Street Talk - October 2005

By staff October 1, 2005



David Beaton helps bring new voices to the local radio scene.

Fogartyville Café co-owner David Beaton led the band of community activists and New College students who brought WSLR-LPFM Radio (96.5 FM) to the local airwaves in August. The nonprofit, non-commercial station offers 24 hours of music and public affairs programs-everything from the World Spirit Show to Sarasota Neighborhoods and Suncoast Sports Scene. It's all hosted by volunteers, and because it's a low power station, covers a limited geographic range of just three to five miles around its production studio. "Radio pulls people together, and locally based radio is a community builder," says Beaton. "We want people to express themselves."

What's your background? Radio's been a big part of my life. I was in a radio club in high school and at Michigan State I worked on the college NPR station.

Who are your volunteers? We have 30 to 40 local programmers: lawyers, doctors, middle school kids, acupuncturists. An hour each weekday will be hosted by Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences students; there will be a block of Spanish music and news, and New College students have various music blocks from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.

How are you funding the station? We raised about $25,000 from the community to get started. New College is giving us studio space, and we're going to sell memberships and have fund-raising concerts.

What void are you filling? Getting information out that is not heard on mainstream radio. We're about sustainability and decent social justice. Our goal is to engage people, but we won't be airing views from the extreme right.

So I guess you won't be running the Rush Limbaugh show? Rush Limbaugh is on enough programs as it is. -Ilene Denton

Fat City

Dining off the beaten track with Bob Ardren.

Blessed with many fine dining restaurants, the Sarasota area also boosts more humble but consistently fine eating spots where you're likely to be sitting next to your plumber, a retired circus performer or a county judge. Fat City celebrates these democratic eateries.

Bar and grills are a wonderful old restaurant category you don't hear much about anymore-now they're mostly called cafés. Yet for many of us of a certain age, bar and grills were the very first "real restaurant" we ever entered.

Metro is a great new downtown café (bar and grill) updated with long hours, first-class wine and beers, delicious food and an atmosphere that just invites sitting down and having a long conversation.

Calling itself "a third-place café," Metro wants to be a community space. After all, there's home, there's work and then there's this third place where you join the community. And Metro hopes to become your third place. Looks to me as though they've found a sweet spot.

Metro opens at 6:30 a.m. Monday through Friday (7 a.m. weekends), and you'll find excellent coffees and loose-leaf teas at affordable prices, plus homemade pastries, muffins and bagels to get your day started.

But it's the panini grill that's at the heart of the limited menu, and the eight different big sandwiches (plenty big to share) it creates. How different and good are they? This dedicated seafood eater fell in love with one called The Kansas City ($9). That's thin-sliced marinated flank steak, shaved red onions, bleu cheese and baby arugula with a touch of red bell pepper dressing, and then gloriously grilled. What's amazing is how each flavor can be found in every bite.

Or how about a mozzarella, tomato, pesto and olive oil combo ($7.50)? Or black forest ham with tomato, white cheddar and tangy Dijon cream sauce ($8)? Of course there are the usual white-meat bird sandwiches for the timid, and the wonderfully named Nanerfluffernutter of crunchy peanut butter, bananas and marshmallow Fluff ($5.50) that really should be called the Elvis Memorial.

Sides include good fresh fruit, cottage cheese, coleslaw, better-than-average potato salad, chips or house salad. The fresh fruit and house salad are best. Speaking of salads, these range from classic Caesar ($6.50) with grilled chicken, steak, portobello or shrimp ($8) to a Downtown Farmers Market ($5.50). There's also a daily quiche/salad combo ($5.50). The Key West ($9) with baby spinach, tequila-marinated grilled shrimp, heart of palm, mango and red onion topped with a citrus vinaigrette is a showstopper.

It's a fine place to graze.

It's also a fine place to sit and talk. The warm wood interior is a far cry from the old Saab showroom that used to occupy this space, and the "modern" chairs and big black, sink-right-in couches are truly comfortable and comforting.

Designer and now CEO/general manager Betsy Nelson deserves an award for bringing Metro (711 S. Osprey) onto the downtown Sarasota scene.

Remember diners? Good old diners, not the themed places full of 1950s music and junk? In business since 1976, Crager's is one good old diner.

Sure, it's halfway to Bradenton at 7218 N. Tamiami Trail, but it opens every morning at 6:30 a.m. and has real country ham, Amish bacon and all the chicken-fried dishes and huge burgers you could possibly hunger for.

Like all good diners, half of Crager's menu is devoted to breakfast-and it's served until the 9 p.m. closing. The biscuits are from scratch, and sourdough toast is another specialty of the house.

Although at eight or so seats, the counter isn't really very big, the booths are large enough to throw a party, and New College and USF students have been doing just that here for 30 years now. First-class food at third-class prices is exactly what every college student-or thrifty diner-needs.

Egg dishes go on and on, including, on the side, eight-ounce steaks, of course ($9.99), but also pork chops ($7.99), chicken-fried steak or chicken ($7.25), sausage, ham or corned beef hash ($5.49). Hey, there are even pigs in a blanket ($4.99). But my favorites are the country ham or thick, meaty Amish bacon with eggs, potatoes or grits, toast or biscuits for $6.99.

Good diners are institutions in some lucky communities, and the old ones, having proved their worth, are the best of all.

Curiously, good barbecue (now matter how you spell it) is a rarity in Sarasota. But James West opened the J&L BBQ at its present location, 1512 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oct. 29, 1965.

It says so right on the front of the building.

And for more than a quarter-century I've taken virtually every visiting Yankee to the J&L for some ribs and, if they're lucky, a chat with Mr. West. A hard-working businessman whose roots go back more than 80 years in Sarasota, Mr. West also makes the best mustard-based barbecue sauce I've ever tasted.

But Mr. West has finally retired (though he alone still makes his sauce) and turned the business over to a younger generation, with Red Watson doing the cooking. The food is, thankfully, still good, and the official new name is "Red's at J&L."

Sure, you can get an order of deep-fried chicken gizzards ($4), catfish and fries ($6) and even a fried-chicken sandwich ($5)-but go for the ribs. The rib sandwich ($7) is the queen of the menu. If you're lucky, they'll have a pot of greens ($1.50) stewing in back, too. To top it all off, don't miss a piece of the homemade sweet potato pie ($2). If they're out of pie, there's bread pudding ($1.50). Visit once, and you'll probably be going back for years and years, too.

Appreciating Depreciation

Reflecting on that red-hot downtown residential market.

In the Pentagon, they like to say, "Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics." There should be a similar saying for Sarasota real estate. "Amateurs buy residential, professionals buy commercial."

If so, the amateurs are having a field day in Sarasota today while the pros are hedging their bets. No place in Sarasota displays that better than downtown, where residential properties have been going gangbusters while commercial sales numbers seemed stuck in low gear.

It didn't used to be that way. Twenty years ago, it was the commercial stuff that was hot, and largely for one reason: taxes. Before 1986, commercial real estate was a wonderful way to avoid (evade?) federal taxes. Any losses could be subtracted from regular income, and Sarasota's professionals plunged into commercial real estate with a vengeance.

People with names we'd all recognize bought small parcels and bigger tracts to ease their tax burdens. If the property didn't make money, that was good, because the losses "adjusted" their gross income. And as the property appreciated, they waited to cash in. Some are still waiting, but most cashed out long ago.

In 1986 Congress changed the rate of depreciation allowance for commercial real estate, and the same year a crisis in the savings and loan industry dried up the loans used to buy commercial real estate. It was a mini-bubble. But what does this have to do with today's market? Stick with me and you'll see.

For you sports fans, let's run some numbers. Before 1986, a 1,500-square-foot home in a good neighborhood away from the water cost no more than $50,000, or about $33 per square foot. Comparable commercial real estate at that time was running about $30 to $75 per square foot. In other words, commercial property then was selling at a premium compared to residential.

Today that same house is about $300,000 (or $200 per square foot-a six-fold increase), while commercial space is about $60 to $150 per square foot (about double). Now the relationship has reversed itself, with residential commanding the premium price. "Compared to residential prices, it [commercial real estate] is a good deal," says Bob Richardson, who retired in June after a decades-long run selling the commercial stuff in Sarasota. "It's hard to sell a commercial building for its replacement cost today."

There are exceptions. Bill and Butch Isaac, who hope to develop a major new downtown shopping complex, are buying downtown commercial property and paying $350 a foot. That might sound expensive until compared with Golden Gate Point, where developers are paying roughly $750 a foot for old concrete-block condo teardowns to create more residential property.

Or consider the northwest corner of Ringling Boulevard and Tamiami Trail-former site of a Holiday Inn (purchased in 1984 for $450,000) that sold for $15 million in 2003 (about 15 percent appreciation per year over 20 years). The hotel was torn down, and a high-rise luxury condo called The Metropolitan was announced for the property. But less than two years later, without a shovel of earth moved, the same land sold for $40 million-almost 65 percent appreciation per year. Pretty astounding.

Now, every major downtown development emphasizes "multi-use," which means commercial space down low and residential space up above. The sporting numbers explain why.

Even in these days of low-interest loans, commercial space can not carry the burden on tall buildings. Residential units above must make up the difference between commercial and residential rates.

Used to be, if you bought a rental property, it required a monthly rent of 1 percent of the sales price to meet your obligations. If the house cost $100,000, a monthly rent of $1,000 would cover the principal, interest, taxes and insurance. With homes selling at $300,000 but renting at $1,000 today, that adage is obviously defunct. But the $2,000-a-month difference still adjusts the landlord's taxable income, just like the pre-1986 commercial property income tax law did.

Just suppose, though, that the President's federal commission now investigating code revisions saw a chance to profit from the current hot residential market and reduce the budget deficit by changing the depreciation rate on residential properties, as happened with commercial properties in 1986. Suddenly, rental real estate would no longer be a good tax dodge, and owners who bought residential rental real estate for that purpose would be in a jam.

To avoid the loss of real dollars, these owners would have a significant incentive to sell. That would increase the home supply, which would likely lead to a drop in prices. One simple change to the tax law could put thousands of Sarasota residential real estate speculators in deep trouble, including those multi-use guys who depend on speculators to buy their residential units.

Since the purely commercial real estate guys went through this 20 years ago, they'd be unaffected-unless they were developing multi-use buildings. It's worth remembering that we live at the sufferance of Congress. If they ever change the law, as they've done in the past, the boom is over.-Stan Zimmerman


Sarasota's billion-dollar building boom is in the hands of a petite, blue-eyed blonde who worked her way from City Hall draftsman to director of the Planning Department. Jane Robinson is the gatekeeper to the future of development in the city.

Q: After years of effort, we're about to adopt the new downtown plan. In the end, what tangible difference will we see? Apart from the architecture, it's about connecting at the retail level, on a multi-family level, on a walk-to-town-neighborhoods level, a mix of people and uses. Tangible differences might be the pedestrian streetscapes, the eventual redevelopment of the cultural district, and public parking. Slowly we're getting people back to the bayfront. I think we can turn U.S. 41 into a walkable boulevard.

Q: We have a downtown plan, a parks and connectivity master plan, a cultural district master plan, and more. Are we an over-planned city? We have layers of plans. For example, our parks and connectivity plan relates to the entire city, and that is a very basic layer. The cultural district plan is a by-product of the downtown master plan, as are the mobility study and the parking study.

Q: How is today's planning process different from the era of longtime City Manager Ken Thompson? It was certainly much more simple in those days. As I understood it from my boss, Mr. Thompson would get in the car with the commissioners and they would go around town and make public policy decisions. Staff was there to implement those decisions. Now it's much more collaborative.

Mr. Thompson and the city fathers did a fabulous thing in those early days. They made sure that we had a great deal of public property along our waterfront-City Island, North Lido, South Lido, Centennial Park, the cultural district area. As a result, when developers came to town, that property was not on the market. Mr. Thompson was an engineer and a very far-thinking man.

Q: Have you ever been offered a bribe? Would you call lunch a bribe? I can't say I've ever been offered a bribe. I don't think people would dare to do that. Maybe in the older days, people did that, but certainly not at my level back then.

Q: If you were queen for a day, what would you change in the city's planning process? I would probably reduce the heights in Sarasota. It should be a town of about 65 feet. You have to have density, but most of us came here to a medium-sized town with a good quality of life. Interesting pathways, little niches like Towles Court-all these things create this personality for Sarasota that we could not have planned. It's organic. You look at what the people have created, and you try to enhance it and not do away with it. -Stan Zimmerman


Inside the visual arts with Mark Ormond.

Dennis Christie, who grew up in Bradenton and faithfully returns to visit family here, opened DCKT Contemporary in Chelsea, Manhattan in May with Ken Tyburski. The art gallery, at 552 W. 24th St., sits across from where Christie worked for 10 years for Charles Cowles Gallery. Tyburski, who previously worked with Paul Morris Gallery, says they opened because "no galleries were showing emerging, fresh art." Their goal is to have less than 25 percent of the art from New York in each show. In June, they opened a show (with no artists from New York) curated by Tyler Green, art critic for Bloomberg News, who also "pens" his own blog, Modern Art Notes.

When New York architect John Belle was in town to give the commencement address for the Ringling School of Art and Design, he also spoke at a luncheon organized by Ringling president Larry Thompson just after they visited the potential site for the Sarasota Museum of Art-the 1920s Sarasota High School. "When I saw this marvelous example of collegiate Gothic architecture in front of us, I said, 'Wow!'" Belle says. Belle worked for 10 years restoring Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan and spent a dozen years on the main building on Ellis Island. His advice to the guests, who included founding committee members of the new museum: "When you're writing those checks, it's six zeros with a number in front of it."

Sarasota artist Leslie Lerner was recently chosen to receive a prestigious grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation in New York, which was established by painter Lee Krasner, whose husband was Jackson Pollock. The award assists established artists in strengthening their careers. Lerner says the grant has come at a particularly good time for him; he's currently planning for an exhibition this winter at Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art. Charlotte Schulze, who taught at Ringling in the 1990s and now lives in Beacon, N.Y., was also a recipient this year, and Sarasotan Gale Fulton Ross is a past recipient.

Philip Guston, the subject of a major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, lived on Siesta Key for a time in the 1960s; and coincidentally, the Met show was organized by Michael Auping, who was a curator at the Ringling Museum in the 1980s. Plus, Joanna Weber, current associate curator at the Ringling, organized an exhibition and book about Guston while she was at Yale University Art Gallery. Does all this mean we'll see a Guston show here? Weber says perhaps "in a few years." In the meantime she's working on a show of Josef Albers' work and a book on painter Agnes Martin.

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