New application for construction of controversial Obsidian condo tower in downtown Sarasota proposes 15-foot height reduction

Once again, administrative site review process to be pursued, with adjustments requested

This is the 2024 site plan for the condominium complex planned at 1260 N. Palm Ave. in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Instead of pursuing an appeal of a Jan. 10 Sarasota Planning Board decision, which denied a request to modify the façade of the proposed Obsidian condominium complex on North Palm Avenue, the developer has submitted a new application for the controversial project, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

Among the changes proposed, the materials note that the tower would stand 327 feet in height, compared to the original plan for 342 feet.

On Feb. 13, Joel Freedman, whose eponymous consulting and development firm is located in Sarasota, submitted the materials to the city Development Services Department, on behalf of Palm Properties LLC. The manager of the limited liability company is Matt Kihnke, who owns the eight parcels on which he has planned to construct what Freedman describes in the Feb. 13 letter as “a 14-unit luxury condominium building” comprising 18 stories.

A Michael Saunders & Co. website for the Obsidian says the condos would have three to five bedrooms and 3.5 to 5.5 bathrooms. Their size would range from approximately 4,500 square feet to more than 6,000 square feet.

The building site has approximately 12,377 square feet, the application notes. The application does not include the name “Obsidian.” Instead, the project is called the 1260 N. Palm Avenue Residences.

On Feb. 16, city Senior Planner Noah Fossick informed Freedman by letter that a completeness review of the application, required by Section 166.033 of the Florida Statutes, found that the new application had been deemed incomplete.

The reasons Fossick cited were the lack of a School Impact Analysis Determination from the Sarasota County School District and the need for Freedman to provide “a de minimus letter, draft traffic study, or signed contract for a traffic study.”

Those materials were due at the office of the City Auditor and Clerk no later than March 17, Fossick wrote.

As originally proposed, the complex prompted dozens of residents’ complaints over months at City Commission meetings.

During the May 1, 2023 regular session, Leah Vartanian, who said she and her husband have owned a condominium in Bay Plaza — adjacent to the Obsidian site — since 1999, asked whether the commissioners recalled “the phrase, ‘a square peg into a round hole’?” She continued, “According to Webster, it means someone or something who does not fit in a particular place or situation.” The Obsidian “fits that definition perfectly,” Vartanian 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.”

In a Dec. 5, 2022 memo sent to Freedman, Alison Christie, chief planner on the city’s Development Review Committee (DRC), noted that the height 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.”

Last fall, when the News Leader visited the website for the Obsidian, the publication found this statement: “Soaring to entirely new heights along downtown Sarasota’s waterfront, Obsidian is the tallest building in the city’s history.” The website also noted that the units would have “[e]levated ceiling heights.” The condominiums, the website added, 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.”

A website visit on Feb. 27 found the following statement: “Soaring to entirely new heights along downtown Sarasota’s waterfront, Obsidian is the tallest building in the city’s history. A sky-high sanctuary with visionary architecture, the iconic tower features only 14 extraordinary residences, each one occupying its own floor exclusively. More than a place to live, Obsidian makes every moment count with an uncompromising selection of five-star style services and private amenities, ensuring holistic wellness of body and mind.”

The website also notes that private showings are available. It then provides contact information for Realtor Jonathan Abrams with Michael Saunders & Co. in Sarasota.

The narrative of the new application also points out that, in regard to building height, the city Zoning Code “does not include elevator shafts, mechanical rooms, non-habitable areas and architectural features extending no more than 20 [feet] above the [eye line] in the [Downtown Bayfront zoning district].”

The new application also seeks administrative approval by city staff, just as the first one did. That means no public hearings will be conducted before the Planning Board or the City Commission. Staff will be charged with determining that the proposed, revised plans comply with all aspects of the City Code for the Downtown Core zoning district, in which the building would stand.

This graphic provides details about the revised plans. Hoyt Architects is the firm handling the design. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

A ’premature’ Planning Board hearing

The Planning Board hearing on Jan. 10 was necessary because Kihnke wanted to reduce the required retail frontage on the ground floor by 30.5%, to 66 feet of frontage, where 95 feet would be required, Development Services Director Lucia Panica explained to Freedman last fall.

As with the original application — which was filed with city staff in October 2022 — the new materials call for retail space in the tower. However, that would be split between the ground and second floors, whereas the initial application sought to include 640 square feet of retail space just on the ground floor.

In a narrative contained in the new application, consultant Freedman wrote that “it became obvious that [the Jan. 10 Planning Board] hearing was premature and there were ways to revise and mitigate the plan to address many of the issues raised by Planning Board members, staff and the public.”

The decision to file a new site plan, Freedman continued, “has given [Kihnke] the opportunity to complete the staff review previously cut short [by the hearing] and to carefully consider all the comments received during the hearing. The result is a much improved site plan and reduced adjustments,” he pointed out, “all of which may now be approved administratively under the Zoning Code.”

The city’s Development Services Department staff was able to handle two other adjustments that Kihnke had requested in the original application. One of those, which the staff approved, called for a reduction in the façade of the structure parallel to the front lot line from 134.1 feet to 106 feet.

However, Development Services Director Panica denied the request to reduce the amount of habitable space by 23.3% on the ground floor and by 8.6% on the second floor. She informed Freedman in her Sept. 22, 2023 letter that that adjustment did 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.”

Four administrative adjustments will be sought this time, Freedman wrote.

First, the project team requests the reduction of the façade coverage on the ground floor, parallel to Palm Avenue, from 133.34 feet to 106.81 feet. That is necessary, Freedman pointed out, to provide Florida Power & Light Co. transformer access and to allow for a driveway and utility access.

A second adjustment would be needed to reduce the habitable space on the ground floor from 106.81 feet to 100.9 feet, “to provide pedestrian access to the parking garage directly from a frontage line,” as required by the city Zoning Code.

Further, the team is seeking an adjustment of 7.4% for habitable space on the second floor — from 146.65 feet to 135.83 feet, “to provide a fire command center in a location approved by the Fire [Marshal].”

Finally, the application asks for a 9.3% adjustment in the retail, service or office frontage on the ground level, from 106.81 feet to 96.9 feet, “to accommodate required stairs to the second level and required garage entrance.”

This chart describes changes from the original application to the new one. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

More retail space and greater separation from Bay Plaza

With the new application, Freedman noted in the Feb. 13 application, the project team has increased the amount of retail space from 640 square feet to 6,230 square feet. “According to the Sarasota County Property Appraiser,” he continued, “the existing retail space there today is 6,350 [square feet]. So, the 2024 plan replaces 98% of the existing retail space. In fact,” Freedman noted, the new plan “provides a depth of more than 20 [feet of retail space] on the ground level and 2nd level …”

He characterized that extra depth as “ ‘bonus retail’ space not required by the Zoning Code.”
Further, he wrote, the 2024 plan “increases the amount of retail frontage on the ground level [and] increases habitable space” on both that level and the second floor.

A chart included with the application says the second floor would have 2,184 square feet of retail space.

Moreover, Freedman asserted in the new narrative that both the 2023 version and the updated one “provide significant mitigation for the effects of the development on the Bay Plaza building. The proposed condominium will face the back side of Bay Plaza and the entrance to its parking garage. The front of Bay Plaza faces Cocoanut Avenue and N. Gulfstream Avenue and its primary views are westward toward the Sarasota bayfront.”

Nonetheless, he continued, “[T]he proposed 2024 plan voluntarily provides greater separation between the proposed condominium and Bay Plaza than required by the Zoning Code.” Freedman indicated that that change was a result of responses to the original application.

This is what the application describes as a typical floor plan for the Obsidian for levels 5 through 8. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“It should be remembered that Bay Plaza and the proposed development site are located in the [Downtown Bayfront] DTB zoning district which ‘is a very dense mixed use urban area’ with zero required setbacks,” according to the city’s zoning regulations. “The juxtaposition of the proposed condominium and Bay Plaza,” he added, “is consistent with other [Downtown Bayfront] development …”

However, Freedman pointed out, even though no step-backs are required between the Obsidian and Bay Plaza, “[T]he developer of 1260 N. Palm Avenue Residences voluntarily incorporated [upper-level] step-backs into the building to provide greater separation from Bay Plaza as recommended in the Advisory Community Design Guidelines of [Appendix D of the Zoning Code].”

The new plan calls for “voluntary building separation and step-backs of 31.1 [feet] and 40.3 [feet] between the [Obsidian] and levels 7 through 14 of Bay Plaza.”

Moreover, Freedman noted that the separation of the DeMarcay Private Residences, located at 33 N. Palm Ave., and the 1350 Main condominium tower is about 20 feet. For another example, he wrote, Marina Towers units are approximately 40 feet from the One Sarasota tower, and the units at One Hundred Central are about 60 feet from the units at Plaza at Five Points.

This aerial map shows the proximity of the One Hundred Central condominium complex to the Plaza at Five Points. Image from Google Maps

In addition to the step-backs cited above, he explained, the plan calls for “curved, rather than squared edges on the southwest and southeast corners of levels 1 through 4 [of the Obsidian]. This creates a softer building edge facing Bay Plaza and also conforms with the curved edges of the breezeways on the back side of Bay Plaza.”

He further noted that the fourth-level “amenity plan” for the Obsidian “proposes an outdoor, low impact yoga/Zen terrace and plunge pools facing levels 6 and 7 of Bay Plaza. These uses will be shielded from view of Bay Plaza by landscape buffers which will continue along the south and east sides of level 4 …”

Yet another design change calls for the west side of the Obsidian to be set back an extra 6 feet “to allow space for 5 rows of metal louvers to blend in with Tim Siebert’s Sarasota School of Architecture design of Bay Plaza. The proposed louvers will be stylistically similar to and compatible with the louvers of Bay Plaza designed by Tim Siebert.”

Vehicular access to the site will be via a single, two-way driveway from Palm Avenue, Freedman wrote.