By the time you’re reading this, Charlotte Ryan, a retired psychotherapist from New Jersey, will have accomplished what Sisyphus never did. She’ll have pushed her great rock to the very top of the mountain and crawled out from under her burden at last.
The petite, smartly dressed Ryan will have taken the elevator up to her 10th-floor downtown bayfront condo in Sarasota’s Dolphin Tower, let herself in and locked the door behind her. For the first time in five years, she will not have been wearing a protective hard hat.
It will have been quiet in her two-bedroom, two-bath condo, no workmen tramping through her rooms, no noisy hammering and whining construction machinery, no calls from lawyers and reporters. She’ll have reflected on the heartbreak and losses of Dolphin Tower owners who could not complete the journey with her and remembered the engineers, investors, laborers, families and city officials who followed her stubborn lead for years. And, she has predicted, she will have looked out at the sailboats in the harbor by Marina Jack, at the azure view of the bay—perhaps the very best in the city—she fought so hard to see once again, and taken a long, deep breath. Then she'll have started to cry.
“It will be some kind of awesome feeling,” Ryan said in June, soon after the end of the building’s repair work. “It will be a feeling of, ‘How did I do this?’”
As Dolphin Tower’s condominium association board president, Ryan will have finally received the official certificate of completion from the city, allowing her to re-enter her once nearly condemned building as a resident rather than an embattled leader. That stunning view of Sarasota Bay, just as it was before her nightmare began, will have been worth everything she paid to regain it, she says. What she doesn’t say, but what is undeniably true: No one in Sarasota will have ever paid as much as Ryan has—physically, emotionally and financially—for the right to live in her own condo.
On June 24, 2010, sometime between 11 a.m. and noon, Kris and Rick Mowrey, the managers of the 117-unit, 15-story Dolphin Tower, came home to their fourth-floor unit for lunch and couldn’t open the front door.
“It was stuck,” says Rick Mowrey. “We forced it open. I thought I needed to get some WD-40. We got lunch ready in the kitchen. Then we noticed that the walls in the living room were bowed. There were several cracks in the floor; there were chipped and broken tiles. We went back into the kitchen and noticed the cabinets were loose from the walls. I thought somebody had hit a column in the parking garage with their car.”
The Mowreys, who have since moved to Fernandina Beach, Fla., where they now manage another property, had lived in and managed Dolphin Tower for 10 years. Though they couldn’t know it then, they would never spend another night in Dolphin Tower.
“We called David Karins [the building engineer] right away,” says Kris Mowrey. “I said, ‘The sky is falling.’” She begins to cry. “We loved it. We’d still be living there.”
“I had been out to Dolphin Tower a few weeks before, been in there a million times,” recalls Karins, of Sarasota’s Karins Engineering. “My assistant calls me and says, ‘[Kris] thinks the building is falling down.’ I said, ‘I doubt that.’ Then I got there and saw what was going on and I said, ‘You know, the building may be falling down.’”
Charlotte Ryan, also quickly contacted by the Mowreys, recalls her shock at seeing the damage in their unit. “The crack was through the floor. You could put your hand in it,” she says.
Built in 1973 by the long-defunct Sage Corp. of Hallandale, Fla., at a cost of $2.5 million, at 101 S. Gulfstream Ave., just south of the intersection of Main Street and Gulfstream Avenue, Dolphin Tower has always been one of Sarasota’s premier addresses. An advertisement for the building in January 1973 described its bayfront views and the excitement over its opening, boasting that 78 units had sold within just two weeks.
But 37 years later, the engineers and architects of record were long dead, the original inspection reports and certificates of occupancy had been destroyed, and the 10-year “construction statute of repose” had elapsed, releasing the builders from any liability. (Earlier this year, State Rep. Jay Fant introduced legislation to reduce the 10-year liability period, which had already been reduced from 15 years in 2006, to just seven years.)
As he studied the damage in the Mowreys’ unit, Karins realized he was in a situation that defined the word “emergency.”
“It was out of the blue. There was no [heavy construction] work going on nearby, no precipitating event,” Karins says. “We immediately brought in shoring posts and put them throughout the first through fourth floors. They acted like jacks. We believe that arrested the collapse of the building.” He says he told his workers to install “as many shoring posts as you can get your hands on.”
Ultimately, Karins and the other engineering firms who would work on the building installed thousands of temporary steel shoring posts to hold up the 12 stories of the residential tower above the three-story parking garage.
The city was called, and the following day, city building officials and the fire marshal ordered a limited evacuation of the fourth floor. Five days later, on June 30, 2010, all residents were given 24 hours to pack and evacuate. Dolphin Tower was closed to occupancy by the city of Sarasota at 11 a.m. on July 1. The original evacuation notice, yellowed by time, was still hanging in the building’s entryway this summer.
On June 30 and July 1 of 2010, TV camera trucks were on hand to record the mostly elderly Dolphin Tower residents leaving the building, and the images were broadcast on the Sarasota and Tampa evening news. Reporters predicted the evacuation would last from “three days to six months” and repairs could cost $1 million.
But by July 8, the damaged fourth-floor slab had moved another half inch sideways, the original crack had widened and others had appeared. At a meeting that day at City Hall, Karins told the owners to plan to be out for at least six months.
All those predictions would prove to be laughably optimistic. When they evacuated from Dolphin Tower, every resident—including Charlotte Ryan—had embarked on an odyssey of uncertainty and waiting that would consume the next five years of his or her lives.
Theirs is the ultimate Florida real estate horror story, a cautionary tale that raises the specter of what can happen when one buys into a condominium—especially an aging one—as part of an association, and cataclysmic problems arise.
Florida is home to 23,149 condominium associations and 1,516,375 condominium units, more than any other state. Most of them were built in the last 50 years.
But condominium-style shared living spaces themselves are nothing new. Historians say such spaces have been with us since at least ancient Babylon, and they’re well documented in ancient Rome and in Europe during the Middle Ages.
Condominiums in their modern form began in response to housing shortages in Puerto Rico in the early 1950s. Puerto Rico’s Horizontal Property Act of 1958 was the impetus for the U.S. Congress to authorize the Federal Housing Administration to insure condo mortgages, making condo ownership accessible to the masses. By 1969, condominium laws had been enacted in all 50 states. The first condominium in Sarasota—some say it was the first in Florida—was Sarasota Harbor West, built by developer Irving “I.Z.” Mann in 1963. Florida’s Condominium and Cooperative Act went into effect that same year. Condominiums soon sprang up everywhere. Today, there are more than 120,000 condominium associations in the United States and more than 10 million people living in condominiums.
Many of these condominiums are aging and will eventually require extensive repairs and renovations. In Florida, thousands of units are as old as—or older than—Dolphin Tower, and it’s likely that some could also develop structural problems. Yet few purchasers factor in the cost of possibly drastic future repairs, and few owners fully understand how extensive their association’s powers really are.
Backed by the full force of Florida law, condo associations have the rights to enforce code over common areas, roofs, plumbing, electrical wiring and other shared building structures; to levy fines; and to borrow money or pledge association assets as collateral in emergency situations, such as before or after a hurricane.
Florida law gives condo associations a long governing leash. As long as associations keep public records, adhere to regular public meetings, and follow their incorporation documents, their decisions over owners will stand. If most owners in an association want disco balls hanging in their building’s common areas and approve it by vote, then there will be disco balls in the common areas. And if a disco ball causes an expensive electrical fire, all the owners—even those who voted against the disco balls—are responsible for the repair bill. Florida does maintain an Office of the Condominium Ombudsman to serve as a neutral party in disputes between boards and individual owners, but the ombudsman’s powers to intervene are weak.
With her building in a sudden state of disaster, Charlotte Ryan was about to get a crash course in condominium law, the powers of condo associations, and all the emotions and conflicts those powers can provoke.
Like most residents, she says, the only potential threat to the building she had ever imagined was water damage from a storm or flood. “I was stunned,” she says. “I never expected concrete damage. I felt fear, confusion, all of those emotions. I was enjoying my retirement and it was like I got a tap on the shoulder by something—I don’t know what to call it; it depends on your belief system—that was saying to me, ‘You’re not done yet.’”
Ryan, who retired to Sarasota in 2007, had spent a year as a renter before buying her Dolphin Tower condo in August 2008. Real estate had been booming all across Florida, and she paid $475,000, the very top of the market. “That first year was so much fun,” she says. “It was all the theater and the ballet.”
Soon after she moved in, she joined a board subcommittee. “I’ve always been a ‘let’s improve something’ person,” she says. “I saw that the common areas needed updating, so I got involved in upgrading the corridors and lobby, and immediately became chairman of the design committee. A year and a half later, the problem happened.”
On the day of the mass evacuation, Dolphin Tower’s board president, Charles Stender, was taken out of the building on a stretcher with a systemic staph infection. By the fall of that year, the building’s attorneys warned that a new condominium board president needed to be appointed, and the duty fell to Ryan.
“I was the only nonworking person [on the board] at the time,” she explains.
She inherited a wild storm of bad news, which kept blowing all through 2011. Forensic engineers quickly determined that the damage to the fourth-floor slab was much more extensive than originally imagined, and city inspectors concluded that the building’s problems were twofold. Not only was the fourth-floor slab at risk of collapse, but the entire building fell far below wind-shear standards and even a low-category hurricane might topple it.
By May 31, 2011, nearly a year after the evacuation, the Dolphin Tower condo board had spent $1.1 million of its reserves, nearly half of that ($471,032) on renting shoring posts, and the other half ($566,412) on fees for attorneys, engineers, construction consultants and a security company. They hired the security company after thieves started removing the shoring posts from the empty building. The thefts were a double insult: in stealing the posts, which was crime enough, the thieves also threatened to bring the building down. In addition, insurance premiums on the building had quadrupled.
Along with tackling one grim issue after another as president of the board, Ryan handled communication with all the residents, planned and ran meetings, met with the engineers and lawyers, considered all the contracts and bids and dealt with the city. She often put on a hard hat, inspecting the damage and repairs firsthand.
In the fall of 2011, the extent of the damage to Dolphin Tower was estimated at $18 million; the building’s insurance claim had been categorically denied; and Ryan had to compose a difficult letter to its displaced residents.
“Dear Dolphin Tower owners,” she wrote. “It is with a heavy heart that we bring you further news that may render our burden even heavier.”
To keep the building solvent—a bankruptcy would have taken Dolphin Tower completely out of the owners’ hands and given it to the state—owners had to continue to pay their regular monthly assessments of roughly $550 on the units they were no longer able to occupy. This would continue for all five years of the evacuation. Meanwhile, they had to rent other places to live and pay for storage of their possessions, and looming over everything was the certainty of a major special assessment to pay for the building’s repairs, which would eventually total near $100,000 per unit.
Ryan was pushed into a situation she had never anticipated: enforcing the board’s decisions about assessments and threatening late payers—her Dolphin Tower neighbors and friends—with foreclosure. Keeping owners current in their payments was important because of Florida’s “Safe Harbor” statutes—laws meant to protect mortgage lenders. Under these laws, banks that foreclosed on Dolphin Tower units would be liable only for the lesser of 12 months of unpaid assessments or one percent of the mortgage debt. That meant banks might have to pay as little as $2,000 of a unit’s delinquencies, and the remaining owners would have to assume the responsibility for hundreds of thousands of dollars more of the ultimate repair bill.
“There have been times [during this period] when I had to be much harsher than my personality,” Ryan says. “When they bought their condos, whether they knew it or not, the owners became part of the association. Everyone has a proportional share in keeping the building maintained. You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I stay or do I sell?’ That’s your choice. Someone once said to me, ‘Let the association pay.’ I said, ‘You are the association.’”
“She was harsh and unempathetic,” says one former Dolphin Tower owner—who asked not to be named. He was forced to sell because of the mounting costs.
“It’s awful to be called cruel,” says Ryan, who spent long stretches of the past five years living in Sarasota’s Indigo Hotel, which offered her and other evacuees deeply discounted rates. “I’ve always been empathetic; [this situation] brings tears to my eyes. There was no entity with a pile of money that could come in and rescue us. If we were to declare bankruptcy, we would have lost complete control over the building.”
At Dolphin Tower’s nadir, in the fall of 2011, nearly 30 condo owners were delinquent. “The board will have no choice but to lien your property and pursue foreclosure if you do nothing to bring your delinquencies up to date,” Ryan wrote them. “[Consider] selling at a realistic price if you cannot afford to stay current.”
From the onset of the evacuation and her first interim term as board president—she’s since been elected board president twice by overwhelming majorities—Ryan decided not to socialize with any of the other owners or engineers or lawyers involved in the case, to avoid the appearance of impropriety. “I’m so glad I made that decision,” she says. “I’ve been invited to people’s homes, for lunch, for dinner. I say, ‘Thank you, but not now.’ I don’t want to give the impression of favoritism.”
Foreclosures indeed did happen, which ushered in the now well-documented period of speculative buying at market lows in Dolphin Tower. In some instances, speculators were able to acquire Dolphin Tower condos from original owners desperate to get out for nothing more than closing costs—though the speculators were still responsible for the ultimate special assessment. While some may see the speculative buyers as vultures, others consider them saviors.
“The speculators took a chance,” says Sarasota real estate broker Michael Saunders. “They were savvy and came in when no one else would. That’s the good kind of flipping. They did a favor to all the rest of the owners.”
“The speculators stepped up; they paid every cent owed,” says Ryan. “People who had to sell might say, ‘Oh, they came in and made a lot of money,’ but I have nothing bad to say about them.”
One of those speculators is Marvin Kaplan, owner of Linger Lodge and the Ellenton ice rink, who bought 10 Dolphin Tower units in 2011, when the building’s future was still uncertain.
“I saw these units coming available for $30,000 to $40,000,” says Kaplan. “I said the only way I’m going to get interested is if I can get involved with the board, because somebody has to steer this ship. I became the vice president. Charlotte is wonderful; she must work 70 hours a week. Without her, I don’t know that this would have gotten done.”
With real estate heavyweights like Kaplan behind her, Ryan and the Dolphin Tower board entered into mediation with the building’s insurance company, Great American Insurance Group. Represented by Tampa’s Merlin Law Group, they concluded negotiations with Great American in early 2012 that led to an insurance settlement.
Though the terms of the settlement are guarded by a nondisclosure agreement, Ryan says, “It was OK, just OK. It certainly helped.”
Donna DeVaney Stockham, the attorney who represented Dolphin Tower against Great American, thinks that the insurance company initially denied the claim because it found that “[Dolphin Tower’s construction] complied with the code and practices in effect [in 1973]. There was no construction and/or design defect and/or hidden defect.” Therefore, she says, it’s likely the insurer believed it was not liable for repairs.
But it was also likely the Great American Insurance Group did not want to risk a trial where jurors would see elderly and displaced Dolphin Tower residents packing the courtroom.
“I can’t speculate why Great American settled the case other than settlements are typically based on risk of loss at trial, cost, the expense to get there, and future exposure for bad faith,” DeVaney Stockham says.
For its work in the case, the Merlin Law Group took 30 percent of the settlement.
With money in hand, powerful speculators now on its board, and a clear understanding of what needed to be fixed, the board took bids for the repairs in the spring of 2012. In 2013, says Ryan, because of construction delays with the company they had hired, the board put the work out for bids again and chose Baltimore’s Concrete Protection & Restoration (CP&R). After further studies, forensic engineering, and extensive logistical planning, CP&R began major repair work in May 2014.
“[I’ve] represented many hundreds of condominium associations over the past 35 years; I’ve never encountered a situation [as catastrophic as] Dolphin Tower,” says attorney Dan Lobeck, of Sarasota’s Lobeck & Hanson, which specializes in representing condominiums and homeowners associations. “While there are extensive building defects in other condominiums, such as balcony failures, they are typically discovered in time to hold the developer and contractors responsible, not decades later.” He advises that anyone considering buying a condominium should ask for any association studies of building defects and determine whether those defects have been addressed. And, he adds, “Every condominium association should conduct such a study while it is still timely to pursue claims, considering the four-year statute of limitations from turnover of control from the developer and the 10-year statute of repose.”
An important side note relates to the seven businesses attached to the building on Palm Avenue, including the Dabbert Gallery.
Though the businesses do not share a common roof with the residential tower, their governance by Dolphin Tower’s association threatened their closure during some phases of the repair work, something that the final construction plan was able to avoid.
“We’re fortunate we’ve been able to stay in business,” says Dabbert Gallery’s David Dabbert. “The contractors said, ‘Just shut the businesses down.’ But Charlotte fought for us. They made a lot of modifications to the construction plan, and we were allowed to stay open. We laugh about it now because it’s over, but it’s been difficult. In the beginning, we were pretty nervous [about the tower collapsing.] You’d hear a loud noise and you’d run for the front door.”
Attorney Morgan Bentley of Sarasota’s Bentley and Bruning represents the Loevner Partnership, which owns the Dolphin Tower commercial spaces the seven businesses occupy. For a short time in 2011, when forced closure of the businesses seemed imminent, the Loevner Partnership went delinquent on its association fees as a bargaining chip to keep the shops open, though the issues have since been amicably resolved. “It was all Sandy [Loevner] and Charlotte,” says Bentley. “They were threatening to close the shops for a year and a half, and [Sandy and Charlotte] would get together and talk. We would have a meeting and it would go nowhere and then they would exchange emails and it would get resolved. I’d like to take credit for more, but it was them.”
All the necessary city demolition and reconstruction permits have long since been issued, thousands of yards of concrete have been poured and set, the building’s wiring and piping systems have been thoroughly updated, and the work to bring Dolphin Tower up to code is now finally done.
CP&R, the engineering firm that finished the work in February 2015, has submitted the project for a national concrete restoration award. “The final cost came in at $8.8 million,” says CP&R’s Michael O’Malley. “I’ve been in this business 25 years. This was a once-in-a-lifetime project. You just don’t see things like this.”
Hytham Bakr, of the Sarasota engineering firm Bakr Group, has been Dolphin Tower’s project manager and owners’ representative throughout the ordeal. He says of the restoration work, “Imagine taking a body and replacing the liver, the heart, the arms. The building is [now] very solid; it’s hurricane improved. Internally, it’s totally new. You have a very solid structure foundation-wise, and you have a waterfront building that’s unmatched.”
But the mystery of why Dolphin Tower’s fourth floor cracked remains.
“What caused it?” asks Bakr reflectively. “It was built in the ’70s, and this happened 35 years later. There are different theories—the steel was too close to the surface [of the fourth-floor concrete slab], the steel [rebar] was too close to each other, there wasn’t enough concrete between the steel—the theories are endless. The only term you can use is ‘bad luck.’ It’s similar to when you buy your house and have an inspection and everything is fine. Five years later, the house settles and you have cracks in your foundation. What are you going to do?”
David Karins of Karins Engineering agrees. “There’s no smoking gun,” he says. “It’s like an airplane crash, a big series of events. It’s hard to pinpoint just one.”
With the work finished, Marvin Kaplan has sold most of his 10 units for a tidy profit. “With Dolphin Tower’s location, [its prices] could double every five years,” he says.
Saunders adds, “It’s in the center of everything, it’s got great views. The building has been engineered to death. We would have no hesitation sending our clients there.”
But none of that matters much to Charlotte Ryan. “People ask me, ‘How did you do it?’” she says. “The greater the crisis, the more calm I became. I hope and pray for all of Sarasota that this doesn’t happen in another building, but I’m not so sure it won’t. There are tough business decisions that have to be made by condominium boards. Condo boards have huge responsibilities, much, much more than people realize.”
Contributing editor Tony D'Souza won a first-place award for public service reporting from the Florida Magazine Association for "Going Nowhere" in our January issue.