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Sarasota Saturday, Mar. 16, 2019 3 days ago

City Commission upholds GWIZ demolition order

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In a 3-2 vote, the commission rejected a resident’s argument that staff improperly approved the demolition of the bayfront building.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

More than six months after the City Commission first signaled its support for the demolition of the former GWIZ building, the board voted 3-2 today to uphold the demolition in response to a resident-initiated appeal.

After a hearing that stretched from 9 a.m. past 8 p.m., a majority of the commission said city staff followed proper procedures in issuing a demolition permit for the building at 1001 Boulevard of the Arts. Although preservation advocates argued the building carried historical significance and merited a different review process, the city’s attorney successfully argued the city was within its rights to tear down the structure.

“It’s not illegal for the city to demolish the GWIZ building,” Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly said. “It may be unpopular with some, but it’s not illegal.”

The commission initially voted in favor of demolishing the building in September as part of the approval of a larger master plan for redeveloping 53 acres of city-owned bayfront land. The Bay Sarasota recommended knocking down the building to allow for more open space, a proposal the independent planning group said was a response to broad community input.

The planned demolition drew outspoken opposition from a group of residents who said the building, constructed in 1976 as the Selby Library, should be preserved and repurposed. After city staff issued a demolition order in December, resident Edward J. Haas filed an appeal challenging the decision.

The city’s Historic Preservation Board heard the appeal in January, with the demolition order standing after the advisory board cast a 3-3 vote. Haas filed another appeal later that month, and the City Commission scheduled a special meeting for today to consider the case.

Ralph Brooks, Haas’s attorney, linked the case for overturning the demolition to the building’s architectural value. Brooks presented testimony from witnesses who said architect Walter Netsch's use of field theory, a geometric design concept, made the structure exceptional — and could earn the building a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s part of Sarasota’s legacy,” architect Carl Abbott said.

As a result, Brooks said, the city should have used different review standards before approving the demolition.

City staff, however, reiterated its belief the building is not historically significant. Staff said the structure is in disrepair, in an environmentally vulnerable location and would not be economically viable for repurposing. The city also cited a letter from a state official which said the building is not currently eligible for historic designation.

Although Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and Commissioner Willie Shaw voted in favor of the appellant, a majority of the commission determined the appeal did not warrant overturning city staff’s issuance of the demolition permit. After hearing testimony at the hearing, Mayor Liz Alpert said she felt comfortable staff had followed the necessary procedures and shown satisfactory judgment in approving the demolition.

In explaining her decision, Alpert pointed to the experience of city Senior Planner Clifford Smith, who serves on the state’s National Register Review Board and who stated the GWIZ building is not eligible for local or national historic designation.

“If Dr. Clifford Smith is doing this on a regular basis for every building in the state, it would seem that he has the expert qualifications to make a determination on whether a building is historic,” Alpert said.

The 3-2 vote broke on the same lines as two earlier votes in September and October endorsing and authorizing the demolition.

Haas has previously said he intended to challenge the commission’s decision in court if the appeal failed.

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