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Todays article in the Herald-Tribune
Palm Avenue developer wins with parking plan
Project will also include hotel, condos and shops
By DOUG SWORD

SARASOTA — Jack Buck’s promise must have sounded sweet to city officials who have known nothing but disappointment during a seven-year effort to bring public parking to North Palm Avenue.
“We can and will begin as soon as you issue a building permit,” said Buck, vice president of John Buck Co., a Chicago developer picked Friday by city commissioners to develop 2.25 acres of public property on North Palm.
Three times in the past seven years, city efforts to develop the property in exchange for a public parking garage have fallen apart. The most recent was Plaza Verdi, a $141 million plan from a Houston developer.Buck and a partner, The Leiter Group of Peoria, Ill., plan to build a 140-room hotel, 150 condos, 16,000 square feet of retail space and parking for 700, including 400 public spaces.
The total cost of the project will be between $90 million and $100 million.
The hotel and parking lot should be completed by the end of 2008, the developer said.
The Leiter Group recently won approval for an 18-story condo project at the current site of the historic Hotel DeMarcay on Palm.The North Palm Avenue project will be anchored by Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, which is best known for its Westin chain of hotels.
The Sarasota project features one of Starwood’s new “aloft” brand of hotels.While condos are part of the deal, the developers stressed that the project isn’t reliant on quickly selling condo units. Starwood is ready to build and the hotel and parking garage can be built first.
The Buck/Leiter partnership won by a large margin in a competition with three other developers for the right to build on the city land. The highest possible score was 15 points and the Illinois developers got 12.
Second was a Benderson Development-led group that wanted to build a large retail center, plus a hotel and 210 condos.City commissioners seemed most impressed with the developers’ promises that the parking garage would be built on the “front end” of the project, that the developers sought no public money and that 22 of the condo units would be affordable.
“I think they had the best remedy for the immediate parking problem we have,” said Mayor Fredd Atkins.On the downside, commissioners didn’t have a good idea of what the project would look like. In an analysis, city staff said the design of the project was “unimpressive” and that “it appears a rendering of a building from another unrelated project was simply inserted into the proposal.
“That suggests the hotel will be “pretty much the same as the Starwoods are everywhere else,” Commissioner Lou Ann Palmer said. Starwood has 850 hotels and other properties around the world.The city had asked developers that their design be for an “exemplary” building.
Now that the developers have been picked, they’ll enter negotiations with the city.
That will give the city a say in how the project is designed, said Matt Leiter, general manager of Leiter Group.
“This is going to be the coolest building,” Leiter promised after winning the competition.The four-way competition was followed closely by downtown merchants and residents. Some supported Benderson’s project because of its partnership with the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, and others wanted affordable housing that would attract young professionals.
But the big issue at City Hall was parking, as evidenced by Jane Baldwin, one of about 30 people who voiced opinions on the projects to city commissioners.After her turn was over, Baldwin told commissioners she had to excuse herself. “I have to leave right away, because I couldn’t find a parking space and I’m in a one-hour zone.”

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