SARASOTA — To the list of things Florida homeowners have had to worry about — hurricanes, sinkholes, termites, foreclosure, Chinese drywall — add this: fears that your 16-story condominium might collapse.
That has driven residents of the waterfront Dolphin Tower into indefinite exile, two weeks after a crack big enough to slide a hand through suddenly appeared in the floor of Apartment 4C. And city officials say no one will be allowed back permanently unless engineers can fix what one called a "scary'' problem.
"How could that be?'' 91-year-old Lucille Levy has wondered ever since she learned of the buckling walls 12 floors below her penthouse apartment. "This has always been a decent building in a wonderful location.''
Built in 1973 by a now-defunct company, Dolphin Tower is a legacy of Sarasota's first high-rise condo boom. It indeed has a terrific location — the front faces Sarasota Bay, giving many of the 116 units superb views of the city marina and sailboats bobbing in the water.
The back looks out on Palm Avenue, known as the "Street of the Arts'' for its many high-end galleries. Somewhat curiously, shops on Dolphin Tower's street-side ground floor have been allowed to remain open.
"They said if the building is going to fall, it's going to fall that way, not this way,'' says Patricia Dabbert of the Dabbert Gallery.
That hasn't reassured some potential customers.
"It's not good for business to have it all over the news that the building is failing,'' says Eileen Hampshire, whose Art to Walk On rug shop was empty on a recent afternoon. Just in case, she has lined up space in another building where she can quickly move her inventory.
In the past 30 years, several Florida condos and parking garages have collapsed while under construction, including one on Tampa's Harbour Island where a worker died in 1984. But this is thought to be the first time that an occupied high-rise condo has been evacuated because of structural problems not related to weather or fire.
"So we're extraordinary,'' said 82-year-old Harriet Oxman, who shares a top-floor apartment with her 95-year-old husband, Theodore. "We ought to be in the Guinness Book of Records.''
The Oxmans were among dozens of residents who packed City Hall last week for a status report on their beloved building. With residents now scattered among relatives' homes and various hotels — some offering special rates for the Dolphin Tower displaced — the meeting had the air of a class reunion.
"Look who's here!'' one woman exclaimed on spotting Levy, a still-regal-looking former model who has temporarily moved in with her daughter.
"I'm in the witness protection program — I move every few days,'' joked another resident, now staying with a series of friends.
But the mood turned serious as a man named Glenn Bliss introduced himself.
"I'm the building official who put you out of your home,'' he said. "I make no apologies for that. The building is unsafe at this time.''
The danger stems from flaws in the original design and construction nearly 40 years ago, engineer David Karins told the crowd. Tests have found "voids'' in the concrete that is blamed in part for the continued shifting and cracking of a fourth-floor slab that supports the 12 floors above it.
"It's a tough problem,'' said Karins, whose firm was hired by the condo board to assess and repair the damage. "This is not something that happens every day."
Almost immediately after the first crack appeared in late June, work began to reinforce the support slab. The major repairs, which involve jacking up the top 12 floors, will be "an elaborate and difficult thing to do,'' he warned.
Even if no more serious problems are found, it could be as much as six months before residents can move back in. And there are no guarantees insurance will cover the cost of the repairs, which Karins estimated will be "at the high end of six figures.''
Still, he said, "this building will be put back in a way that restores the value of your investments.''
That was good news to residents of a condominium where the most recent sale — just a few weeks before everyone had to evacuate — was $335,000 for a two-bedroom apartment. Eight units had been available at prices up to nearly $400,000 until real estate agent Lenore Treiman withdrew her two listings with the sellers' consent.
"We decided it was not a good time to have properties on the market given we can't show them,'' she said. "And there's the uncertainty.''
On July 1, residents were given until 11 a.m. to get out before city officials posted a sign that said "Unsafe Building Do Not Occupy'' and strung yellow caution tape around the neatly manicured hedges. On Friday morning, owners were allowed to return for an hour — not nearly enough time, some complained, to take everything they need for what's shaping up as an extended absence.
"What do I do about my daughter's piano?'' groused Stanley Glauser, a car dealer. "What do I do about my TV, my bed? How would you like it if they took your house for three or six months?''
Other residents say they are eager to get back in and have no concerns about Dolphin Tower's safety. Oxman plans to go ahead with the $50,000 in kitchen renovations that were under way when she and her husband had to leave. (Contrary to speculation, engineers say that all of the heavy granite countertops and other upgrades added over the years didn't put undue stress on the building.)
For now, Oxman, a retired principal, is renting an apartment in the condominium next door to Dolphin Tower. At the City Hall meeting, she blasted Sarasota officials for failing to catch the flaws in her building before they issued the original occupancy permit decades ago.
"I come from New York and I've never heard of any building in the Big Apple having, after 36 years, anything like this happen,'' she said. "We're all like refugees, we're wandering gypsies. At this stage in my life it's not like I'm going to be taking a three-month cruise around the world.''
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at [email protected]