Raising the Bar

By staff November 1, 2001

If you want to see where luxury waterfront and country club communities in Sarasota are headed, take a drive down to Naples, which is gaining a reputation for offering the most lavish lifestyles in Florida-and perhaps the nation. Ultra-wealthy buyers there are snapping up homes-often their second, third or fourth home, and a place where they may spend only a few weeks a year-in new communities that drip with very imaginable luxury. From opulent keystone entrances and gatehouses to gigantic Italian villa-style clubhouses and indulgent services such as wellness and enrichment centers and private shuttles to very private beach clubs, these communities treat their residents like a new and ultra-privileged aristocracy.

Sarasota's high-end developers and builders travel the state for the latest and best ideas in country club living, and they're taking note of such luxury services and amenities and bringing them to Sarasota. We haven't quite arrived at the level of Naples, yet, including the one-time $250,000 equity membership fees charged by Naples country clubs or the $350-per-square-foot costs of building homes there. But there's no disputing we're seeing a whole new level of luxury for the elite buyer who wants the best.

As it was in Naples, the catalyst for this next generation of affluence seems to be the arrival of a Ritz-Carlton hotel in town. A hotel known for offering every possible luxury with a gracious "my-pleasure" attitude, the Ritz transformed Naples simply by the cachet of its name. "It's raising the bar," declares Ilene Lyle, the executive director of Michael Saunders & Company's New Home Division. "When The Ritz-Carlton hit Naples, it took prices to a new level. We already see that happening here."

"It's all changing, isn't it?" agrees Charles Varah, the partner representative at University Park. "We're about where Naples was 10 years ago. Sarasota is at the start of that value growth curve. The Ritz-Carlton is a wonderful catalyst."

Clearly, developers have a challenge if they want to keep up with the Ritz menu of luxuries. (In Sarasota, the Ritz name is associated with several entities: the hotel; The Residences at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, situated on the top floors of the hotel; and the adjacent condominium The Tower Residences at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota.)

All Sarasota Ritz guests and residents can take advantage of The Members Club, which includes a 15,000-square-foot spa with a fitness center, beauty and body treatments and wellness seminars. The Ritz will also have a private beach club, The Ritz-Carlton Beach Club on Lido Beach, where members can relax poolside on lounge chairs with a flurry of attendants offering towels and cooling drinks until it's time to sip sunset cocktails on the club's rooftop terrace.

And of course, there's the famous Ritz concierge service, which meets guests' and residents' every whim, from procuring airline tickets and seamstresses to sending flowers and finding babysitters. The cost for all this luxury? The initial 50 residences above the hotel sold out immediately at prices ranging from $830,000 to $4.3 million; what's remaining are The Tower Residences units, priced at $890,000 to $4.5 million.

Keeping up with the Ritz style is Beau Ciel, the condominium going up next to the Hyatt and just across the marina from the Ritz. "Beau Ciel is offering true concierge service, not just someone standing there for a UPS package, but someone who will get you tickets to a sold-out show," Lyle says. But that's not all. Beau Ciel will have a valet waiting when residents pull up at the porte cochere, an art-filled lobby, a showy waterfall pool and a private club on the third floor. Called The Plaza Club, it will include a large fitness center with juice bar; men's and women's spas with sauna, steam and massage rooms; lounge complete with daily New York Times, coffee and croissants; caterer's kitchen; media room; and business center. The residences range in price from $723,000 to $2.8 million, and Nancy Betty, a sales associate at Beau Ciel, says many of the buyers are coming from Longboat Key.

Also responding to the ever escalating demands of the wealthy is The Longboat Key Club, which has upped the services in its new clubhouse at Harborside.DO THEY USE a U IN HARBOUR? The new club will offer therapeutic massage all the time, body treatments such as scrubs and wraps, and yoga and Pilates classes, says Erin McLeod, corporate communications manager.

Lakewood Ranch developers have also recognized the increasingly expensive tastes of the affluent market. The new clubhouse at Lakewood Ranch Golf & Country Club will set a new Sarasota record with 42,000 square feet of luxury when it opens this month. "It will give you anything you want," promises Michael Saunders & Company's Lyle.

Tom Danahy, COO and executive vice president of development for SMR, which is developing Lakewood Ranch, says they did lots of market research and surveys to figure out what upscale buyers want. Those surveys showed that the affluent buyer likes the Italian villa look, he says, which is the architectural style of the new clubhouse. Not surprisingly, it's the style preferred by many affluent Naples buyers, too. Danahy says SMR redesigned the gatehouse to its neighborhood The Country Club (where the Lakewood Ranch Golf & Country Club is located), which was kind of "ranchy-looking," to fit the Italian villa theme of the clubhouse. The split rail fencing was replaced with more upscale faux-stone balustrades with finials. Even the Washingtonian palms lining the drive to the clubhouse are there to set the tone and give members a sense of arrival and exclusivity.

The new clubhouse will offer several dining areas, a second-floor ballroom for 350 people, richly appointed pro shop and locker rooms, and plenty of attendants (such as a full-time shoe attendant in the locker rooms); and those attendants, like the Ritz staff, are expected to greet every member by name. "Our buyers want quality," says Lisa Rubinstein, director of public relations at Lakewood Ranch.

And in Sarasota, they'll be getting it a bargain-at least compared to Naples' prices. An equity membership at Lakewood Ranch's new club at the "platinum" level is being offered at an introductory $27,500 (eventually to reach $35,000) with dues of $4,500 a year for families. A platinum membership includes 27 holes of golf at The Private Club, tennis, and fitness and aquatic center. The $35,000 price tag is near the top end of membership fees in Sarasota. Only Gator Creek, a private men's golf club with $50,000 equity memberships, and The Oaks at $42,500 are higher; Prestancia's is also $35,000.

But these are a far cry from the $100,000 to $250,000 price tags common in Naples.

Jim Doyle, vice president for marketing at SMR Communities, says he's been to Naples, and Sarasota is offering the same quality for far less.

Sarasota luxury homebuilder Brian Pruett of Pruett Builders agrees. He's finishing a home in Sarasota for a Naples resident who sold his home there for $2 million and will pay $1.25 million for the Sarasota home-which is actually bigger than the Naples home. Pruett says his luxury homes usually cost $150 to $200 a square foot to build. In Naples, the cost can rise to $350 per square foot.

That doesn't mean that Sarasota homes aren't getting bigger and more expensive, however. "My average home is 4,000 square feet and up," says Pruett, "and my average contract is $700,000. In the last three or four years, everything keeps moving up."

Pruett says affluent Sarasota buyers are looking at builders' priciest models and asking for even bigger versions. They want extra rooms for home theaters and game rooms, and second floors for bedrooms and the "golf lanai," a place where they can have cocktails after their game and watch the sunset over the greens. "We're dealing with Baby Boomers," he says. "They have that attitude that 'We want things and we want them now and we want the best.' Extravagance is a huge thing for these people."

Varah at University Park says the average home is getting bigger there as well. Five years ago, a University Park neighborhood of 60-foot lots had homes averaging 1,700 to 1,800 square feet. Today those same lots hold 2,400-square-foot homes. Homes in Sloan Gardens, University Park's estate neighborhood, are between 4,000 to 6,500 square feet. Most of the buyers are adding a second floor or a bonus room to Sloan Gardens models, says Varah. "And people are spending a lot more money on upgrades and options," he says. For example, in the kitchen they're going from Corian to granite. They want beautiful recessed, paneled doors; cornice moldings; column treatments; cove ceilings; high-quality marble floors and plumbing fixtures.

The homes of Toll Brothers, Inc., which began building in The Oaks three years ago, have doubled in price, says Julia Lurz, a sales manager for the company's Southwest Florida office. "Our average sale price is $950,000," she says. "Our first homes didn't go over 3,800 square feet. Now we're going as high as 5,500 square feet." Their buyers also want the bonus room, which can be used as a media room or for another purpose; wet bars; keystone accents; paver brick entries and beveled glass front doors.

Barbara Shaw, her husband Rick and their five-year-old daughter recently moved from Dallas to the Westchester neighborhood in Lakewood Ranch. Rick is newly retired, and he and Barbara thought the neighborhood seemed like a great place to raise a child. Westchester has 23 homes, ranging in size from 3,500 square feet to 10,000 square feet. The Shaws liked the Arthur Rutenberg model they saw, but wanted more. "We're splurging," she admits. "We've added a second floor and square footage." Shaw says there were certain must-haves in their new home, including a media room, extra guest rooms for Rick's grown children, space for her husband's art collection, a gourmet kitchen and a home office. She also planned a "serenity garden," complete with koi pond. "This is our last house," she says, "and we wanted it to have everything."

Still, even with all these new luxury opulent services and features, some real estate professionals say that Sarasota may never want to show off its wealth as much as Naples. "I think our people are a little more discreet," says Varah. "They don't have the bigger-is-best mentality."

"The Sarasota market is more understated elegance," agrees Lurz. "We have quiet, affluent buyers who prefer the latest trends done in a subtle way."

Understated? Subtle? Earlier generations of affluent Sarasotans, who defined "luxury" as a spacious ranch home with a swimming pool, may not have described golf lanais, around-the-clock massage service, soaring marble columns and 10,000-square-foot villas in exactly those terms. But in today's extravagant world of high-end real estate, "luxury" is a relative-and ever-escalating-concept.

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