"Everybody's Neighborhood"



A sidewalk commute replaced the expressway crawl tradeding the suburbs for life downtown this year.
The loft at Channelside 212, the first in a line of new developments planned in a warehouse district turned neighborhood.

Now instead of joining the post-work parade of brake lights, now walks to restaurants at the Channelside retail complex or hops a streetcar and heads north for drinks in Ybor City.

``I wanted to be in a unique place,'' ``There's something to be said for getting your foot in the door, [and] being down here where the action is.''

Developers and city leaders believe trendy lofts and high- priced condominiums can lure young home buyers such as baby boomer empty nesters to a new neighborhood they envision in Tampa's urban core.

Past efforts to bring residents and new businesses downtown fizzled through the decades and real estate experts question whether the city and developers can deliver this time.

The difference, city leaders contend, comes from a flurry of proposed downtown residential development - prompted by a south Tampa land squeeze, aided by city incentives and dependent on a growing market of buyers wanting to escape the suburbs.

Signs of life can be found springing up along the edges of downtown.

Starting in the Channel District and following the Hillsborough River as far north as Interstate 275, developers propose about 5,000 new lofts and condominiums.

The city plans new museums, a river walk and riverside parks to make downtown a destination for home buyers as well as visitors looking for a place to spend time and money.

``I do envision our downtown as everybody's neighborhood,'' ``It helps shape our identity.''

But it takes more than talk and colorful renderings of new buildings to improve downtown's identity,

A decade after city promises of a downtown revival,

What's Proposed

More than 20 residential projects - including towering condominiums and warehouses converted to lofts - are proposed or under construction downtown, according to the Tampa Downtown Partnership.

If all the developers follow through on their plans, the downtown partnership estimates an investment of more than $780 million in new buildings and facilities for about 5,000 residential units.

Estimating about two residents per unit, that could mean 10,000 people living downtown.

More than 51,000 people come downtown to work, but it takes people living there to attract the restaurants, shops and other retail needed to revitalize the area, to revitalize the city's urban core.

``Starting the domino effect is what we want to do,'' ``We want shovels in the ground.''

Much of the new development proposed is concentrated in the Channel District, south of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway near The Florida Aquarium and the Channelside retail complex.

Artists and other urban pioneers looking for affordable living and working space started converting Channel District warehouses into lofts in the late 1980s.

among the first wave of Channel District residents. They operate the Channel Medical Clinic, catering to patients from Tampa's port.

counting on city help to fix flooded streets, aging sewage pipes and other infrastructure needed to accommodate residents in an area built for industry.

new development to bring the grocery stores, dry cleaners and other neighborhood retail she currently drives to south Tampa and Ybor City.

``We know it's a great place to live, [but] for many years it has been pretty much slow now itís a Land Squeeze

Developers running out of land to build on in south Tampa hope to expand on what neighbors started.

They plan to use the Channel District to extend that lucrative real estate market and sell to home buyers who would otherwise be looking in neighborhoods such as Hyde Park.

The median price for a home in south Tampa exceeds $300,000, compared with about $185,000 in the greater Tampa Bay area

Prices proposed downtown range from $150,000 for a small loft to about $4 million for some of the high-end condominiums. Most of the condominiums start at more than $200,000.

As suburban development spreads even farther, some buyers hit their commuting threshold and are willing to consider a downtown alternative,

With mortgage rates still reasonable - below 6 percent - developers are building condominiums to buy instead of apartments to rent.

A study by the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy in 2001 identified a national trend toward downtown living. A look at 24 cities - including Houston, Seattle and Memphis, Tenn. - showed that all expected to increase their downtown population by 2010.

Tampa developers believe they can persuade some home buyers to trade long commutes and yard work for walking-distance access to downtown attractions and high-rise views expected to stretch as far as the Sunshine Skyway.

Developer Ken Stoltenberg plans to build a south Tampa alternative at the 378-unit Grand Central at Kennedy beside Meridian Street - being redesigned to become a gateway to downtown for traffic from the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.

The plan includes condominiums starting under $300,000 in art deco buildings with shops on the ground floor and a ninth floor pool and jogging track.

``If you rent in south Tampa or Harbour Island you can afford to live in Grand Central. That was the idea,''

The twin 30-story Towers at Channelside, proposed across from the Channelside complex beside Meridian Street, targets buyers who want to be close to ``the south Tampa scene,''.

Land was available downtown, and the prospect for high-rise condominiums interests buyers who have seen them in other cities,

``People have been to Miami, they have been to New York, they have been to Washington, D.C., and they want that in Tampa,''

Will Retail Follow?

Condominiums have fueled downtown redevelopment in Fort Lauderdale, Miami and other cities across the country, says former head of the state Department of Community Affairs.

First build homes downtown and retailers follow, who directs an urban studies program at Florida Atlantic University.

``That means downtowns are now competing with the suburbs for places for people to live, not just work and eat lunch,

But before downtown Tampa can compete with the suburbs, developers have to start delivering more than just proposals.

Ten years ago, Frank DeBose started pushing plans for a 600-foot space needle to create a downtown tourist attraction. The needle won city approval but never materialized.

This year, DeBose announced a new partner, Tampa Bay area developer Ken Morin, to build twin condominium towers proposed beside his long- delayed space needle.

In August, DeBose and Morin closed on 6 acres near the downtown hockey arena. This month they hope to finalize an initial loan that moves them closer to starting construction on the $165 million condominium project in March.

The space needle, hotel and retail space at Pinnacle Place would come after the condominiums, if developers are ``lucky enough'' to build the whole $350 million plan.

``We were ahead of the market. The market is there now,'' ``We don't know what the depth of the demand is, but there is a demand.''

Home Or Investment?

Tampa Bay area real estate analyst Marvin Rose doubts there's enough demand to fill all the condominiums proposed downtown - and that could mean fewer future residents to attract the businesses city leaders want to lure downtown.

Most home buyers still prefer a house in the suburbs, and some of the ``grandiose'' downtown proposals come from developers with little experience pulling off $100 million-plus projects,

Although many of the downtown developers boast they are almost ``sold out'' before even breaking ground, that doesn't mean their projects will get the financing needed to start construction.

Speculators are among those reserving condominiums downtown, and that can fuel a false demand.

As a project moves closer to completion, a speculator intending to sell quickly would sacrifice a reservation or deposit rather than follow through on the purchase of a condominium unit that hasn't gained significantly in value,

``We don't know whether there are going to be real people there at the end of the day or not,'' Usually, it's the lenders that sort these things out.''

Condominiums have become the new ``dot-com'' for amateur investors turning to real estate instead of the stock market, says real estate consultant Jack Winston, of Goodkin Consulting in Miami.

From 20 percent to 70 percent of condominium presales, which developers use to get the backing of lenders to pay for construction, go to investors buying them to rent or resell shortly after construction,.

But two years later when the building is complete, if speculators refuse to finalize the purchase of condominiums they reserved, the new buildings end up with vacancies and the loans used to build them could go unpaid.

``That is a scenario no one has an answer for,'' ``It is a concern for banks and builders, yet they keep on building.''

Channel District resident reserved units at four of the loft and condominium developments. reserving units at multiple buildings allows him to wait and see which projects get built and gain value before deciding what to buy.

``Some of these projects may or may not get out of the ground,'' who said he intends to move to one of his reserved units. ``If they do, then great. If they don't, move on to the next project.''

Rising Costs

Even if demand stays strong among buyers for downtown condominiums and lofts, the rising costs of construction materials could foil development proposals.

Massive building projects in China claimed much of the world's supply of concrete and steel, increasing building prices in faraway Florida.

Rising oil prices affect the production and delivery costs of of materials such as tile and plaster wallboard. The costs of building materials in Miami rose 15 percent between January and May, threatening the future of some projects,

Donald Ebbert said he abandoned his plan to build a three-story loft building called CCX North in the Channel District after his construction material costs increased about 40 percent.

Ebbert has a contract to sell his property to an Atlanta company planning a six-story building with four times as many units as Ebbert proposed.

``What they are doing is maxing out the entire footprint of the property and building up,''

City leaders want to help extend development starting in the Channel District to the downtown core - and taxpayers would help pick up the tab.

The city and the Downtown Partnership hired a consultant for $125,000 this year to create a framework for redevelopment to ``fill in the blanks'' downtown,

A new $5 million city parking garage being considered in the North Franklin Street area could encourage residential development by providing some of the parking spaces future residents need,

The city committed $29.8 million to help build the new Tampa Museum of Art, plans to provide land nearby for the Children's Museum of Tampa and create a new riverside park in between.

A long-delayed river walk would link the new park and museums to attractions in the Channel District, such as The Florida Aquarium and streetcar line.

``We are interested in filling in some of the gaps downtown,'' ``Right now there is a real feeling of optimism that things are coming together for this city.''

reserved is a 1,300-square-foot condominium at the proposed Towers of Channelside, believing in that downtown optimism.

Divorced and frequently on the road, a downtown condominium was what he was looking for when he moved from Chicago to Tampa three years ago.

``What I like about it is I can walk to good dining, I can walk to Channelside and I can walk to a hockey game, just like I did in Chicago,''

Fact Or Fiction?

At the Old Tampa Book Co., Ellen Brown hasn't decided whether to file the latest flurry of proposed downtown redevelopment under fiction or nonfiction.

Even after a decade of frustration over stalled downtown revitalization efforts, she and her husband, David, signed a five-year lease extension.

They enjoy providing a gathering spot for visiting conventioneers and office workers shopping during lunch breaks.

They hope one day to be proprietors of a neighborhood bookstore there in the shadows of Tampa high-rises.

``I'm trying to make change happen here,'' Ellen Brown says. ``I would like the city to fulfill its promise.''