On split vote, City Commission approves demolition of historic Palm Apartment building on Second Street

Arroyo, Brody and Battie agree to the applicant’s request so new condominium tower can be constructed

(Editor’s note: This story and the headline were updated on the morning of Aug. 26 to correct the name of the structure that was the focus of the public hearing.)

On a 3-2 vote, the Sarasota City Commission has approved the demolition of the historic Palm Apartment structure standing at 1225-1231 Second St. in downtown Sarasota. Dating to 1925, the building is designated locally historic because it complies with three of the seven city criteria for such recognition, according to the city staff report provided to the commissioners: It “exemplifies or reflects the broad cultural, political, economic, or social history of the City of Sarasota,” “it represents the work of a generally acknowledged builder [Benjamin McCall],” and “it embodies the distinctive visible characteristics of an architectural style or period.”

Commissioner Hagen Brody made the motion following an Aug. 1 public hearing, and Mayor Erik Arroyo seconded it. Vice Mayor Kyle Battie joined them in the majority, while Commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Liz Alpert voted “No.”

Referencing comments from members of the public who addressed the board that day, and other commissioners’ exchanges with the applicant and city Senior Planner David Smith, Brody pointed out, “It sounds like a lot of the arguments that are being made [to preserve the building] are emotional and not based on the facts and the reports and the testimony before us today.”

The city’s Historic Preservation Board had voted 3-2, as well, this spring on the application to tear down the building, but that majority chose to deny the request.

His review of all of the relevant information, Brody said on Aug. 1, shows that “it clearly doesn’t support denying the [demolition] permit. Just a ‘Cliff’s Notes’ version of what it all … says is … the interior [of the structure] has been changed and gutted. It is no longer the same building.”

Prior to Brody’s making his motion, Ahearn-Koch failed to win support from anyone except Alpert in making her own motion to affirm the vote of the Historic Preservation Board.

Alpert had talked about being “really torn” about how to vote on the application. In siding with Ahearn-Koch, Alpert told her colleagues, “I think the thing that weighs heaviest on me is that [the structure] was locally designated [as historic], and the criteria for that local designation hasn’t changed in these years.”

That designation came in 1984, according to the staff report. The building is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the staff report noted.

Four members of the public urged the commissioners to affirm the Historic Preservation Board’s decision. One of them, Flo Entler, listed numerous city historic structures that had been demolished through the decades. Among them were the Lido Casino, John Ringling’s Towers, the Tim Seibert lighthouse in McClellan Park and McClellan Park School.

“Sarasota has lost so many of its historic buildings,” Entler continued, “and here we are again today, fighting to save another [one].”

The Palm Apartment building “has been part of our history for almost a hundred years,” Entler added. A 1977 historical and archaeological survey of the city of Sarasota found that the structure “was one of only 11 Mediterranean Revival-style buildings existing in downtown,” she pointed out. Given its local historical designation, Entler said, “I don’t understand why we are here today.” Yet, she answered that question herself: “It’s because a developer wants the land it sits on. This is just wrong. Preserving our history through its significant historic structures gives our community its unique character and contributes to its personality.”

Erin DiFazio, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation, said of the applicants, “They purchased a four-unit historic building, and they got what they purchased. The building is fully capable of earning a reasonable economic return as a four-unit historic structure along the main commercial corridor, which it has done since its 1924 construction as a four-unit building offering affordable housing to teachers, store clerks, etc.,” DiFazio added.

However, Clifford Smith, the senior city planner who is the staff liaison to the Historical Preservation Board, had issued an opinion that the building could be demolished without violating any city standards for such action. In fact, his staff report noted, the Historic Preservation Board approved a demolition permit for the structure in 2014, though the owners ended up withdrawing the permit.

“I believe this building is not an exemplary example of its type,” Smith told the commissioners. Further, he said, the structure “has lost its association with the neighborhood.”

“It is boxed between the 18-story Embassy Suites and the proposed 10-story Beacon condo development,” Mike Hersom, manager of the firm that owns the Palm Apartment building — M2RE Partners LLC — pointed out.

(Later discussion focused on the fact that the team behind the Beacon had withdrawn the permit it had received for that project, though City Manager Marlon Brown cautioned that that condominium complex still could be built; the developer has until December 2023 to reapply for the permit.)

Smith added that the fact that the Palm Apartment is “sandwiched between two large buildings … really diminishes that site from what was its original neighborhood.”

During an exchange with Ahearn-Koch, Smith noted that several similar apartment structures from the 1920s remain standing in the city.

“But what is the threshold when we say, OK, we’ve got three left, so now it’s time to preserve?” she asked him.

“It’s not a specific threshold for a blanket statement,” he replied. “You’re going to look at the specific building to see [whether it is] significant. Is that building exemplary in its architecture?,” for example, he continued.

“If it’s been altered, how has it been altered?” Smith said of other facts to consider. “And you’ll compare it to the body of the architecture in the city that meets those same criteria.”

At one point, Ahearn-Koch asked Hersom about the potential of moving the building one lot over, so it would be contiguous to an historic district in the city. However, Hersom made it clear that M2RE plans to use both that other parcel and the one where the Palm Apartment structure stands for his company’s new project. That will entail a 12-story, 12-unit condominium tower, as indicated in answers he gave Ahearn-Koch, as well as the staff report.

“We have no renderings at this point to even show what it would potentially be,” Hersom told her, “other than going with the Downtown Bay, Downtown Core zoning.”

The present and the past

M2RE Partners LLC bought the property in late February for $2,550,000, the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s website notes. The parcel, which is zoned Downtown Bayfront, contains 5,250 square feet, the Property Appraiser’s Office record shows.

(The Florida Division of Corporations says that the registered agent for the limited liability company is the Sarasota law firm Band, Gates & Dramis. That is the firm for which Mayor Arroyo works.)

The structure itself comprises 1,760 square feet, Hersom said. “It is a very small building.”

Hersom used a PowerPoint presentation to show that the apartment building is just to the east of the Embassy Suites Hotel “and in the middle of where the vast majority of development is happening at the moment in the city.”

The wood-frame structure is two stories and clad in stucco, he continued. It has three professional offices in it, he said, along with a solitary apartment containing one bedroom and one bathroom.

City Planner Smith’s report on the application noted that the builder — McCall — constructed the apartments “in the Spanish Eclectic/Mediterranean Revival Style” of architecture. It originally had two apartments per floor, Smith added.

M2RE did have a structural engineer examine the Palm Apartment building, Hersom continued. The resulting report said that “the building is in good shape. There’s no structural things that are falling apart,” he pointed out.

“However,” Hersom noted, because the building has been renovated so many times over the course of its existence, “it no longer looks, feels, or has any historic appeal whatsoever.”

In fact, he pointed out, M2RE asked Jesse White of Sarasota Architectural Salvage to walk through it and provide a report on what could be saved. As it turned out, Hersom said, “There is almost nothing left that he can salvage … that would be deemed historical.”

Moreover, Hersom told the commissioners, M2RE cannot convert the structure to affordable housing. “In this area [of downtown],” he said, “I don’t think [it] would be deemed affordable.”

Hersom also explained that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) would not allow the structure to be moved on any state roads.

FDOT will not make an exception, Senior Planner Smith added, because the building is not listed on the National Register of Historic Structures.

“We’ve looked into every possible way of keeping this building and moving it,” Hersom said. “It cannot be done.”

Learning that the building is sound was a surprise, Smith admitted, because developers “want to make their application look as bad as possible [in this type of situation].”

“The applicant I found to be very straightforward and truthful with all his interactions,” Smith said. “He impressed me.”