Revival of the Fittest

The Next Great Sarasota Neighborhoods

Charm and value are making five great old neighborhoods hot again.

By Robert Plunket March 2, 2017 Published in the March 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Sarasota is experiencing a building boom, with new communities going up wherever there’s any leftover space. They’re generally terrific—brand-new, state-of-the-art homes with every on-trend feature. And the communities are brand-new, too, with new streets, new trees, new grass, new everything.  n  And for some, that’s the problem—new everything. There’s no social or architectural history here, no local characters, no juicy scandals. Maybe that’s why we’ll always be partial to Sarasota’s older neighborhoods. Over the years they have developed their own personalities. They’re where the drama of Sarasota’s first 100 years took place. And at the moment, some of those with the most modest roots are getting new attention. People are seeking them out, drawn by their charm and value, not to mention their desirable locations. After all, they were here first. Let’s take a look at five older neighborhoods that are enjoying a revival.

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Golden Gate Point

Twenty-five years ago, Golden Gate Point looked like a cut-rate Old Florida vacation spot, with two-story motel-style apartment buildings and a transient air. The largest structure was a retirement home for priests. Today, with the priests sent off to retire elsewhere and the kitschy old buildings all but gone, there’s a wave of new construction. It’s quickly turning the Point into a chic, boutique-style neighborhood of its own—not just downtown, but the insider’s downtown.

Golden Gate Point’s advantages are compelling. It’s set off by itself on a little horseshoe-shaped peninsula that juts into the bay, with only one way in and one way out. This means it’s quieter than many downtown areas. There’s no real street life—oh, the usual dog walkers, but no shoppers, no cars circling around looking for a parking place, no panhandlers. And the views are arguably the best in town. Many buildings face the city and the water.

A new generation of luxury buildings is going up. The first generation—Bellasara, Grande Riviera—came during the boom, but the new ones are smaller in size and scale. They’re “boutique” buildings, and though the buildings themselves may be small, the apartments are large; some occupy an entire floor. A crisp, modern look is the style, with high-quality modern architecture. Aqua, designed by well-known modernist Guy Peterson, may be the most distinguished.

These new apartments are expensive. The Pearl, which is about to be built, is not directly on the water, but units begin around $1,650,000. “We’re getting a lot of interest from local buyers,” says Joel Schemmel of Premier Sotheby’s. “They love the intimate feeling of the neighborhood.” One88 and Aqua are large and hyper-luxurious; plan on spending $3 million plus. One buyer liked Aqua so much he bought two floors and turned it into one giant unit.

The bargains in Golden Gate (if you can still find any) are the older buildings. Pier 550, which has been around since the 1940s, is the most desirable. It’s picturesque, low and yellow, with green lawns facing a spectacular view of the marina and downtown. The problem: Units rarely come on the market. And you can almost feel the real estate sharks swimming around this prime piece of downtown property. It’s two-thirds of an acre and insiders say it could go for as much as $50 million.

Sarasota’s longtime civic and business leaders are particularly drawn to Golden Gate Point, perhaps because they can look out at the city they helped create. The late State Sen. Bob Johnson lived here with his wife, Pat. And Elisabeth Waters persuaded her husband Gil, who championed the new Ringling Bridge, to move here by pointing out that he could see the bridge from their living room. I fondly remember a party in the penthouse at the Grande Riviera several years ago, when Bob and Diane Roskamp lived there. Among the guests were a Nobel Prize winner (Paul Samuelson) and a former president of Harvard (Derek Bok). A young violinist gave an impromptu concert, with the music floating out over the moonlit water. It was about as good as Sarasota gets.

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Southgate has finally come into its own. For a while it was hopelessly square—all those ranch houses, all pretty much the same, all populated by retired couples from the Midwest. Now, with the original owners long gone to their heavenly reward, its curving streets and midcentury look put it right up there as a contender for the hippest neighborhood in town.

Southgate is the prototype of all post-war Sarasota neighborhoods. It was carefully planned, with a nice layout and homes that, while not all alike, did have a family resemblance. The complaint at the time was that it was so far out, way on the edge of town in what used to be an orange grove. Now, of course, it’s smack in the middle of town, with easy access north (downtown), south (shopping), east (I-75) and west (the beach—you can ride your bike).

The homes are classic Florida ranches from the 1960s, and they’re still going strong. The size is ideal for a couple or a small family (houses invariably have three bedrooms and two baths, plus a two-car garage), and they’re so well built (concrete block) that they seem like they will last for ever.

Another big plus: They’re easy to expand and remodel. The remodels are being given an open plan by merging the living room, dining area and kitchen into one large space. Wood-look porcelain tile covers the floor, unless there’s—cross your fingers—terrazzo. The inevitable lanai facing the back yard has been converted into a bright, sunny family room. Bedrooms are big. Some still have their fabulous 1960s baths, complete with original tilework.

In a stroke of luck for Southgate, its look—midcentury modern—is now the hottest design trend. So there’s no need for teardowns. Just enhance and restore what was there originally.

People are doing just that. You can see increasing numbers of the retro-remodels. There’s one for sale at 2715 Valencia that was once owned by the Stottlemyer family of local lumberyard fame. Built in 1957, it’s larger than most Southgate homes, with four bedrooms and over 2,200 square feet. It has a great wall of stacked flagstone in the living room—a perfect midcentury touch—and an open plan. It’s listed at $419,900, expensive for Southgate. A nicely remodeled ranch is more likely to cost in the mid $300s, with many dipping down to the low $200s. These are the ones to seek out. Chances are they still have a lot of the original features. The ones that are being flipped are OK, but the character is being remodeled out of too many of them.

Writer and editor Laurie Rosin has lived in Southgate for 17 years in a home that borders Phillippi Creek. “The view is like a Walt Disney film,” she says. “Otters, egrets, raccoons, ducks. A turtle laid eggs in my front yard and I put together a little cage to protect them.”

I have a theory about Southgate. Sooner or later everybody in Sarasota lives there. Sometimes it’s just for a few months, sometimes it’s for the rest of their lives. They’re on their way up or on their way down or they just got a divorce or they finally got enough money together to afford a decent house. Whatever your situation, you will fit into Southgate. It’s Sarasota’s most democratic neighborhood.

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Country Club Shores

Country Club Shores has been around so long that people forget how great it is. An early Arvida development, it promised the ultimate in Florida living when it was built back in the early 1960s. Practically all of the houses are on canals and have a dock in the back yard. And the location at the southern end of Longboat Key makes Country Club Shores close to the bridge and city, a big plus with the ever-increasing winter traffic. Many of the views are incredible—across the bay dotted with mangrove islands to the city skyline. There’s golf, beach and tennis at the Longboat Key Club, right across the street. Yes, you do have to join to play, but who wouldn’t want to?

On Longboat Key, with its gated communities and home owners who are only there for a few months in the winter, Country Club Shores is a refreshing anomaly. As Molly Schechter, who’s active on Sarasota’s fund-raising social scene, puts it, “Where else will a neighbor drop what she’s doing and come over to zip up your evening grown?” Molly, who lived in Country Club Shores 15 years, says she loved the old-fashioned sense of community; she used to deliver homemade cookies to the neighbors at holiday time.

So what’s the problem? Frankly, Country Club Shores has become a little dated. The layout lacks charm. Picture a comb, with the teeth being streets that run straight down to the bay. The canals between are a little narrow and the lots a little small. (Arvida solved these problems in its next project, Bird Key, with wider canals, larger lots and a more pleasing street layout.)

But it’s waterfront in a great location, and that’s attracting buyers. I recently counted three or four teardowns per block, with dated ranch homes being replaced by multistoried new homes that are exactly what the luxury buyer wants.

What that buyer wants is evident in one of the largest of the newer homes, located at the end of Ranger Lane. It’s a two-story Mediterranean-style home that boasts over 6,000 square feet. Priced at $5,850,000, it has all the features of a home that expensive—home theater, elevator, several fireplaces, heated infinity pool, not to mention drop-dead views from virtually every room. Another plus: Unlike many homes on Longboat, all construction meets current codes.

More ordinary new construction generally goes for between $1.5 million and $2 million. There’s a new home at the other end of Ranger listed at $1,795,000. Features include 11-foot ceilings, a luxurious first-floor master bedroom, a pool, spa and dock.

But there are plenty of older homes left. “Some have been elaborately renovated and re-engineered,” says realtor Michael Moulton. “Their ceilings were raised and their layouts reconfigured.” Many can hold their own with new construction, particularly when the buyer doesn’t want something enormous.

Others are sitting there waiting. During a recent visit I was suddenly taken with the idea of buying one, living in it for a while, then selling it as a teardown in say, five years when it will really be valuable. One recent buyer, Moulton tells me, has done exactly that. He got a nice 1960s home for just under $700,000. “He plans to live there at first,” Moulton explains, “then perhaps have his parents live there, and when he retires, he’ll replace it with a new luxury model.”

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Paver Park

If you grew up in a housing development in the 1950s, you’ll feel a nostalgic glow of recognition when you visit Paver Park. It’s Sarasota’s own tiny version of Levittown. It’s east of Shade Avenue and south of Ringling, separated from neighboring Alta Vista by an old railroad track easement. All the houses are either model A or model B. Over the years they’ve been remodeled and reconfigured, but even after all those trips to Home Depot, the classic 1950s tract house is still there, recognizable under the renovating.

Like Levittown, Paver Park is named for the Paver family that built it—and many other Sarasota neighborhoods. They were superior designers and builders. I lived in a Paver Park house for a year or so and became a fan. They’re solidly built. The floor plan is excellent, and the kitchen opens to both the living room and a nice dining room/family room. Everything just feels right.

True, some models only had one bath, but over the years practically all of them have acquired a second bathroom, plus an additional room or two toward the rear, where a covered lanai makes them easy to expand.

Back when I lived there, Paver Park had a shabby side. It, along with its neighbor to the west, Ringling Park, had a working-class edge. There were trucks parked on the grass and sullen teenagers hanging around in the street, smoking. Now, with the homes fixed up and young families buying in and the renters moving on, the neighborhood has taken on a new life. Few new homes—so far. It makes more financial sense at the moment to remodel.

Amanda Kopf, who grew up in Sarasota, and her husband, Cary Gillit, bought a 1955 ranch on Martin Street in December, attracted by the nostalgic feel and the great value. They paid $200,000 and are busy getting the home up to speed. “It needed some love,” Kopf says. “The finishes weren’t high-end, and some of the repairs were a little homemade.”

But the location was perfect. Gillit works downtown and the whole family are baseball fans, with Ed Smith Stadium nearby. The Hollywood 20 is an easy walk, and Payne Park, where Amanda likes to take son Roman, 15 months old, is also a big plus, with one of the best playgrounds in town.

There’s a nicely remodeled house just down the street from the Kopf-Gillits at 2762 Martin St. It has two bedrooms, two baths, in just over 1,000 square feet. The original terrazzo floors are there but the kitchen is new and the baths have been updated. And there’s a fenced back yard. It’s a perfect starter home, priced at $249,900.

The big question here is the fate of the aging Ringling Shopping Center. It’s been closed for several years. A Walmart had been proposed, but was derailed by residents, who want to protect the scale and affordability of their neighborhood. They’re happier about the latest idea, a mix of condominiums and small shops and businesses. A zoning change to allow such development has been approved by the city commission, but no developer has yet stepped forward.

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Sapphire Shores

Sapphire Shores, just south of the Ringling Museum, was Sarasota’s first “luxury” neighborhood. Many of its original residents were friends and business associates of John Ringling, and their homes—13 of the 1920s Spanish mansions still remain— take many of their stylistic cues from the Ca d’Zan. Realtor Julia McClung just sold a particularly romantic one at 406 Woodland Drive for $1,311,114. It’s so romantic, in fact, that the new owners insisted on the unusual price because there’s a wedding date imbedded in there somewhere.

Today’s residents are more eclectic than the Ringlings’ friends. They range from some of the richest people in town (make that “in the world”) to old Sarasota families to people prominent in the local arts scene to Ringling and New College students living in what I’m trying not to call crash pads. The area is famously Democratic, even the rich people. In fact, it may be the only premium neighborhood in town that is.

This diversity, plus the enormous old trees that cover the area, gives it a personality all its own. “All the neighbors gather at Sun Circle to watch the sunsets,” McClung says. Indeed, there are so many dog walkers in the late afternoons that it would be a traffic hazard, if there were more traffic.

Sapphire Shores is just to the north of a similar neighborhood called Indian Beach, and it’s hard to tell exactly where the boundary is. According to realtor David Jennings, there are 25 separately platted communities in the area. “Even many residents aren’t sure which one they’re in,” he says. I’m calling the boundary Myrtle Street, where Jungle Gardens stands. From here north the homes get larger and fancier, and those that hug the water can get very pricey, indeed.

Some have achieved legendary status. The Githler house (built by a couple prominent in local politics and business who divorced in 2013) recently sold for $9 million. The new owners are busy renovating the home’s 17 rooms, plus an attached garage designed to accommodate catering trucks from Michael’s On East.

If you’re a couple of blocks from the water, you can find something more reasonable. A 1954 ranch at 462 N. Shore Drive is priced at $525,000. It’s been nicely remodeled and has three bedrooms and three baths in almost 2,000 square feet. Or check out the stylish midcentury modern at 4796 Eastchester. It’s owned by Matthew McLendon, who recently left his post as a curator at The Ringling to run the museum at the University of Virginia. It’s a little bland on the outside, but the interior has a sensational sunken living room with sparkling white terrazzo floors. That’s the thing about Sapphire Shores; just about every house has some special touch.

The neighborhood also has an Achilles heel—the North Trail. The Trail is its eastern border, and Sarasota has been throwing up its hands over what to do about it for the past 40 years. Arrests for prostitution are down, but zoning, inertia, and God knows what else have kept the North Trail from living up to anywhere near its potential.

This may well be the reason that the eastern edge of Sapphire Shores is such a bargain. Because of the proximity to the Trail, builders can’t get vast sums for replacing old homes here, so there are few teardowns. Consequently, you can buy a decent house for under $300,000. It will be smallish, but it will have the potential to be turned into one of those charming Bohemian or Key West cottages that home magazines so delight in featuring.

At 847 41st St. there’s a solid 1973 three-bedroom, two-bath home that could be turned into something special. It’s listed at $229,000. And check out 3734 Iroquois Ave. ($234,900). It’s being advertised as a possible student rental, for which purpose it’s far too nice. If you can get past the extremely eclectic surroundings, you’ll be able to walk to Jungle Gardens, Walgreens and the Walmart supermarket.

The big news in Sapphire Shores is a new development called Bellora. It’s on a 17-acre parcel that somehow managed to remain empty all these years. There are 23 home sites, with several currently under construction. Prices start at just under $1 million. The homes are large, and there’s no single style of architecture. Neighbors hope the mix will fit neatly into the community.

That’s a tall order for a neighborhood as well designed as Sapphire Shores. “Many streets have just enough twists and such enormous setbacks that all you see is the green landscape and the blue sky,” says Jennings. Such lessons from the past make Sapphire Shores and these other great neighborhoods such special places to live. 


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