Pure Gold

By staff May 1, 2005

In 1947, just five names appeared in the city directory of people living on the 22-acre peninsula now called Golden Gate Point. Today, with more than 400 seasonal and permanent residents and a flurry of luxury high-rise construction, this postage stamp-sized plot is helping change the skyline of Sarasota. But it wasn't always so.

Just west of the Ringling Causeway, Golden Gate Point grew out of a plat known as Cedar Point, a swampy T-shaped piece of land owned by John Ringling. After seawalls were erected so that sand could be pumped in to raise the elevation, a few businesses appeared on Cedar Point, including a sawmill, boathouse and a jail. In 1917, Ringling contracted with Owen Burns to build additional seawalls on the southern side of the "T," which increased the area to double its width and length. This section became known as Golden Gate Point.

Jeff LaHurd, history specialist for the Sarasota County History Center, recalls the way Golden Gate Point looked when he moved here as boy in 1950. "There was very little out there; it certainly wasn't a place people were clamoring to live." A 1940 photo published in LaHurd's book, Sarasota Then and Now, shows an aerial view of Golden Gate Point. Other than sand and trees, the only things visible are a couple of houses, the Riviera Apartments, and a few cars parked near the entrance to the old bridge leading to St. Armands and Lido keys. Until the mid-'90s, in fact, GGP was largely ignored by developers who cast their eyes instead on the more prestigious keys of nearby Bird Key, St. Armands, Lido and Longboat Key.

But in the last few years, all that has changed. Old structures are being destroyed (like the long-gone Riviera, which boasted "The Most Beautiful View in Sarasota"), and new properties are rising that will forever change the character of this corner of paradise.

The Golden Gateway

Surrounded by water yet easily accessible, the now-exclusive peninsula is becoming more appealing with each new groundbreaking. "Golden Gate Point truly lives up to its name-it's the golden gateway to downtown Sarasota, St. Armands and the beaches," says real estate mogul Michael Saunders, whose firm was involved in the planning and marketing of several new communities on the peninsula.

"Developers have been raising the bar with construction that is built to new hurricane codes, and finishes and amenities that are increasingly more luxurious," says Saunders. "There have been over 70 sales in the five new communities currently being marketed, and of course prices are rising, too." Available new product, Saunders says, now ranges from $1.5 million to over $4 million.

Charlotte Hedge, broker associate for Michael Saunders & Company, has witnessed this meteoric rise in property values firsthand, as both real estate professional and homeowner. "My husband and I first bought there in 1992. We lived in a complex called Pier 550, which was actually the old Seahorse Motel from the 1950s that had been converted into condos. Ours was a tiny, one-bedroom, one-bath unit-just 563 square feet. When we purchased the apartment, we also bought a sailboat; we called it our living room," she reminisces. "Believe it or not, we stayed at Pier 550 for two and a half years, but eventually moved because I got tired of ironing every day; there was no closet space!" The Hedges have been waiting for a larger waterfront property there ever since. "One finally came available this year," she says. "When we retire, it will be our home for part of the year." Hedge also owns two apartments on the Point; one of the smaller units is on the market for $350,000-a real bargain by today's Golden standards, where $400 per square foot is the minimum you'll pay for resale property.

Brent Parker and business partner Tom Walter of Parker Walter Architecture, Inc. have been instrumental in developing Golden Gate Point, designing two of the newest properties: the Phoenix and Vista Bay Point. A third, the sophisticated Le Rêve Doré, began construction last spring. Besides the obvious-the unrivaled view-Parker explains the appeal of these luxury residences.

"Many people from the north fall in love with Sarasota and the beaches, so they buy a vacation home on Longboat Key, for example," he says. "For a few weeks at a time, that 2,000-square-foot place is fine. Then they retire, and let's say they live here half the time. All of the sudden their beach condo is just not adequate. And they find they don't really like having to drive off the key every day to get to the mainland. Golden Gate Point gives them the water views they want, and places them a block from downtown. I'd say half our people came off Longboat Key."

The Phoenix is not only Parker's first Golden Gate project; it's where he chooses to reside. The apartments are huge-4,000 square feet-with walk-in closets larger than many bedrooms.

These luxury properties stand in stark contrast to the quaint, unpretentious apartments that fill the interior strip of Golden Gate Point (no single-family homes remain). It's a unique contradiction of architectural styles, but oddly enough, the mix works. Flanking the perimeter, grandiose residences like the Grand Riviera, with its impressive gold domes, promise a lavish lifestyle. Nestled in between, people enjoy a simpler life, catching rays from their beach chairs or potting geraniums on their decks. There's a peaceful coexistence of people from all walks of life and economic status-and there's beauty all around.

It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

While the landscape may be changing, the sense of community is not. People walk their dogs, ride their bikes, and chat with neighbors who are equally pleased to live in this idyllic setting.

Longtime resident Carol Kopeck recalls, "We used to say that this was the best-kept secret in Sarasota. Our hideaway has now been discovered, and people love it. They want to move here." Kopeck purchased her Bay Point apartment 10 years ago; her parents owned in the same building. "I lived on Longboat for awhile, then I tried a few other places, including Siesta, but that was too crowded. I bought this for under $200,000. It has at least tripled in value."

In spite of all the development, Kopeck still considers Golden Gate Point a quiet, peaceful place and has no plans to leave. "Change had to come, otherwise it would have gone downhill. You can't stand still," she says. So even though construction has altered her views, Kopeck remains enamored of the point. "When the Ringling Bridge went in, I knew it would be right at eyesight level. Fortunately, it's a pretty bridge, and at night it looks lovely with the lights on the columns," she says. "And I used to be able to watch the sun rise over the city from my bedroom, but no more. But it's OK; my views are still gorgeous, and no one can build anything on the other side." As if on cue, a pelican glides by, inches away from her sixth-floor window overlooking the bay.

Planning for Perfection

To add to the panache of this fashionable address, infrastructure improvements are on the drawing board for the neighborhood-all eagerly anticipated by residents, investors and real estate professionals alike. "In the next few years you'll see landscaped islands, improved street parking, lighting, and an upgraded sense of entry. Golden Gate Point has become a highly sought-after address, and this will only add to its appeal," says Michael Saunders.

Brent Parker, who served as Golden Gate Point Association president for three years prior to handing the reins to Denise Watermeier earlier this year, explains how the beautification project came about. "We had a concept quite a while back to bury the power lines and make the place look better. The street is very wide and we have a lot of parallel parking, but the asphalt has been beaten up by all the construction. We plan to put in brick streets and create center islands to help define parking areas that will be perpendicular, like downtown. The road will meander and curve around islands, slowing traffic down. With all the brick and tropical landscaping, it will really change the character of the neighborhood." The city of Sarasota is planning to issue a bond to pay for the $2-million project, which will be repaid with residents' taxes on an ad valorem basis.

Missing the Point

Charlotte Hedge remembers her days at Pier 550 with fondness and looks forward to the day she returns. "It's a spectacular setting, day or night. If you live on the east side, you have beautiful sunrises and city lights, and if you live on the west side you have brilliant sunsets and the twinkling lights of Lido. There's always something to look at," she says.

And occasionally, something to hear. "Opera and ballet performers often lease the apartments while they're in town working. It always nice when you walk down the street and hear the opera singers practicing."

Living on Golden Gate Point, she says, is reason enough to sing.

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