Under Pressure

Can Historic Towles Court Survive the Real Estate Boom?

As property values soar and demand for downtown real estate hits an all-time high, it’s hard not to wonder if a historic community like Towles Court can endure.

By Stephanie Churn Lubow Photography by Hannah Phillips September 7, 2023 Published in the September-October 2023 issue of Sarasota Magazine

The Towles Court Art Center

The Towles Court Art Center

Walking around Towles Court, the historic district in the northeast corner of Laurel Park in downtown Sarasota, the average visitor might not think that much has changed since the community was established as an artists’ colony in 1995. Unlike other nearby neighborhoods, where change takes the form of demolished homes, cleared lots and boxy new construction, Towles Court still looks much like it has for decades, with colorful Old Florida bungalows and a lush canopy of mature oak trees.

But as property values soar and demand for downtown real estate hits an all-time high, it’s hard not to wonder if a historic community like Towles Court can endure as a modern city grows up around it. The truth is that the neighborhood already is changing—just not in ways that are easy to see.

Towles Court—bordered by Adams Lane on the north, Morrill Street on the south, Washington Boulevard to the east and Osprey Avenue to the west—was originally developed in the 1920s by William B. Towles, who built bungalow-style houses for professional people and seasonal residents. By the 1970s, many of the houses had been abandoned and fallen into disrepair, and the area was regarded as a slum until the 1980s, when N.J. Olivieri began buying up and refurbishing derelict houses in an attempt to revive the area. He was encouraged by friends and artists from around the country to transform the neighborhood into an artists’ colony, and he successfully petitioned the city to secure a mixed-use commercial and residential zoning designation for the neighborhood, which enabled artists to purchase homes to use as live-work spaces.

Henry and Anna Bryan

Henry and Anna Bryan

Anna Bryan, the president of the Towles Court Neighborhood Association, and her husband Henry purchased their 1924 bungalow in 2005 because they were drawn to the unique character and history of the neighborhood. When the Bryans moved in, there was an active homeowner association that had been in place since 1995. The original deed restrictions required that a certain percentage of each property in the neighborhood be devoted to art. If homeowners wished to sell their property, they were required to sell to someone who would commit to keeping it as an art space.

As the real estate market in Sarasota boomed in the early 2000s, property values in Towles Court also began to rise. According to Jan Bullard, an interior designer who has maintained a studio in Towles Court since 1997, things began to change in 2007, when a property owner sued the city to be able to sell to whomever she wanted, and the city eventually released her from the deed restrictions. “Other property owners began to follow suit,” Bullard says, “and once artists started selling their properties at top dollar, other artists couldn’t afford to get back into the neighborhood.”

In 2020, the Towles Court homeowner association was officially dissolved by a majority vote of its members, removing all restrictions on property owners. In response, some residents came together to create a new neighborhood association that includes artists and business owners, as well as homeowners; that organization was eventually recognized by the city. Its focus is on maintaining a safe neighborhood with a high quality of life and continuing the community’s historic focus on the arts.

“There’s a false narrative out there that just because the homeowner association is gone, that that means the neighborhood is gone,” says Bryan. “We are still here. The artists are still here. The history is still here. You can’t take away history.”

Baby Brie's Cafe and Wine Bar

Baby Brie's Cafe and Wine Bar

The anchor property in the neighborhood is the Towles Court Art Center, a stately old two-story building with a wraparound porch. The center currently provides studio and gallery space for 11 artists and two interior designers, and also houses Baby Brie’s Café & Wine Bar. Cory Kukral and his wife Sarah opened the café (named after their daughter) in 2022. Kukral also serves as vice president of the neighborhood association and is passionate about his commitment.

“It’s such a great community and it’s ready to go to the next level,” he says. “I’ve traveled all over the country and Florida, and what we have here in Towles Court, with the mixed-use residential and business, and the history—well, you can’t find that just anywhere.”

In the early years of the artists’ colony, Towles Court became known for its monthly Friday evening art walks, when artists would open their studios and visitors could stroll from gallery to gallery, sipping wine and enjoying live music in the courtyard. The Art Center continues to hold open studio nights on the third Friday of each month, from October to May. These events are no longer called “art walks” because, when the deed restrictions were lifted, many of the common easements in the district, including sidewalks and the central courtyard, became private property and were blocked off, making the neighborhood less walkable. The open studio nights, however, still include live music and artisan vendors on the veranda.

Peter Garon

Peter Garon

Peter Garon, an artist and architect who has a studio in the Art Center and currently serves as president of the Towles Court Artists Association, says there is still a lot of interest in the events. “We have a good mix of people attending—regulars as well as newcomers who are just finding us, and a mix of different age groups,” he says. “We have some accomplished, professional artists here, and there’s a good, positive, creative energy. Even when things aren’t going well, it’s still creative.”

Maggie Kruger, another artist in the center, says, “This is the ideal destination for when guests come in from out of town and you want to show them something unique in Sarasota. It provides an unusual immersive experience where people can ask questions, interact and learn about the art process.”

Some business owners in Towles Court express mixed feelings about the state of the neighborhood. Steve Phelps, whose popular restaurant Indigenous has been a fixture in the district for 12 years, says he remembers when the monthly art walks were bustling events that brought in hundreds of visitors, some of whom would occasionally wander into his restaurant thinking it was another gallery.

“When I opened, I felt there was more liveliness and more of a sense of community here,” he says. “Unfortunately, this world is changing so fast. People are buying property and wanting to do what they want with it. It used to be the Towles Court Artist Colony. Now it’s just Towles Court.”

Kathryn Kittinger owns The Garden Room Café at Shoogie Boogies, a private, reservation-based event venue that has been in the neighborhood since 2005. “We still get a lot of people coming through looking for that walkable art neighborhood, and it just doesn’t exist anymore,” she says. “I love this neighborhood, but over the years I have seen it evolve into predominantly a small business district.” Other businesses include hair salons, beauty studios, an acupuncture clinic and a financial advising firm.

Stephanie Peters, owner of Stephanie’s Hair Design Studio, says she believes that the city’s decision to not enforce the rules that kept the neighborhood as an artists’ colony was the catalyst for the changes that have taken place.

The Art Center continues to hold open studio nights on the third Friday of each month, from October to May.

The Art Center continues to hold open studio nights on the third Friday of each month, from October to May.

“The city didn’t look at the bigger picture, and they didn’t see what would happen if they did this for one owner, and how everyone else would want to do it, too.

Then we don’t have an artists’ colony anymore,” she says. “To me, it represents what’s going on with development in Sarasota right now. The city is opening up all these new zonings and changing density requirements and they’re overpopulating us, but they don’t understand that it’s not about right now. It’s about what happens 20 years later from one decision. That one decision changed all of Towles Court.”

Despite the changes, many in the neighborhood insist that Towles Court remains a hidden gem. “This area has continued to attract artists and people interested in art, even though it’s not an art colony anymore,” says Bullard, the interior designer. “I think the more they tear down stuff in Sarasota, [the more] it secures the future of Towles Court, because it is preserving something that is disappearing.”

“Towles Court is only getting better,” says Kukral. “It never died off.  The question isn’t ‘How has the neighborhood been doing?’ It’s ‘Where can it go from here?’” 

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