A Question of Balance

By staff October 1, 2004

Judging by the hubbub we've been hearing lately about both the downtown and the cultural district master plans, it seems clear that we're blessed with an intelligent and articulate citizenry. Many have begun to react with considerable energy to the specifics of both plans, one faction calling for the preservation of the small-town character they assert still exists here, the other demanding bold strides toward a future city that will express a modern spirit. Whether or not these newly motivated folks have come too late to the table is an important question, but we must hope that it's not too late to try to balance the values of both.

These opposing factions have recently been "outed" by a simple issue: trees. The city administration has expressed a willingness to reconsider the street trees along Main Street, allowing removal of the black olive trees in locations where an awning or arcade could provide pedestrian shelter. Reaction to this seemingly reasonable policy, presented in anticipation of the more specific streetscape design guidelines to be enacted as part of the master plan, was swift and loud, resulting in public meetings of great, ahem, energy.

In these meetings, however, advocates often seemed to be talking past each other, apparently convinced that there is no middle ground, that the only choice is between the low-rise old town and the high-rise master plan city. Truth, of course, lies somewhere between the two.

Fortunately, some people understand that and are willing to work for it.Believe it or not, some of these people are developers. Yes, that often reviled group does include conscientious folks who want to build projects that reflect both Sarasota's heritage and its potential. Such a strategy is not easy to implement, of course, and the results have to be reasonably profitable, whether the project be residential or commercial. One of those folks is David Hunihan, head of Fidelity Homes. Hunihan prefers to be called the steward rather than the president of the organization. Stewardship, in his opinion, includes finding a way to build good new homes that fit into the fabric of established neighborhoods and reflect local traditions.

To be honest, when I saw the houses of Fidelity's Renaissance Collection going up on Morris Street, just east of South Osprey Avenue, in the Cherokee Park area, I was pretty skeptical. "More of the old Med-Rev," I thought, "monuments to Styrofoam and stucco, and probably over-scaled for the neighborhood."

Eating my words, I must say that they are very successful. Yes, they are over the top in some ways; and, yes, they are not entirely consistent in mass and scale with other houses on the street, which is not yet as trendy as the "flower streets" nearby. But they sing out with self-confidence, these four houses. Moreover, they embody variations on a valid but neglected idea: porte-cocheres that permit garages behind the houses and allow traditional porches and balconies on the front. This relatively simple reaction to both building codes and lot size has the happy result of rendering them attractive to buyers while enhancing the street.

Reflecting the builder's interest in Sarasota's past, they carry names evocative of the Ringling era, such as Casa Vernona and Casa Wallenda. The architects, Don Evans and Greg Hall of the Orlando-based Evans Group, have executed Hunihan's concept with exceptional flair, providing family-friendly structures in which one can imagine gatherings on the front porch, calls to dinner from the balconies and pick-up basketball in the graceful courtyards which lie between main house and garages.

Yes, there is some Styrofoam behind that stucco, although Hunihan says it's confined to details not likely to be noticed. Frankly, that sounds like a cop-out; only time will tell if it is justified. But think of it-there are no front-loaded garages! No blank frontages dedicated to the automobile. No monumental, unfriendly, never used front doors. What a concept.

The other side of the debate about Sarasota's future look involves the desire to foster a rebirth of the lamentably neglected Sarasota School of Architecture, to bring us back into the architectural vanguard.

While some public buildings, such as the superb St. Thomas More church complex by Carl Abbott, display this proud heritage, very few new houses are built in this style. The great examples of the first flowering of the movement still found in Lido Shores look more lonely and besieged than ever; newer examples are few and far between, mostly along the bayfront and very expensive.

The reasons stated for this dearth are many, most of them having to do with the mantra of our time, "convenience." Just how a cookie-cutter Med-Rev is more convenient than, say, Paul Rudolph's Umbrella House or the Hiss Studio is hard to determine.

A better reason may be that many modern houses don't immediately say "home" to most people here. Their spare spaces, stripped of irrelevant detail, appeal to the mind more than to the body. They often fail the "Would I like to live there?" test, a standard that came to mind frequently at the Sarasota Design Conference presented recently by the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The sessions I attended were devoted to projects designed by two leaders in contemporary architecture: Eric Owen Moss and Thomas Phifer. Both are articulate, both advanced thinkers, both successful.

Moss is responsible for an extraordinary urban renewal scheme at Culver City, Calif., where existing industrial structures have been modified and expanded in interesting ways. Currently fashionable technological marvels abound, particularly in the use of glamorous curved glass surfaces. His motto, "Make It New," is strongly expressed in his work, which is full of extravagant, attention-getting gesture, the opposite of the cool rationality of the Sarasota School but well worth considering here if our future downtown is to avoid stifling conventionality, modern or not.

Thomas Phifer's presentation included several new homes, houses of huge size and (one assumes) daunting cost. They are impressive, particularly in the way they interact with the landscape. Two of these, nestled amid the beauties of the Hudson Valley in New York State, are dazzling in their expensive simplicity and ingenious in their use of natural settings. More than nestling, these houses (I hesitate to call them "homes") are actually built partially underground, mostly invisible from a distance yet taking full advantage of the spectacular wooded vistas around them. As seen in the photographs presented by the architect, they are breathtaking, sleek, stimulating. But, frankly, they fail the "Would I like to live there?"

Morris Street houses, on the other hand, pass with flying colors.Where does that leave the debate over our future? Just where it should, in our court. The past is behind us. Sarasota is neither the sleepy town of old nor Fort Lauderdale. We have the opportunity and the duty to craft a special place, one that acknowledges the past and welcomes the future in both the public and the private realms. It's a question of excellence. Let's get on with it.

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