Luxury Real Estate

By: Carol Tisch

The suburbs were a 20th-century phenomenon, but downtown living is real estate’s rising star. Cities everywhere are upping their seduction quotients, competing mightily for new residents who long for paradise in the form of walkability, great restaurants, art and culture. Like Sarasota, communities from coast to coast are investing in infrastructure, urban renewal, and amenities […]


The suburbs were a 20th-century phenomenon, but downtown living is real estate’s rising star. Cities everywhere are upping their seduction quotients, competing mightily for new residents who long for paradise in the form of walkability, great restaurants, art and culture. Like Sarasota, communities from coast to coast are investing in infrastructure, urban renewal, and amenities from theaters to public parking.

But few downtowns can offer what Sarasota’s does. “The proximity to the bayfront and the Gulf makes downtown Sarasota unique,” says Linda A. Page, a realtor with Prudential Palms Realty and downtown resident for the past nine years. “I adore the lifestyle, and I walk everywhere. Having cultural activities—the opera, symphony, Van Wezel and Florida Studio Theatre—all within five minutes from downtown is very special.”

Indeed, Sarasota’s small-town urban setting combines magnificent water views with the cultural sophistication of a major metropolis. “The most important reason people come to live downtown is our arts community,” says realtor Bibi-Ann Allard, a downtown specialist with Michael Saunders & Company. She should know. Since January 2010, Allard has sold more than $10 million in downtown condos, 95 percent to cash buyers. “We have a lot to offer: the Ringling Museum, Ringling College, music, theaters—it’s unbelievable,” she says.

Downtown is also a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts who want quick and easy access to Sarasota’s world-class golf, tennis, beaches and boating without the hassle of single-family home ownership. “Downtown real estate buyers are looking for a new, umbrella sense of community,” explains realtor Cheryl Loeffler of Signature Sotheby’s International Realty. “They want it all: everything they enjoyed in a country club, yacht or golf community plus the convenience, the verve, the activity of urban living and a downtown neighborhood feel.”   

Such clients typically purchase what Loeffler calls “replacement residences.” The ultimate example is her listing for a penthouse with majestic 360-degree views at Grande Riviera on Golden Gate Point, the 22-acre peninsula that juts into Sarasota Bay at the city side of the Ringling Bridge. At $4,950,000, the 5,400-square-foot penthouse lives like a waterfront manse: There are only 13 units in the building and it has its own boat dock.

“You can live there as if it were your own private residence without the responsibility of lawn or house maintenance,” Loeffler says.

Out of your price range? Fear not. At press time, Sarasota’s 248 active downtown listings (which include houses and condos) ranged from $99,000 to $7.7 million. Thirty-eight condos were under contract, and 140 additional units had been sold since January 2010. Sale prices started with a $51,000 short sale on a 500-square-foot efficiency unit in an older building on Golden Gate Point, and climbed to $3,350,000 for an opulent 4,700-square-foot penthouse in the Ritz-Carlton. Only 13 of 178 total sales in 2010 (as of September) registered more than $1 million.

Though values abound at all price points, some of the best buys in Sarasota are the few developer-owned units remaining in new buildings completed in late 2006 or 2007. That’s when real estate values began to tumble, not just in Florida but nationwide. Great deals can also be found in older buildings, says Allard of Michael Saunders. “Prices of units in 30-year-old buildings began to rise in 2005. By 2006 they equaled prices for condos in new buildings, but have now fallen back to 2003 levels,” she reports.

The year 2003 is a pricing benchmark because that’s when downtown’s renaissance began. “People started moving downtown in large numbers when new condominiums began pre-construction selling. The first was Sarabande, and then Beau Ciel and the Ritz-Carlton toward the end of 2003,” recalls Linda Page. But it was the central downtown condos (100 Central, Plaza at Five Points and 1350 Main) that caused a pre-construction buying frenzy in 2005 and 2006.

 “Other than City Place at Pineapple Square, we don’t have any developers currently promoting pre-construction prices. But there are many fantastic opportunities for purchasing at 2003 and earlier pricing,” Page says. One such opportunity is her 2,335-square-foot short sale listing for $749,000 at Beau Ciel. “At one time it was listed at $1,595,000, and in this market the asking price should be $1,150,000,” Page says.

Right now, sellers who aren’t feeling a financial pinch are pulling their units off the market because they can’t achieve the appreciation they anticipated. And downtown inventories are not growing; they’re beginning to decrease, because no new building is on the horizon. “But what’s on the market, people want to sell. Now is the time to buy more than ever,” Allard declares. 

For initial price and neighborhood screening, it can be fun to let your fingers do the walking through online listings. But sorting through the myriad choices available in downtown Sarasota is best left to the pros. “Realtors know the personalities of the different
buildings and homeowner associations,” Loeffler says, “and we know how all the important characteristics
of a condo, villa or townhouse line up with a client’s search criteria.”

Brokers use price and desire for amenities to help narrow the choices, as well as the number of bedrooms and square footage required, and whether or not a client wants a concierge building.

Michael Saunders’ two-story penthouse listing in Palm Avenue’s highly coveted Tessera (a 6,580-square-foot condo with 1,600-foot wrap-around terrace) would probably command a higher price than the $3,950,000 asking price if it were in a concierge building, for example. But Tessera residents are low-key, low-profile—and nothing in the building sells for less than $1 million.

Realtors focus on location because that affects price dramatically. Buildings in the center of town (for example, 100 Central has Whole Foods Market, restaurants and shopping within steps) are very hot right now, and have held values during the economic downturn. Condos with the same square footage on the periphery of downtown (the Alinari, Broadway Promenade, etc.) command lower prices per square foot, but have grown in popularity with the addition of a Publix supermarket on site.

Buyers who aren’t quite ready for the high-rise lifestyle but want the convenience and action downtown have to decide whether they want a private cottage in downtown’s tightly knit historic Laurel Park 500-residence neighborhood, or one of the charming new townhouses (Marquee en Ville, Library Mews, Encore, etc.) that start in the $300,000 to $400,000 range. Sarasota even has two buildings (Cityscape at Courthouse Centre and 1350 Main) offering loft-type condos for those who aspire to a SoHo, New York architectural style.

Bibi-Ann Allard says her out-of-town clients sometimes drive to St. Petersburg or Naples to com-parison shop.

“Most of them do come back to us. And not one client I’ve sold regrets their purchase in Sarasota. They do love our little town,” she says.
 

What Your Money Can Buy

$4,950,000: Ultimate Penthouse

Cheryl Loeffler, realtor with Signature Sotheby’s International Realty, recently listed this opulent penthouse for $4,950,000 at Grande Riviera on the southernmost tip of Golden Gate Point. The 5,400-square-foot condo has 360-degree views, four bedrooms and baths, living room, great room and bonus room in a walking neighborhood within the city. Contact: (941) 308-6554

$3,950,000: Bayfront Elegance

Listed by Michael Saunders & Company at $3,950,000, this four-bedroom, 4 ½-bath luxury penthouse crowns the bayfront Tessera building. The 6,580-square-foot two-story condo with 1,600-foot wrap-around terrace boasts spectacular views of Sarasota Bay and downtown, a grand salon, gourmet kitchen and separate upstairs guest suite. Contact: (941) 951-6660

$749,000: Spectacular Short Sale

Linda A. Page, realtor with Prudential Palms Realty, says she never expected to list a short sale in resort-chic Beau Ciel, but this 2,335-square-foot condo is a rare gem at $749,000 with views of city lights, Sarasota Bay and the yacht harbor. “It’s a fabulous buy—the best value in all of Sarasota,” she says. Contact: (941) 926-7000