When Jimmie Overton garages his car -- and it's a red Viper -- for the weekend, he's ready to kick back and enjoy. What now beckons is what he likes best about his loft lifestyle. He and his wife Toni will still revel in the minimum of household maintenance. And they periodically pause to ogle their polished, concrete floors, 22-foot ceilings, interior wall of glass block, granite counter tops and maple cabinetry. But now it's time to wind down -- on the town. On a given Friday night, the Overtons will stroll a couple of blocks from their new, 2,000-square-foot, $300,000 loft residence in Tampa's Channel District to the nearby waterfront entertainment complex at Channelside. The workweek is behind them; happy hour drinks and appetizers at Splitsville await.
They later hop a trolley into Ybor City. The Overtons, 36, like ambling down 7th Avenue to the funky ambience that is the Green Iguana and the even funkier Club Prana.
The next night is much more pedestrian. They again take the short walk to Channelside, only this time for a relaxed dinner at Grille 29, where they also enjoy the view overlooking Garrison Channel. Sometimes a movie follows.
What never ensues are regrets.
The Overtons were among the first (of 28) buyers at Channelside 212 Lofts, the pioneer loft project near downtown Tampa. They moved in at the end of January. "This really works for us," stresses Jimmie. "There's a lot going on -- and it's right where we live."
The Overtons are a microcosm of a national trend: low-maintenance, upscale, intown living that's all about lifestyle. As a dual income couple with no kids (DINKS), they are a key target market.
"Pleasure time is at a premium for us," explains Jimmie, who travels extensively as the manager of Regional Scientific Services for Allergan Pharmaceuticals. "The Aquarium isn't far. Neither is the Forum. We like walking to entertainment -- and maxing out our personal time."
Adds Toni, a registered nurse at Tampa General Hospital: "Frankly, we don't have a lot of interest in spending time on things like landscaping."
DINKS To BOBOS
Today's lofts -- more likely to be new construction than warehouse conversion -- are an increasingly popular alternative to detached single-family homes, generic condos and stock apartments.
"It's part of the trend for more efficient living," reasons Mickey Jacob of Urban Studio Architects. "People are looking for more mobility and less maintenance. Loft is kind of a catch-all. It's about creating your own sense of place."
Call it "urban chic," suggests James Moore, an urban planner for HDR Inc. "The urban lifestyle is making a big comeback. Downtowns, especially of older cities, have more interesting attributes, such as architecture and proximity to the water's edge and amenities you can't duplicate. It's also about tradeoffs. There is less concern about noise, for example."
Most lofts include traditional architectural elements such as oversized windows, hardwood or concrete floors, tall ceilings, multi-level floor plans and exposed trusses and ductwork. Some feature amenity packages and upgrade options. And some, frankly, are riding the crest of a trend with loft-lite products plunked down in a metro mix.
Explains St. Petersburg residential developer George Gower: "Anything new can be a 'loft' even if it's only exposed AC ducts. It's really part of the fashion industry. It changes every few years. Go to Home Depot for fixtures. You'll find the Tuscan or the Loft Collection."
What lofts are NOT is the nearly exclusive province of artists. Tampa's Channel District -- which has been rapidly morphing out of its seedy, industrial past -- or downtown St. Petersburg -- for all of its artsy infrastructure -- are not reincarnations of 1940s SoHo or Tribeca.
DINKS, however, are just one segment of lofts' protean market niche. There are also the empty nesters and young professionals. And the most recent demographic phenomenon: BOBOS -- or bourgeois bohemians. Gower defines them as "hippies with money."
"They want the best of everything, but they don't want to be ostentatious about it," notes Gower, whose Citi Life Financial Inc. is the driving force behind the loft-condo-retail "Arts on 8th" project in downtown St. Petersburg. "They're looking for the cultural interaction you don't get in the suburbs. That's who lofts appeal to with their minimalist, geometric look."
It's a look that accentuates eclectic materials -- from drywall to steel -- while placing a premium on open spaces and playing down internal partitions.
"What we like is that so much of the space isn't committed," explains Jimmie Overton. "We like the flexibility. We see it as conducive to entertaining."
Then there's the uniquely informed, "beginning") empty-nester perspective of Madelyn Kinemond. For $525,000, she and her husband George have purchased a 1,840-square-foot, 3-bedroom, 3-bath penthouse loft at the 85-unit McNulty Lofts now being built above a garage in downtown St. Petersburg.
"This is so very different from the current popular interior and exterior Mediterranean and Villa style condos and homes," points out Kinemond, an interior designer. "This will have the type of interior appointments one would find in actual old factories that have been converted to residences -- brick accent walls, floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed ductwork, sealed concrete floors and open floor plans. As a designer, I am so excited to be able to do something very different from my current (Tierra Verde) 'Old World' style home."
Housing Tale of Two Cities
Both St. Petersburg and Tampa are experiencing metro makeovers with residential components acting as key catalysts.
St. Petersburg, which lacks Tampa's industrial base, has long had a residential element, attributable in no small part to an inventory of retiree hotels and seasonal apartments. At its lowest -- circa 1990 -- St. Petersburg had about 7,000 people living downtown. Tampa -- not counting prison inmates -- had a couple hundred. Tampa had a commercial district and warehouses. It built parking garages and office towers.
Since the late '90s, St. Petersburg has been seeing a pattern of renovations, conversions and new construction to complement BayWalk and a happening arts and dining scene. It helped that real estate prices were cheaper than Tampa and not speculator driven. City planners prodded the process by revising land development regulations and becoming more flexible about higher density uses.
Now, more than 1,500 residential units -- from modest church and YMCA conversions to Citi Life's urban village of (250) lofts and condos to seven-figure bayfront condominiums -- are planned, under construction or recently completed.
Tampa's residential revitalization is mainly in what is becoming its de facto downtown, the Channel District. "Urban in-fill was a wave in a number of cities, but not yet in Tampa," notes Steve Gardner, managing member, The Meridian, a 35-unit art deco loft project. "But we felt it would occur here and likely in the Channel District. But never did I imagine that 12 projects would announce within a six-block radius of our site."
By some estimates, as many as 2,500 housing units could materialize over the next decade in the former marine-support district -- ranging from lofts that incorporate literal warehouse elements to condo towers that pay homage to fashionably lofty touches.
The implications for both St. Petersburg and Tampa are profound. Whatever their attributes, cities are largely judged by their downtowns. A skyline is not a city. Neither is a museum. At its core, a city is downtown energy. The 9-to-5 crowd that flees to the suburbs doesn't count. It is downtown residents shopping, dining and partying where they live. Taking in concerts, games and galleries. Hanging out. Without people, it's Potemkin.
St. Petersburg had no industry to convert. No warehouse district. It was a resort city with a magnificent waterfront -- and a retiree reputation that it had long sought to escape. For a time it seemed to be a big city wannabe, and the rivalry with Tampa grew contentious. Now it seems comfortable with its well-merited image as a cultural center with a sense of neighborhood -- complete with parks and boutique shops. And the timing for BayWalk couldn't have been more propitious.
"This is no longer about seasonal retirees," underscores Ron Barton, the city's Director of Economic Development. "Downtown is now more vibrant after 5:30. The residential development feeds on that, and we're seeing a very diverse product being brought on the market. The transformation is mind-boggling."
As for Tampa, while center city is proximate to the built-out Harbour Island and the residential bedrocks of Davis Islands and Hyde Park, virtually no one -- save those prisoners -- has been living in downtown.
Now just north of downtown is the entertainment-waterfront-retail draw that has turned the Channel District into hot residential real estate. It's become a beacon for developers and the acronym crowd -- from DINKS to BOBOS. And it's encouraging residential developers to get serious about downtown, per se.
"There's now a buzz and an excitement," says Mark Huey, Tampa's Economic Development Administrator. "It's part of the evolution of the shopping area and the Channel District and downtown. It's part of the national trend to eclectic urban lifestyle."
Just ask Mick Parker, 47, who bought a high-end loft at the 89-unit Victory Lofts, where the prices can exceed $700,000.
"My wife (Barbara) and I did our homework," says the recently relocated Circle K regional vice president. "We knew what Austin and Phoenix and Seattle and Atlanta were. This is a good investment.
"But first and foremost, it's about lifestyle."
Representative Downtown Projects
Bayway Lofts: 42 stories, 277 units ($200,000-$500,000). Planning stage.
McNulty Lofts: 85 units ($185,000-$550,000). Under construction.
The Madison: 277 units, flats and townhomes ($99,000-$299,000). Completed.
Arts on 8th: 250 loft (Muse Lofts & Imagine Lofts) and condo units ($180,000-$300,000). Planning stage. Calla Terrace: 15 townhomes ($130,000-$159,000). Under construction.
Orion: 33 condominium units ($249,000-$361,000). Under construction.
Parkshore Plaza: 29 stories, 120 condominium units ($269,000-$3.5 million). Under construction.
The Seville: 15 condominium units ($350,000-$549,000). Former YMCA. Under renovation.
The Pennsylvania Hotel: 18 condominium units ($227,300-$315,000). Under conversion.
Victory Lofts: (CS) 89 loft units ($150,000-$850,000). Under construction.
Channelside 212 Lofts: (CS) 28 loft units ($155,000-$315,000). Finished.
The Meridian: (CS) 35 loft units ($185,000-$450,000). Under construction.
Art Center Lofts: (DT) 42 loft units ($129,900-$255,000). Under construction.
The Arlington: (DT) 11 loft units ($140,000-$320,000) Former hotel and Badcocks Home Furnishings Center. Under renovation.
Grand Central at Kennedy: (CS) 370 condominium units ($125,000-$750,000). Under construction.
Towers of Channelside: (CS) 260 condominium units ($275,000-$375,000). Planning stage.
Pinnacle Towers: (CS) 380 condominium units ($218,000-$2.5 million). Planning stage.
Seaport Town Center: (CS) 445 units (mix of rental and ownership). Planning stage
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