With its beautiful bayfront, good restaurants and theaters, downtown Sarasota has attracted residents for decades. Traditionally, most have been retirees, often moving in from the islands to be closer to hospitals and urban amenities. But in the last few years, a younger crowd, encouraged by the promise of new shops and services and excited by the prospect of living close to work, has started to move into our growing supply of downtown condos. As you’ll see from a peek at some of their places, they’re bringing new design as well as demographic energy to the once-sedate downtown lifestyle.
Dining on their eighth-floor terrace, watching the sunset fade to crimson and the lights of downtown flicker on, Michael and Kathy Bush savor that big-city feeling with a side helping of small-town pride.
“Sarasota is moving forward, and we live in the center of the energy and activity,” says Michael, whose mid-century modern home furnishings store, Home Resource, was among the first upscale retailers to inhabit Central Avenue in the Rosemary District.
Residents of Washington, D.C., and London prior to Sarasota, the Bushes were always engaged in the urban lifestyle, fond of walking as a primary means of transportation and melding into a cityscape of motion and color. Michael happened to be at the business luncheon when the 100 Central condominium project was announced, and he quickly placed his name on the list. “We were among the very first persons called to view plans and make a commitment,” he says. “There was nobody else there that morning, and we had about 45 minutes to spend half a million dollars, visualizing what the place would look like and what view we wanted. We jumped in.”
The 1,700-square-foot condominium faces due west and has a master bedroom, kitchen, living areas and a den. An expansive terrace serves as the al fresco dining room, with a custom-designed glass and metal table and sweeping city views all the way to Sarasota Bay. Kathy did a masterful job opening up the space, says Michael, by eliminating a wall going in to a second bedroom and creating more living room. The extra bedroom was superfluous, Kathy explains, because 100 Central offers a guest suite in the complex for the convenience of overnight company.
Their neighbors are an eclectic, social group, ranging from the mid-30s to one lively octogenarian, and they get together once a month, sailing away for a couple of hours on LeBarge or barbecuing poolside for Fourth of July and then enjoying the fireworks. The downtown location offers close proximity to the Bushes’ sailboat on Longboat Key and an excellent starting point for Michael’s favorite form of exercise.
“I have such a gorgeous run up to Ringling Museum,” he says, “zipping around the back side of Van Wezel and on the open bay through parts of Indian Beach. There are these little pockets of houses that look like small-town Connecticut and other times where all you can see is water.”
And the view from their condo is amazing. “At night the water disappears and the lights of the city come on,” says Michael. “The transformation is fascinating to observe and offers such a different perspective.”
If Michael is all about the sights, Kathy revels in the sounds. “In the early morning it is so quiet, and that surprised me,” she says. “I can hear isolated sounds, like someone sweeping the street or a little piece of music playing. Church bells ring and, slowly, voices can be heard. One or two cars will appear, and gradually the bustle begins. I love hearing the city waking up.”
She also delights in having more time to themselves by eliminating the commute to work and walking into a restaurant where everybody knows their names. “I suppose all downtown residents have a comfortable place they return to again and again,” Kathy says. “Our favorite spot is Mattison’s.”
Twenty-something Andrew Foley left his family’s 7,200-square-foot luxury condominium in the historic Orange Blossom Hotel for a 760-square-foot home on the third floor of 1350 Main. His floor-to-ceiling glass windows and sliding doors showcase the street scene rather than his former sweeping view of Sarasota Bay. The interior is minimalist, the surround distinctively urban.
“I live in the coolest building in town,” Foley enthuses. “This place is all about simplicity, accessibility and connection. The living space is an ultra-clean design with no clutter. I walk out of the elevator and right into my own front door. My parking space is just behind the building, exactly where I need it to be.”
While his building offers 17 soaring stories, Foley opted to live on a less lofty level. And the downsizing to a residence a mere one-tenth in living space did not faze him at all. “A great view is a subjective thing,” Foley says. “I’m not particularly interested in looking at the water; I’ve seen water all my life. I prefer to see and be a part of the city streets. This third-floor vantage point is perfect. I can hear the sounds and see the sights of downtown and still hear birds in the morning and evening.”
And Foley’s personal less-is-best philosophy values simplicity over superfluous size. “I have found living space an interesting concept,” he says. “I mean, how many rooms do you really need? I came to the realization that no matter how big our houses may be, we tend to walk around or through most rooms and only live in certain areas. There will always be that same comfortable reading chair with messy newspapers thrown all around.”
His requirements, he says, are minimal. “You need a space to eat and entertain. And that’s about it,” he declares. “I love to go to restaurants, so a kitchen is not a big deal. When friends come over, they bring wine and I do a little food. We sit at the bar, listening to music, and then we go out for dinner. For my birthday I crammed 30 people in here and they loved looking at the view below. It just worked.”
Sarasota News & Books, the downtown Sarasota landmark at the corner of Main Street and Palm Avenue that Foley purchased with his sister, Meghan, a couple of years ago, is literally steps away from his new address.
He describes the mix of residents at 1350 Main as “refreshing” and can greet most of them by name. On most weeknights he decides what he feels like eating and walks to various restaurants nearby. Weekends are usually spent in the company of friends who gather at his place and then going out on the town. Foley appreciates the pleasures Sarasota has to offer, whether it’s walking down pretty Palm Avenue as he leaves his building or sitting outside in January, wearing sunglasses and watching the daily downtown parade. “Living downtown, for me, is the ultimate in comfort and convenience,” Foley adds. “There is no place I would rather be.”
When Roxanne Joffe and Sam Stern left a rambling Vermont farmhouse for a four-story contemporary townhouse in The Encore, at the corner of Fruitville Road and Cocoanut Avenue, they experienced a sense of freedom much like throwing open all the windows on a fresh New England morning.
“We have been liberated from all of our accumulations and acquisitions and it feels wonderful,” says Joffe, who, with Stern, owns CAP Creative, an 11-person advertising and public relations firm on upper Main Street. “Our living space is reduced to one-fourth of what we previously had in Vermont, so we just decided to go minimalist and learned to share belongings. This has been a good thing for us.”
Stern agrees, adding that certain behaviors have been modified as a result of the transition. “We are more thoughtful about what we buy these days because we made the decision to stop accumulating,” he says. “If something comes in, something must be thrown out. This replacement concept changes the way you look at acquiring things.”
Their 1,600-square-foot home has a dramatic vertical floor plan with a living-room ceiling that soars to the third floor; an open kitchen and sitting room that overlook the living room, and two bedrooms on the fourth floor. At first, Roxanne decorated their new digs in a monochromatic white, but when Stern balked at the lack of color anywhere, the couple worked with designer Drew Chibbaro to modifiy their décor to a fresh, fun feel that Joffe refers to as “modern humorous.”
A spacious garage houses automobiles, bicycles and running shoes, as Stern is a serious cyclist and Joffe jogs. “I love the convenience of wheeling out of my garage and just taking off,” he says. “I formerly had to throw my bike in the car and drive to a good starting point.” Joffe enjoys the same convenience when she laces up her shoes and heads over the John Ringling Bridge for a run that takes her to St. Armands Circle and back. And that’s just the start of what their new downtown location has to offer.
“We enjoy being able to walk around our neighborhood and shop, eat, go to a show, all of it,” says Stern. “Last night, for instance, I met some friends at Carigiulo’s in the afternoon and then we walked over to The Grape to meet up with Roxanne, who was having a glass of wine with her friends. After talking there for a good bit I was hungry, so I walked over to Patrick’s to get a burger. The whole downtown scene just has so much to offer.”
Joffe admits to being pleasantly surprised at the activity in Sarasota’s city streets. “This place is alive!” she says. “Even in the middle of summer, people were everywhere, young people outside at tables, everyone talking. No longer is Sarasota one of those seasonal cities, turning into a ghost town when the tourists go home.”
And the old-timers who meet every morning at the same coffee shop imbue her neighborhood with character. “You can pass by and see them at the same time each day,” says Joffe, “politicizing and orating. They have their set tables, their same coffees and pastries. They are a fixture of our street. I just love that.”
Joffe is acting president of the Five Points Neighborhood Association, which strives to promote the emerging urban community and foster a neighborhood feel. She believes wholeheartedly that Sarasota can borrow from the best aspects of New York City and create a sense of belonging among the new—and old—downtowners.