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Residents focus on downtown construction issues

Two city officials, a building professional and a lawyer joined downtown residents Nov. 15 to discuss construction safety.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. November 29, 2018
  • Sarasota
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The Essex House condominium on Palm Avenue has become a flashpoint for ongoing controversy surrounding downtown construction.

Cindy Lang, the property manager, recounted the issues residents experienced during the construction of the neighboring 18-story 624 Palm development at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota on Nov. 15. She was speaking as part of a Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association workshop on construction safety, organized to address concerns the organization had heard from its members.

Lang said there was no shortage of problems for the Essex House. Debris fell off the construction site onto its property. Concrete splattered down from the project, damaging pavers and cars. Drains were blocked, causing standing water to back up.

In total, she said, nearly $500,000 in damage was done to the property. The Essex House remains in litigation with the developer and contractor of the 624 Palm site.

Lang was not just there to talk about issues with the contractor, though. She shared a list of recommendations for how the Essex House believed the city could more effectively protect residents living next to construction sites.

She suggested the city prohibit developers from building to the property line in residential neighborhoods. She said there should be opportunities for residents to provide input even on projects that staff can administratively approve without a public hearing. She recommended more stringent regulations on construction behavior, including requiring a protective wrap around all projects taller than three stories.

She hoped, with some changes, other residents would avoid the issues the Essex House faced.

“Citizens must rely on the city and the city alone to protect them,” Lang said. “And in our case, the city surely failed.”

DSCA President Patrick Gannon hoped the event would be a productive forum for the exchange of ideas like the ones Lang shared. With more than 50 projects ongoing or planned downtown, area residents have ranked construction as a leading issue they want the association to address.

By bringing residents, city officials, construction professionals and legal representatives together, he hoped all parties involved in downtown construction could figure out realistic solutions for issues that have arisen.

Joseph Stamp, a senior project manager with Gilbane Building Co., said some issues are inevitable with construction in an urban area. But he encouraged the city to pursue more serious punishment for contractors who repeatedly show a disregard for safety and other protocols in place.

“The city’s not the enemy,” Stamp said. “When they have rules and regulations, they need to be followed.“

Larry Murphy, the city’s building official, said the city works diligently to ensure construction crews are complying with the rules, but it’s impossible to prevent issues that come down to human error. He attributed some of the issues on the 624 Palm project to a poorly trained workforce that failed to follow basic safety procedures.

He said the city has tools in place to fine contractors or even shut down construction work, but he prefers to first attempt to bring a project into compliance in a more amicable way. He expressed optimism that, as more work is being done downtown, city staff is better trained to anticipate potential issues. Already, the city has made some procedural changes designed to gather more information about staging plans and prohibit debris from falling onto neighboring properties.

Murphy thanked the DSCA for organizing the workshop and encouraged residents to continue to make officials aware of any issues they may encounter.

“We want to hear your input,” Murphy said. “We want to hear what the issues are. We want to provide you, the citizens, the safest atmosphere we can.”

Downtown residents, meanwhile, are hopeful the dialogue can eventually help foster larger policy changes at the City Commission level.


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