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Going Condo


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Going condo


Published April 3, 2005


Meet the pioneers of urban living in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

They're graying baby boomers and young professionals settling in once-sleepy business-centered downtowns and on abandoned industrial land, boycotting the suburbs that have dominated the Tampa Bay housing market since World War II.

The dozens of residents living in new buildings like the Victory Lofts in Tampa's Channel District and the 14-story Cloisters on Beach Drive in St. Petersburg signal the beginning of a countermovement away from tract housing.

""Seinfeld and Sex and the City are replacing Leave it to Beaver," said David Goldberg, spokesman for Smart Growth America, a Washington, D.C., coalition of nonprofit metropolitan planning groups.

Goldberg said the number of households with children has dropped dramatically in recent years to less than a third of all home purchases. Meanwhile, the segments in the housing market growing fastest - empty-nest boomers and childless young professionals - have little need for the spaciousness of traditional detached homes far from jobs and entertainment districts.

In St. Petersburg, the Cloisters opened in 1999 on Beach Drive, the first of three luxury projects downtown in a generation. Numerous others are under way, including less expensive projects away from the water.

"A lot of people have moved from more outlying cities and beyond," said Don Shea, director of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. "People like to live where it's exciting."

In Tampa, the Victory Lofts opened in December. More than two dozen residential projects are proposed to follow, from the northern edge of downtown to the Channel District to Harbour Island, and are expected to add 6,000 homes. Another 26 projects are planned for Ybor City, Tampa's entertainment district. Unit prices range from $200,000 into the millions, so for now, only the relatively affluent may apply.

Particularly in Tampa, speculation is rampant. About half of the 89 units at the Victory Lofts are owned by investors who hope to flip them for fat profits.

"This is a market that's being born," said Warren Weathers, Hillsborough's chief deputy property appraiser. "We don't have an urban housing product like this, so when you introduce it into the market, you get speculation."

The Cloisters and Victory Lofts provide glimpses of what a more urban population might look like.

The Cloisters' 32 units are stocked mostly with retired, well-off couples who want the freedom to travel that condo living gives them. There are no yards to mow nor pools to skim in a waterfront tower with locked doors and a guard. And almost every unit offers views of the bay and downtown.

A few residents are employed professionals - including doctors, engineers and developers - who like the bustle of urban living. Few Cloisters residents have young children.

"For people with children, I wouldn't recommend it," said Susan Hicks, who has lived in a 2,600-square-foot unit at the Cloisters for five years with her husband Mack. "Children need yards. They need to run. When our grandkids come, we say, "Don't run. There are people below us.' "

At Tampa's Victory Lofts, residents are a mix of older retirees and young professionals, many from wealthy families.

"I don't know how these younger people afford this place," said Joan Altabe, a 69-year-old writer and painter who moved into her 992-square-foot loft in December. "I went to a homeowners meeting and I was shocked to see so many young men."

Victory Loft buyers include bankers, lawyers, artists and real estate insiders.

"I saw everything that was going in Channelside and I knew I wanted to be here," said John Bateman, who moved from Hyde Park. The 58-year-old interior designer paid $364,000 for an 1,800-square-foot loft.

"It's definitely a younger crowd here," he said, "but I like being able to walk everywhere."

Each loft has the open space of an empty warehouse, unlike the market-tested floor plans found in model homes. The only walls belong to a unit's bathroom, and it's up to the resident to create livable spaces. Exposed duct work, windows that stretch from high ceilings to polished concrete floors, granite counter tops, stainless steel appliances and wireless high-speed Internet access are the norm.

Balconies overlook Tampa's downtown skyline, the port and the Channelside entertainment complex.

"You have the sounds and smell of a grittiness that I like," Altabe said. "When the cruise ships come in, they're basically in my front yard."

Francine Messano sold her Lutz home and moved to her loft in December with her three daughters, one of the few residents to bring children. But she said the 2,500-square-foot unit wasn't enough room.

"One of my criticisms is that they don't have larger lofts that accommodate families," Messano said.

The lack of a suburban, single-family feel is what drew Jeff Morr, a Miami Beach Realtor, to spend $400,000 on a unit - without ever seeing it.

"Suburbia isn't in my dictionary," said Morr, 41. "I grew up in West Broward. I knew what a cultural wasteland that was. What I need is culture. I plan to hang on to this."

St. Petersburg architect Tim Clemmons is one of the city's pioneers. In 1997, he and three partners built a townhouse at the corner of First Street and Fareham Avenue - the first new residential development downtown in 15 years.

At the time, he had no idea how the town would awaken. Now, two more condominium towers - Parkshore Plaza and 400 Beach Drive - are going up on nearby Beach Drive next to the Cloisters.

"I like that things are changing," he said. "For people who live in outlying suburbs, every time something new comes, you regret it because it's destroying fields or farms. It's the opposite downtown. It adds vitality and activity."


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