasota.” Vollmer added that he doubted any of the board members would walk around in that area alone after 9 p.m. In fact, Vollmer added, he himself had seen drug use and drug deals taking place when he had to be on the hotel site at night.

(One speaker during the hearing, Jessica Thomason, questioned why Vollmer would plan to construct dwelling units on the property if he felt the area was so unsafe. “It just seems a little bit strange,” she said, prompting laughter from audience members attending the meeting in the Sarasota City Commission Chambers of City Hall. Board Chair Tony Souza, a Realtor with Sotheby’s International Realty, also remarked on Vollmer’s comments, telling the developer, “The Rosemary District [construction] is going through the roof right now. … There may be some crime there, but that’s what we have police for.”)

The members of the Historic Preservation Board sit in session on April 9, with Senior Planner Clifford Smith at far left. News Leader image

His goal, Vollmer said, is to construct 27 three-story townhomes on the site, which he characterized as “a good response to the highly overpriced condo developments across downtown Sarasota and also a good response to tons of Class A apartment buildings coming up within downtown Sarasota.” The latter, he indicated, are being rented for $975 a square foot, which he called “Miami prices.”

His townhomes, Vollmer said, would be priced below $1 million, with two- and three-bedroom layouts.

JDMAX Developments purchased the property located at 1425 Eighth St. on March 1, 2023 for $550,000, Sarasota County Property Appraiser Office records show.

His intent from the outset was to renovate the hotel, Vollmer continued. Working with Sarasota architect Chris Gallagher of Hoyt Architects, Vollmer said, he figured he could create six apartments within the hotel structure, each consisting of “roughly 800 square feet.” That appeared to be “the highest and best use” of the property, he added.

Reprising an earlier remark, Vollmer said, “We have a lot of extremely, extremely expensive apartment units here [in Sarasota].” If his original intention had been to demolish the building, he pointed out, “I would have been here last year [at a Historic Preservation Board meeting].”

Yet, he and his project team began to learn how complicated it would be to renovate the building, he added.

This is part of the townhome site plan in the JDMAX Developments application for new townhomes on the hotel site. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The team engaged two structural engineers, he continued. Both informed him that the building was beyond repair, he stressed. “To renovate it, all interior framing would have to be removed, leaving only the exterior walls.”

Moreover, he pointed out, “Possible renovation would far exceed the cost of what is reasonable.”

Vollmer said he contacted 10 firms that handle renovations, but only two were willing to give him estimates. Some of the others, he noted, were “scared of that building falling apart” if they tried to renovate it.

The quote he received from a St. Petersburg company, JM Datum Construction was for $2,257,924.37; the second, from Axellebuilders in Sarasota, was for $1,963,413.

He did note that only the JM Datum figure included work on the exterior of the structure.

Neither of those quotes factored in what he called “unforeseen expenses” that could arise after the renovation began.

He also paid for an appraisal from the Sarasota company Bass Fletcher & Associates, Vollmer continued. The resulting figure was $910,000, given the existing market, he said.

Moreover, he pointed out, “You don’t get any financing to renovate.”

Additionally, Vollmer said, the team looked into potential tax credits for use of the historic structure for dwelling units.

A letter included in the demolition application packet, from the firm McGuire Sponsel, said that a 20% federal tax credit would be spread over five years. Given the Axellebuilders’ quote for renovation, the letter continued, JDMAX Developments would be eligible for $392,682.60, or $78,536.52 per year.

Vollmer told the board members that even with the tax credit, he projected that he would lose $660,730.40 by undertaking renovation of the structure.

He also pointed out that the building could not be moved. Professional opinions he had sought on such an initiative, he explained, had indicated the potential that the structure would have to be split into sections, with the portent for more problems in relocating it.

‘A very important part of American history’

Following Vollmer’s presentation, Chair Souza asked Vollmer about the potential of transforming the building into something “to celebrate the history of the Black people in Overtown.” Souza indicated his expectation that Vollmer would be able to raise the necessary funds for such a project next to his townhome development.

“Have you given any thought to that?” Souza asked.

“I don’t think there’ll be people coming here with $2.6 million,” Vollmer replied. Nonetheless, he added, “If they do, let’s do it.”

“As long as it’s going to be done within 30 days,” Vollmer continued, “you guys spend all the money you want.”

“This is a very important part of American history,” Souza told Vollmer. “We’re losing all of the history of the people who came here so long ago and were treated above the line of slaves, and we can’t celebrate one building, to celebrate what they did for this community?”

“I knew women who lived in this neighborhood [of downtown Sarasota]” whose fathers would meet the Barnum & Bailey Circus trains, where they would wait for the elephants, to move them where the animals needed to go, Souza continued. “But [those workers] couldn’t go to the circus. They couldn’t go to the beach. They couldn’t cross Fruitville Road without getting in a fight with somebody. I mean … why can’t we celebrate what people have done for this community!” Souza stressed.

Applause erupted in the Commission Chambers.

Then Souza explained that he was involved in the relocation of a house in New Bedford, Mass., “where Frederick Douglass got his freedom.”

Noting that he headed an historic preservation organization in that city, Souza added that a friend of his owned the house, which was built in 1820, and the friend agreed to turn it over to Souza’s organization “for a lot cheaper than he wanted to get for it.”

The organization then was able to win funding from the state to transform the house into a museum, Souza said. It is a national landmark, he added. “It’s been completely restored.”

“I’m not against what you’re trying to do,” Souza told Vollmer, “but I am against taking this building and not giving it another life.”

More applause erupted.

This slide shows the quotes that Max Vollmer received for renovating the hotel. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Later, during the public comments, Anand Pallegar, president of the Rosemary District Association and the founder of DreamLarge, indicated that he would be willing to put up funds to help preserve the historic hotel.

However, Vollmer told the board members that he had talked with Pallegar in April 2023 about purchasing the building, and no offer materialized.

Nonetheless, in making the motion to deny the demolition application, board member Frangie indicated that, based on public testimony that evening, he believed members of the community would be willing to “spend some money toward the project …”

Frangie added, “We want to see the building saved.”

Board member Melanie C. Harris, an architect, told Vollmer that she owns a condominium in the Rosemary District. The “natural progression” of that community, she said, “hasn’t quite reached Eighth Street yet.” However, she added, she believes that Eighth Street will be vital to the Rosemary District in just a few years. Demolishing the hotel, Harris continued, would destroy any opportunity to make its reuse possible “in a viable, financially successful way.”

After Frangie made his motion to deny Vollmer’s application, board member Joyce Hart seconded it.

With no further discussion, Senior Planner Smith called the roll of the board members, with each voting “Yes” in favor of denial.

Cheers and applause both rang out in the Commission Chambers.

1 thought on “Historic Preservation Board members vote unanimously to deny demolition application for Colson Hotel”

  1. I’ll make a prediction: the developer will be back in less than a year with a new plan to renovate the hotel from the shell inwards using a mixture of preservation funds and grants. But…to make his original profit objective, there will be fewer units in the new plan and they’ll sell for much more.

    IOW, the promise of nearly-affordable housing in this yet-to-gentrify part of the Rosemary District was always a trial balloon.

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