So You Want to be a Developer?

By Hannah Wallace February 29, 2004

It's the oldest Sarasota story: Man comes to town, sees plot of land with potential, buys land, puts up condos/townhouses/single family homes, becomes a millionaire. And the story is still being told today, as a skyrocketing real estate market, growing population and a downtown transforming into a premier live-work destination are keeping developers in the driver's seat. Indeed, all this talk of the downtown Duany Plan, which envisions walkable streets, walk-to-town neighborhoods and a bayfront that connects to downtown, has some brand-new developers scrambling to join the old-timers, convinced that passion, common sense and creativity will carry them until experience catches up.

There's no shortage of role models for these guys. Blazing the way are people like retired Bradenton banker Thomas Bennett, who developed several banks as well as the subdivision of Cypress Creek Estates; and well-known former orthopedic surgeon Mark Kauffman, who developed several downtown Sarasota buildings and helped bring the city the Hollywood 20. An eclectic group of newcomers (to the business, only-most are longtime Sarasotans) is joining the mix.

"I have to admit, I got caught up in Duany fever," says Sarasota attorney Gary Larsen, managing partner of the 1750 Partnership, a consortium of the seven partners at the law firm Dickinson & Gibbons.

Named for its Ringling Boulevard address, the 1750 Partnership is developing a residential and commercial complex around its present office They're planning a two-story commercial space (one floor will be occupied by Dickinson & Gibbons), retail on the ground floor, a 13-story octagonal tower containing 95 condominium units, and townhouses along Morrill Street. They're in the process of courting financial partners and filing plans, but insist they're just "extensively remodeling," not developing. Larsen has been with the law firm since 1983, when nearby Laurel Park wasn't the desirable area it has become since residents began to effect dramatic improvements in the last decade o. About two or three years ago, the members of the 1750 Partnership began buying up pieces of contiguous land near their office. Now, Larsen is excited about adding a new element to a downtown he's been a part of for two decades, and about exercising a creative muscle he hasn't been able to before.

"As a lawyer, you derive satisfaction from helping right wrongs and solving problems people couldn't solve themselves," says Larsen. "As a developer, you get this giddy sense of creating this really cool thing. You can't help but invest in the idea of Sarasota as something unique, and I can be a part of it."

A few blocks away, another unorthodox developer is hard at work planning Kanaya, an eco-smart "healthy" condominium building. Dr. Harvey Kaltsas has practiced integrated medicine in Sarasota since 1982; in 1994, he co-founded the Academy of Chinese Healing Arts here. Since buying the first piece of land for his office in 1993, Kaltsas has accumulated about three-quarters of an acre in the Orange Avenue-Rawls Street area, the planned site for his 14-story building. Kaltsas says he had always wanted to build something like this but got the impetus after one of his very wealthy patients was nearly killed by carbon monoxide poisoning in her condominium.

"I assumed houses and condos here had been built with the health of their residents in mind, but the more I looked into it, that was really not the case," says Kaltsas.

His family has always been in real estate, he says, and years ago while living in Saskatchewan, Kaltsas built by hand a 1,500-square-foot log house on his organic wheat farm.

"I really came to appreciate there what it takes to build a healthy home, what chemicals and toxins to keep out of your home and the soil and your body," says the doctor, speaking from the Kanaya sales office, filled with Chinese antiques, in a former acupuncture classroom.

Kaltsas says some "real" developers think he's a little crazy for spending half a million dollars on a rooftop garden for Kanaya, but the doctor believes it's healthy for residents to have a plot of earth to sink their hands into once in a while. He even spent $51,000 on a wind tunnel study to make sure residents would be comfortable gardening when they're up there rather than buffeted by winds. Residents also will have access to labyrinths, a hair regeneration system, antioxidant screening device, a chlorine-free lap pool, infrared sauna and an emergency cardiac defibrillator in the common areas, all relatively cost-effective considering their benefits, says Kaltsas. And he's not budging from his beliefs, despite the financial risk. In fact, he's meeting with potential partners to build 20 such buildings around the country. He's even reserved one of the Kanaya units (10 of 35 units have sold so far) for himself.

"Everything I have is going into this," says Kaltsas. "But I'm not that afraid of taking a risk. The worst thing that will happen is I'll go back to doing what I've been doing for the last 30 years, which I enjoy."

Navigating the world of developing is not that difficult, insist such newcomers as Kaltsas and Larsen. The trick is to hire the best people to get the job done.

"You don't have to be a genius, but you do have to be careful," says writer Bob Ardren, one of the most unusual newbies on the Sarasota development scene. The genial Ardren is a familiar sight downtown, strolling the streets, stopping to chat with his multitude of friends and acquaintances and collecting information for the columns he writes for the Pelican Press, SARASOTA Magazine and the Tampa Tribune. After living downtown for 27 years, Ardren is turning his hand to developing his little parcel of land on Second Street, building something to finance his retirement. He broached the idea over a beer with architect Carl Abbott, and the two are working on what Ardren is hoping will become a "signature building." Tentative plans call for a moderately priced five-story condo building with parking underneath, something simple and modern. "Not Med Rev, I promise," Ardren says.

While his last practical construction experience took place when he was 15 and his family built a house, Ardren does know something about building. He was a building editor for Better Homes & Gardens and has written a weekly column called "Bay Shelter" that analyzes living spaces for the Tampa Tribune for 23 years. "I know the vocabulary of construction very well," he says.

He's learning how to work with the city on filing and planning, and though it's a challenge to meet the monthly attorney and architect fees at this point, he's pretty confident about procuring backing.

"The money is going to be there," says Ardren. "The trick is to bring all the pieces together. It's an interesting process-like being a maestro."

And that trick might be a lot harder than newcomers expect, says one long-time observer of the development scene, Carl Wise, owner of Preferred Commercial, Inc. Wise thinks expecting things to be easy is a bit naïve.

"This is one of those opportunities that can make millionaires out of multi-millionaires," says Wise wryly. "You'd better have guessed right when you started of the need for what you're building. And you better have deep pockets, because it requires that. Once you have a perception that there's a hole in the market that needs to be filled-you're not going to be the only guy who sees that hole. There are the Pat Neals, [Ed Vogel of] Bendersons of the world, but if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it."

One of the first non-developers to master the art of downtown development is Dr. Mark Kauffman. Kauffman began developing a few small commercial properties, including his own office, while practicing as an orthopedic surgeon for 30 years (the past 17 in Sarasota). He made the switch full time after he retired from practice. Kauffman jokes that he became a developer by default.

"Every time I invested in a stock, it went down," he quips. "I was the kiss of death for the stock market. So for the benefit of the country, I stopped investing."

The stock market's loss was Sarasota's gain, as Kauffman-sometimes alone, sometimes with a partner-proceeded to practically transform the easternmost part of downtown Sarasota with projects such as Main Plaza and Hollywood 20, Links Plaza, the Oncology Center and now, the trendy Cityscape lofts project next to the Crisp Building at the corner of Main Street and Washington Boulevard, which he also redeveloped. Kauffman says development is a good second career for people with business sense, vision and financial backing. It's also important, Kauffman says, to hire and develop relationships with people who have impeccable reputations and understand that they, too, have to make a profit. Eventually, he says, you figure what you may not have thought of when starting out with stars in your eyes: "Everything costs more and takes longer. When you get a bid from a contractor, take the lowest bid and double it; that's how much it will cost."

The general goal is at least a nine percent profit on the capital invested, but financial goals vary greatly depending on the project, says Kauffman. Developers who come in looking to sell out and leave generally look for higher profits; long-term holders will take less. Many of these newcomers stress that they fall in the latter category.

"I'm not a guy living in New Jersey, buying a piece of land that I'm going to flip," says Larsen. "We're not carpetbaggers. We've been picking up the trash in front of this building since 1983. The scary part is not to go bankrupt in the process. Once you start down this road, you start walking downtown and in your mind you imagine . . . I really do see this Duany cityscape in my mind. It's been a hoot." 

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