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Sarasota Thursday, Sep. 30, 2021 1 year ago

Downtown Sarasota condo owners grapple with maintenance challenges

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The collapse of a building in Surfside, Florida is just one factor creating a more intense interest in issues associated with managing residential towers.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

The name of an upcoming event hosted by a downtown resident group — “Condominiums in Crisis” — paints a troubling image of the state of aging buildings along the water and in the heart of the city.

The Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, which organized the event, noted there are reasons to be upbeat about the health and maintenance of those buildings, too. But in the wake of the June collapse of a 12-story residential beachfront building in Surfside, Florida, condo dwellers are expressing a renewed interest in making sure their homes are safe and stable.

That interest extends to government officials at the state and local level. On Sept. 20, the City Commission was scheduled to discuss the possibility of creating an inspection and recertification process for buildings that are 40 years old. That discussion got delayed to a future meeting, but city leaders are prepared to reconsider their role in ensuring the safety of older buildings.

The “crisis” that the Downtown Sarasota Condo Association alludes to is financial as much as it is structural. Condo owners are facing significantly rising insurance premiums — an average 15% increase this year for downtown condos, the group said. Labor and material shortages mean increased costs and greater strains on condo associations, amplifying the challenge of navigating any questions that arose in the wake of the Surfside collapse.

During an Oct. 13 forum at the Art Ovation hotel, the Downtown Sarasota Condo Association hopes to provide some guidance for members attempting to sort through those questions.

“We’ve got everything from new $6 million condos to ones that are 45 years old and a fraction of that cost,” said David Lough, the president of the Downtown Sarasota Condo Association. “We’re just trying to do the right thing, whatever the right thing is — which is not to put our head in the sand about it.”

Planning ahead

Representatives for the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association said there are indicators its members were already taking building safety seriously. In a survey of 32 condos, all of the respondents said they required a reserve study at least once every three years, with 20% of those requiring an annual study.

A reserve study is a planning tool that attempts to identify future expenses associated with maintenance of a property, allowing condo associations to more effectively budget and plan for repair projects that may arise.

Jeff McDuffie, the moderator of the “Condominiums in Crisis” forum, is the president of Lighthouse Property Management, an Osprey-based company that provides condo management services. McDuffie said one of the main things he stresses for condo associations is the importance of working with a quality engineering firm. McDuffie said that principle is usually easy to follow when replacing a roof or conducting some other structural improvement, but the desire to reduce expenses can be tempting when embarking on something like a reserve study, which can be seen as more theoretical.

“I don’t know that there was a lot of attention being paid to that,” McDuffie said of reserve studies. “There’s certainly more focus on that now — do we have enough money set aside to do the things we need to do to keep the integrity of the building where it needs to be?”

Sarasota residents have examples of the hazards associated with condo life close to home. Beginning in 2010, Dolphin Tower on Gulfstream Avenue had to be vacated for five years because the building, constructed in 1973, had structural issues in a fourth-floor concrete slab. On Longboat Key, The Colony Beach and Tennis Resort shuttered after a yearslong dispute between the property manager and condo owners related to renovation expenses.

Following an emergency evacuation, Dolphin Tower was left vacant for years as crews sought to fix a structural issue with the building.

In total, the Downtown Sarasota Condo Association estimated residential buildings spend more than $60 million annually on operating expenses that include regular maintenance and reserve fees for major projects. Both Lough and McDuffie said they had a sense that downtown residents generally took long-term maintenance issues seriously.

“When it comes to the structural side of these buildings, that’s not a place to cut corners,” McDuffie said.

For some condo residents with more limited incomes, the pressures associated with maintenance, insurance and labor expenses have forced them to move out and relocate elsewhere. McDuffie agreed with the downtown condo group that a confluence of factors had created a unique challenge for residents of communal buildings.

“This is kind of like the perfect storm — any one of these would be a significant event,” McDuffie said. “You put them all together, and it’s a big challenge.”

Regulation options

City Commissioner Erik Arroyo said he wanted the city to consider a 40-year inspection and recertification process because state lawmakers had expressed an interest in a similar mandate.

“He was looking at having something that we can adopt as an interim measure until the state is able to pick it up,” City Manager Marlon Brown said at the Sept. 20 meeting.

Arroyo highlighted similar regulations in place in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where officials check for potential structural and electrical issues in older buildings. In Broward, those buildings are subject to renewed inspection every 10 years after the 40-year check-in.

Residents of 350 Golden Gate Point, constructed in 1969, wanted to move quickly to build a new seawall to protect the structure, but city regulations required property owners to first obtain a variance to the zoning code.

The city has also signaled a willingness to reconsider other regulations related to building maintenance and improvements. In July, residents of the 350 Golden Gate Point condominium expressed a desire to replace a seawall with major faults that was more than 50 years old. Because the proposed new seawall exceeded the height of the existing feature, the condo was required to file an application for a variance to the city’s zoning code, a process that takes months for approval.

When residents expressed frustration about the inability to get the project authorized more quickly, city development services staff agreed, asking the planning department to revise the zoning code to avoid such an issue in the future.

As both residents and officials attempt to sort through the complexities of long-term building maintenance, those close to the issue expressed some optimism about the community’s ability to effectively manage the future of the towers that dot the city.

“It’s being taken seriously, and I think that’s encouraging,” McDuffie said. “It’s always difficult to catch up on things when you kick the can down the road and then the road ends.”

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