After sustained concerns from residents about falling debris and other issues, the city is examining its policies managing the side effects of new construction.
Before she won a seat on the City Commission in May, Jen Ahearn-Koch met with residents of the Essex House condominium on Palm Avenue. They told her about an aerial assault on their property.
They attributed the problem to the construction of the neighboring Echelon on Palm, an 18-story condo building at 624 S. Palm Ave. They shared pictures of large pieces of metal and wood that fell from above onto their property, of concrete that splattered off the construction site and tarnished the cars and pavers below.
The stories and images shocked Ahearn-Koch, then a neighborhood leader who provided advice for the condo dwellers who were seeking relief.
“It’s one of those things where you say to yourself, ‘How could this be happening?’” she said.
Less than a year after that meeting, Ahearn-Koch is in a position of authority with the city. Her presence on the City Commission is an opportunity for Essex House residents, who have struggled to get the city to take action on their behalf since the Echelon broke ground in early 2016.
On Monday, they began their attempt to capitalize on that opportunity. Essex House manager Cindy Lang and resident Lottie Varano presented their story to the commission. Dozens of those in attendance at Monday’s meeting, mostly residents on Palm Avenue, stood in support of their plea for city intervention.
“The city has to consider the safety of all its residents,” Varano said. “That is its primary responsibility.”
Protect & Serve
The city was aware of residents’ concerns before Monday’s meeting.
City attorneys have said that disputes between neighboring property owners — in this case, Essex House residents and the construction crew building the Echelon — are not its responsibility to manage. They’ve reiterated that stance when issues have arisen regarding other developments.
Marcella Levin, a resident of the One Watergate condo, thinks that response is inadequate.
“I’m angry, upset, frustrated and more because of my experience with the lack of help, support and assistance our condo has received from city staff,” Levin said at Monday’s meeting.
She and her husband, Arthur Levin, brought two large pieces of metal to the commission meeting. They were anchors for the post-tension cables used in the construction of the Vue Sarasota Bay condominium and hotel project, located next to One Watergate.
During construction, 10 of those anchors hit the One Watergate building. Two of them shattered windows and landed in condos. Eventually, Vue contractor Kast Construction put up screening, but the Levins were frustrated with the lack of foresight.
Earlier this year, the city required netting around the Echelon, as well. Still, problems exist next to both sites. The Vue construction has intermittently blocked garbage pickup and other deliveries to One Watergate. Concrete is solidifying in pipes around the Essex House property.
For residents who have to deal with these issues in their front yard, it’s hard to grasp why the city isn’t being more proactive.
“Why do developers get preference over people who live and pay taxes in this city?” Marcella Levin said. “The city has to assume some responsibility.”
“The city has to assume some responsibility.” — Marcella Levin
The issues with construction connect to some ongoing topics of conversation. Can projects build out to the lot lines without negatively affecting their neighbors? Does the city’s administrative review process for new developments prevent resident input that could help avoid some issues?
Even before the city dives into those questions, Varano thinks the priority should be safety. He suggested a requirement that would make developers place a protective wrap around all projects taller than five stories. Without policies in place ahead of time, he thinks the city is inviting disaster.
“I got so angry when some of that stuff fell, because it could have maimed any one of our residents — if not killed them,” Varano said. “There’s no returning from that.”
If a neighboring property owner isn’t willing to accommodate some of the construction staging, city staff is unclear about its authority to force developers to install protective devices when projects are built to the property line.
If the code allows that type of building, what right does the city have to reject plans that take advantage of it? If neighbors don’t want protective netting or other material on or above their property, what can the city do to make sure nothing bad happens?
“There are some interesting legal questions right now we’ve asked the attorney for help with,” said Tim Litchet, the city’s director of Neighborhood and Development Services.
Ahearn-Koch asked staff to place the topic on a future agenda for more discussion. She deferred to the city attorney’s office regarding the city’s legal obligation, but she wants to do more.
“It doesn’t mean the city shouldn’t be stepping in and examining why this is happening and how we can fix it,” Ahearn-Koch said.