On May 15, Development Review Committee members for City of Sarasota to review latest plans for 327-foot condominium tower planned at 1260 N. Palm Ave.

Residents continue to protest project, focusing largely on its height

This is the site planned for the tower at 1260 N. Palm Ave., outlined in purple. Bay Plaza is shown adjacent to the parcels. Image courtesy of the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office

At 9 a.m. on May 15 at Sarasota City Hall, the city staff members who review land-use applications — comprising the Development Review Committee (DRC) — are scheduled to address an updated version of the new proposal for the condominium tower planned at 1260 N. Palm Ave.

Previously called the Obsidian, the project remains controversial among city residents largely because of its proposed 327-foot height and its location immediately adjacent to both the Bay Plaza condominium tower and the street.

The May 15 session will be conducted in the Commission Chambers of City Hall. The discussion of the second submittal of plans for the 1260 N. Palm Ave. Residences is the third item on the agenda, the formal city notice says.

The item is listed on that agenda as follows: “An application requesting Administrative Site Plan Approval to construct an 18-story, 14-residential unit building with 5,989 square feet of non-residential floor area on the ±0.284-acre subject property. The site is located on the southwest side of N Palm Avenue and bounded on all other sides by Bay Plaza Condominiums. The subject property is within the Downtown Bayfront (DTB) zone district and has a Future Land Use classification of Downtown Bayfront. Vehicular access is proposed from N Palm Avenue. This project does not include any attainable housing units.”

“Administrative Site Plan Approval” refers to the fact that, under city regulations, the project would not need a majority vote of either the city Planning Board or the City Commission to be constructed, provided that the DRC members sign off on it and city Development Services Director Lucia Panica finds that the plans comply sufficiently with city policies and regulations.

In September 2023, Panica denied one proposed adjustment of city requirements pertaining to the project. That called for a reduction of the habitable space by 23.3% on the ground floor (from 106 feet to 81 feet, 4 inches) and by 8.6% on the second floor (from 146 feet, 7 inches to 134 feet). She noted that the adjustment did not meet “all of the required criteria.”

Planning Board approval was needed for a second adjustment, she wrote. That would have lowered the required retail frontage by 30.5%, to 66 feet of frontage, where 95 feet would be required, assuming the façade adjustment were approved.

The Planning Board declined to approve that adjustment.

The 2023 application for the condominium complex put the building height at 342 feet. A website created for the Obsidian said, “Soaring to entirely new heights along downtown Sarasota’s waterfront, Obsidian is the tallest building in the city’s history.” The website also notes that the units will have “[e]levated ceiling heights.” The condominiums, the website adds, would range from 4,200 square feet to 7,200 square feet under air conditioning, with “[360-degree] views of thecity with most residences featuring sweeping bay, gulf, and island views.”

Among the April 1 comments that DRC members wrote in response to the new application submitted to the city staff on Feb. 14, the city’s acting development review chief planner, Noah Fossick, raised the height issue himself.

This graphic provides details about the revised, 2024 plans. Hoyt Architects is the firm handling the design. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Citing Section IV-506(1) and (4) of the City Code, he explained that “the Development Services Department must evaluate whether proposed development is in keeping with the intent and specific standards and criteria in pertinent sections of the land development regulations and whether there are ways it could be changed to improve effects on adjoining properties. There are ways in which the configuration of the development could be changed to mitigate or improve the effect of the development on adjoining and nearby properties and on the community. The proposed building height is significantly taller than the rest of the City. The proposed building is surrounded on three sides by a condominium building that is approximately half its height. The overall building height could be reduced to improve the effects on this adjoining property. Please provide additional information as to the height of the structure.”

In an April 5 response, Joel Freedman — whose eponymous Sarasota consulting firm is representing the developer, Michael Kihnke, manager of 1260 Palm Properties LLC — wrote the following:

“Height in and of itself does not have an adverse impact on nearby or adjacent properties and does not render a building incompatible with its neighbors. If that could be the case, then Bay Plaza — at far more than 100 [feet] taller than the surrounding buildings at the time it was approved would have been incompatible with those buildings and would remain incompatible with the existing 1260 Palm structure and should never have been approved.

“Furthermore,” Freedman continued, “the City has not adopted any regulations governing or limiting shadows cast on adjoining properties. Absent such an express regulation or an express easement, neighboring properties have no ‘right to the free flow of light and air’ and therefore no right to be free from the shadow effects of a neighboring building.’ ” Freedman cited the 1959 Florida Third District Court of Appeal ruling in Fontainebleau Hotel Corp v. Forty-Five Twenty-Five Inc.

Freedman added that the 18-story tower’s height “does not impose shadow or other adverse impacts on the street or Bay Plaza and the building has been designed to limit or mitigate adverse impacts, particularly on Bay Plaza.”

He also pointed out that the project team had “performed the appropriate studies” to demonstrate only “minimal shadow effects from 1260 N. Palm and that, in fact, the solar effect of Bay Plaza on 1260 N. Palm far exceeds the effect of 1260 N. Palm on Bay Plaza.”

He had included with the responses the solar study graphics, Freedman noted.

‘Don’t be fooled’

Opponents of the 1260 N. Palm Residences project paid to publish a full-page ad that was scheduled to run this week in two publications, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Sarasota Observer.

“Don’t be fooled by its new name (‘1260 North Palm Avenue Residences’),” the ad says. “It’s still an absurd, towering skyscraper (by far the tallest in our city) suitable perhaps for Miami, but not Sarasota.

This is the ad opponents of the project slated for 1260 N. Palm planned to run this week in other publications. Contributed image

“Not only would this massive 327-foot tower be wedged onto a postage-stamp sized, 0.28-acre lot and loom over charming Palm Avenue,” the ad continues, “it’s not in compliance with many of the City code requirements nor in compliance with the zoning code’s compatibility criteria.”

Just this week, at the start of the May 6 City Commission meeting, four residents voiced concerns about the project.

One of them, Rodger Messer, a retired architect, stressed that the building is too big for the site

“To paraphrase [the late attorney] Johnnie Cochran,” Messer said, “We believe if it doesn’t fit, you can’t permit.”

As just one example of the design problems, Messer cited the parking access ramp at the ground level. “This Ben Hur-scale oval uses nearly 75% of the available ground floor area. Why? Because the project’s site is simply too small.”

One of the speakers at the beginning of the City Commission’s March 18 meeting, Jerome Apt, explained that he has an undergraduate degree in physics from Harvard and a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked for NASA for 15 years, Apt continued; he was part of the team that handled four Space Shuttle missions. (He flew on the Atlantis during a 1991 mission, Wikipedia says.)

He and his wife have owned property in numerous cities, Apt pointed out, including Boston and New York. They decided to purchase a condominium in the Sarasota Downtown Bayfront zoning district, Apt said, because the city’s Master Plan preserves “the scale and pedestrian experiences of this unique downtown. … If we want to live in a canyon,” he added, they visit their home in New York City.

In his 50 years of professional work, he continued, he never had seen “a proposal to circumvent rules by adding so much interstitial space. Apt noted that he found “no conceivable engineering reason for 55 feet of such space” in the tower planned at 1260 N. Palm.

A Dec. 5, 2022 memo that Alison Christie, then-chief planner on the city’s DRC, sent to Freedman, the agent for the developer, pointed to the interstitial space issue: “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.”

During his March 18 comments to the commissioners, Apt said, “If this building is approved at anywhere near the proposed 327 feet” — the equivalent of a 30-story structure in any other city, he noted — “I will actively discourage prospective investors from considering Sarasota because the city would have made the choice to completely change its character.”

Protecting the historic sabal palms on Palm Avenue

This is a view of the sable palms standing in front of the shops at 1260 N. Palm Ave. in downtown Sarasota. Image from Google Maps

Yet another focus of some public concern has been the proposal to temporarily remove the sabal palm grove on the project site to another location.

The new application submitted to the city in February said, “The development has been designed to avoid impact to the historic palm trees that are directly off-site along the frontage of the property. During construction these palms will be relocated and protected off-site. Following construction, the palms will be restored along the frontage of the site.”

The April 1 city staff letter to Freedman pointed out that those palms in the right of way “are considered trees of significance by the local community. City Arborists will perform viability checks at least quarterly at the proposed offsite staging location.”

In response to that concern, Freedman wrote, “Acknowledged. More detailed information shall be provided as the project moves into construction plans and during the final permitting process. These quarterly observations can certainly be accommodated.”

Jono Miller of Sarasota, past director of the Environmental Studies Program at New College, has called those palms perhaps “the oldest deliberately planted landscape trees in the city.”

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