Keeping the Romance

By staff November 1, 2007

Marcel Proust would be proud. Driving north on South Orange Avenue the other day, I was struck by remembrances of times past: At “Little Five Points,” where Orange and Pineapple merge (a concept in itself), the triangular building housing the Citrus Cafe, shops and apartments, recently stripped of years of paint and plaster, glowed pink in the sunset. And back it all came, those vacation afternoons when my parents would buy us cones piled high with my aunt’s homemade ice cream at the family drugstore, which once occupied part of the building. Suddenly, I could almost taste that cold and creamy long-ago scoop of butter pecan.

The building symbolized everything that was romantic about Sarasota, the town we came to from the frigid Hudson Valley at Christmas. It was warm and welcoming, easy to explore and absorb yet slightly exotic, with the Spanish flavor of the John Ringling Towers and the Burns Court area, so charming with its tiny cottages from the 1920s and overhanging trees. It seemed to us that the city was flooded with light and glamour, a far cry from the dark Puritan virtues of “up North” in the winter.

Now, as we struggle with development pressures that sometimes clash with the hard-won and much-modified Downtown Master Plan, the older parts of the city, including Burns Square, could be at risk. Burns Court’s little cottages and other existing buildings are not protected by historic designation, and property owners recently succeeded in changing the original master plan to obtain a Downtown Core Designation for the area, which would allow buildings of approximately 10 stories there. The prospect of those romantic old buildings giving way to a forest of modern high-rises is horrifying. If Sarasota is to preserve—and profit from—its unique character, we must find a way to protect the charm and felicities of scale of our older neighborhoods as we grow and develop.

Tourists and new residents are drawn here by the potent charm of a small city that boasts natural beauty, an active cultural life and places that evoke our romantic history. Of course, they also expect improving education, functional infrastructure and economic vitality. These are not conflicting requirements. In fact, they must coexist and complement each other if Sarasota is to grow gracefully, if we are to mature without losing the very attributes that brought us all here in the first place. The past should be the engine that drives the future.

We’ve already lost so many landmarks: The John Ringling Towers, the Lido Casino, the Atlantic Seaboard Railroad station, the Hover Arcade and Municipal Pier and easy access to the bayfront, among others. They cannot be brought back to life (although the Lido Casino could be rebuilt using the original blueprints on file with the Building Department, I bet). On the plus side, we have an expanding international business community amid some important reminders of the past, such as Burns Court, St. Armands Circle and the Ringling Museum complex.

Unless our city is perceived to be both historic and progressive, we will never fulfill our economic promise. The way to do that is to act immediately to preserve and protect our heritage while encouraging the latest technology and cultural trends within it.

One of the most important efforts to do just that is the Burns Square project, centered on the Little Five Points triangle, site of my epiphany. The movers and shakers behind this plan, most notably Denise Kowal, owner of the part-historic (and, surprisingly, part Sarasota School of Architecture!) building at the apex of the site, were instrumental in the recent zoning change. Their Burns Square plan, a mix of existing structures and new buildings of varying height and density, disappointed those who hoped the zone could remain a low-rise village-like enclave within the metropolitan fabric.

While some have suggested that the older buildings could be protected by designating them as historic structures, historic designation is neither easily obtained nor a permanent protection. Furthermore, Kowal argues, historic designation could unfairly penalize the owners who may have invested there under the old rules with new development in mind. And maybe it’s not needed, says architect/developer Frank Folsom Smith, who renovated the U.S. Garage at the end of Burns Court more than 20 years ago. He points out that the land thereabouts has become so valuable that it would be virtually impossible to assemble enough parcels to construct a viable high-rise where the charming Burn Court villas now stand.

Still, it would be irresponsible to fail to seek some reasonable additional protection for this lovely pedestrian neighborhood, attractive for its human scale and its fine mix of unusual restaurants, art galleries, shops, residences and, of course, the indispensable Burns Court Cinema of the Sarasota Film Society which, following Smith’s superb adaptive reuse of the U.S. Garage, was a catalyst for the renaissance of the area.

Tempting as it may be to simply back off and let those theoretically benign market forces do their thing, that might be risky. What could be done, however, would be to combine the best aspects of the Burns Square Master Plan with those of a Business Improvement District, in which the property owners, working with the city administration, would assess themselves a certain amount each year to fund improvements within the district, rather like the Community Development Districts now in operation in suburban areas such as Lakewood Ranch, where the money pays for landscaping improvements and other amenities. This is a proactive way to highlight the historic nature of the area while improving its economic viability so that acquisition and destruction of these properties would not make business sense. And since historic designation does not in itself protect a building forever from demolition, a thriving business and residential economy might be the best protection after all.

Reassuringly, something like this is already underway. Kowal is restoring her building, which once housed my family’s drugstore, while Westwater Construction, which completed the attractive Burns Court Villas, is planning something similar (called Burns Court Villas on Orange) on the site of the former Valencia project across the street. Designs have been developed for roundabouts to manage traffic, and a street festival is planned. If a Business Improvement District that does not impede rational and sensitive development were added to this mix, it could uncover the original brick paving of the street, install comfortable sidewalks, coordinate signage, continue to improve parking, ensure the survival of those charming little cottages and find profitable uses for the many fine buildings in the zone while welcoming new structures consistent with the ambitions of most everyone.

One of these might be a parking facility on the site of the Woman’s Exchange consignment shop. The popular shop is looking for larger quarters, and the attractive and historically significant building it now occupies, the former home of the Sarasota Herald newspaper, could become part of a much-needed low-rise parking garage. Sensitively adapting it to modern use rather than bulldozing it would be a great first initiative for a Business Improvement District to support.

Like every inheritance, Burns Square has its problems. If we solve them, and we must, we will pass on a better city to our heirs.

This column recently won both a first-place award for Best Editorial/Opinion Writing from the Florida Magazine Association and a third-place award for Best Criticism from the Society of Professional Journalists.

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