The Sarasota City Commission finally gave Key Biscayne-based Commodore Realty a chance to propose its plans to develop an 11-acre city-owned parcel Monday night.
Although the company was offering more money than Benderson Development Co. for the property located on the corner of Fruitville and Beneva Roads, the majority of the commission nixed its proposal after expressing displeasure with how the company went about its effort to acquire the land.
A mailer sent out two weeks ago to roughly 15,000 residents in the area included a juxtaposed picture of an oversized shopping center looming over a parking lot at the intersection, asking those that got it, “Does this corner really need another shopping center? STOP!”
In July, Commodore Realty offered Sarasota city commissioners $3 million — double the city’s asking price — for the property, even though the city approved the continuation of contract negotiations with Benderson Property Development June 4, to sell the land for $1.4 million.
Commodore Realty agent Brian Lichterman told commissioners Monday that Benderson’s plans for a shopping center at the intersection was overkill and its plans for a multi-family, mixed-use development with some commercial outparcels like a bank and a restaurant was the way to go.
Lichterman noted the better sales price, oversaturation of shopping centers in the area, higher tax revenues and a pedestrian-type project with less traffic, as reasons for abandoning Benderson’s project for their plan.
As soon as Lictherman’s proposal was complete, Mayor Suzanne Atwell called the company out on the mailer that she said was done in “a sensational manner.”
“It reminds me of negative political advertising,” Atwell said. “It’s very manipulative and people are scared to death this is what the project is going to look like.”
Commissioner Paul Caragiulo agreed.
“I have concerns utilizing a business partner that uses techniques like this,” Caragiulo said.
Lichterman said the tactic was performed “to level the playing field,” because the property was never put out for bid and Commodore Realty and others never had a chance to negotiate with the city for the property.
In the end, Atwell, Caragiulo and Commissioner Terry Turner voted to move forward with a contract and sales agreement for Benderson’s project, which is contingent on the company working to approve lengthy Comprehensive Plan amendment changes to build the project.
“With Benderson, we know what we are getting and this is the right company,” Caragiulo said.
Not everyone agreed, though.
“In my opinion, this looks and smells like a sweetheart deal,” said Snyder, who suggested the city hold onto the property.
Cathy Antunes, president of Citizens for Responsible Government, also expressed major qualms with the commission’s decision.
“This seems really backwards and I don’t get it,” Antunes said. “Why wouldn’t you go out to bid for this property and why would you pick the company with the lower bid? It bothers me to see city staff working with one buyer and not another.”
Senior Planner Steve Stancel noted that staff received commission direction to work with Benderson after it expressed interest in the property and spent its own money over the last two years to perform surveys and appraisals and work with the various parties that currently utilize the site.
Stancel also told commissioners it was his opinion that residential wasn’t the best component for the site.
UPDATE: The city continues to work with Benderson on the project. The developer, however, has not submitted plans for what they want to build on the parcel.