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Oh, so hip

A Soho apartment complex caters to upper-income party people with a penchant for urban living.

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Since opening in February 2001, the Madison at SoHo complex has piqued the interest of people who pay more for the convenience of apartment living in an urban setting.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 15, 2002


SOHO -- Longtime New Yorker Cara Novick didn't know what to expect when she moved to Tampa less than two years ago.

She rented an apartment in New Tampa close to her job, but immediately felt disconnected and out of place. Too much traffic. Not enough young people. Nothing to do within walking distance.

"It was culture shock," says Novick, a 32-year-old pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Shriners Hospital in Tampa.

Novick bolted when her lease expired and headed south to the SoHo distrct, a residential bull's-eye for single professionals in Tampa. She had heard about the new Madison at SoHo apartments and, after several visits, signed up for a two-bedroom.

"I had the feeling that this would be a lot more social," she said.

She also liked the look and location.

Since opening in February 2001, the complex between South Howard and Armenia avenues has piqued the interest of people such as Novick who want the convenience of apartment living in an urban setting.

And have the bucks to afford it.

Living at the Madison isn't cheap. One-bedroom units start at $970 a month, including $40 for water, sewer and door-side trash pickup. Pool views cost $40 extra a month, second floors $15 and third floors $30. Three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments start at $1,820.

That's a lot more than the average Hillsborough County apartment, which rents for $732, according to a recent Bay Area Apartment Market Survey. The average one-bedroom goes for $621.

Madison managers say rents were based on the cost of similar complexes in the area, including the Post Harbour Place on Harbour Island. Add some for the location and newness, and the price goes up.

"This is where people want to be," said Brenda Sheppard, the property manager.

Closeness to shopping and dining is one of the Madison's main draws. The complex is within walking distance of bars, restaurants, grocery stores and coffee shops.

"We have some people who park their car at 6 p.m. on a Friday and don't move it all weekend," Sheppard said.

Many SoHo tenants have become regulars at the two dozen or so local restaurants and watering holes. On any given Friday or Saturday night, some can be seen frequenting such places as Mangroves, 42nd Street or Cappy's Pizzeria.

HoHo's gets so much business from the Madison that it started free delivery.

"People make fun of us that we could be restaurant critics," said David Haas, 25, who moved into the Madison from the less expensive Dolphin Pointe Apartments on Westshore Boulevard.

Socializing tops the to-do list of many Madison dwellers. Residents hang out at the two pools and get together for drinks, dinner or concerts. They also barbecue on the communal grills.

Call it Melrose Place with an urban twist.

"It's unique how people are so friendly," said Aaron Finkelstein, a 27-year-old industrial engineer.

In his nearly nine months at the Madison, Finkelstein has assembled a whole posse of new friends who gather after work and on weekends. He met most of them in the parking deck or around the pool.

The pools serve as party hubs. There's the main pool for chatting and swimming laps, and the meandering pool on the south side of the complex for sunning and chilling out. Gazebos, hot tubs and comfy chaise lounges create a resort-like atmosphere. A bright yellow, New York-style taxicab parked in main courtyard lends the uptown flavor.

About once a month, the Madison hosts a party for residents, either at the big pool or at a local hangout. They sip cocktails, eat food and listen to a live band. The complex's "social budget" picks up the tab.

The parties always attract a big crowd. Residents meet their neighbors, swap phone numbers and get a little wild. At one of the first events, tenants swilled 48 bottles of wine and two kegs of beer.

"It's a very, very social property," said Sheppard, who used to manage 345 Bayshore, a 20-story complex now turned condo. "They love to go to parties."

Most of tenants are in their mid-20s to early-30s, prime party age. A little more than half come from Tampa; the rest, from neighboring counties or other states.

The majority are single and work full time in a range of professions, from accounting to advertising. A handful attend the University of Tampa on Mom or Dad's bank account, and a few are retired. About 75 work in the military, enough to warrant an extra, round-the-clock security guard.

Dogs easily outnumber children.

Ernie and Doris Reiner suspect they hold the prize as the Madison's oldest residents. At 81 and 78, respectively, they moved into a three-bedroom last year after selling their house. Their only complaint: not enough people their age.

"We kind of feel like fish out of water," Mrs. Reiner said.

Still, people always say hello when passing in the hallways.

The complex has 368 units on 6.5 acres -- the equivalent of about six football fields. About 60 percent of the apartments are one-bedroom, 33 percent are two-bedrooms and 7 percent are three-bedrooms. They range from 732 square feet to 1,300.

The 13 buildings come in four styles: warehouse, postmodern, Italian villa and Craftsman. Most units have exposed ducts, black and white checkerboard flooring, black appliances and oversized tubs. Each comes with a full-size washer and dryer.

Residents say those little extras give the apartments flair.

"It's not your standard white walls and beige counter tops," Finkelstein said.

The biggest gripe among tenants is thin walls. Many know their neighbors' favorite music and which ones are in love. Others grumble about low water pressure, lack of elevators and limited street parking for guests.

The complex was created by ZOM Development Inc. of Orlando. The company owned 345 Bayshore and is building the Madison at St. Petersburg between Fourth Street and Delmar Terrace in the city's downtown district.

All three communities cater to the primarily professional clientele who work or want to be close to downtown.

Renters in ZOM's properties typically have incomes ranging from $50,000 to $120,000. Many rent because they don't want the responsibilities and hassles of owning a house. Others simply don't have the down payment for a longterm purchase.

Novick, the pediatric surgeon, said buying an equivalent house in the same neighborhood would cost a fortune. Instead, she'd rather spend $1,300 a month for her SoHo apartment. She also bought her dream car -- a Porsche, metallic blue.

Whatever the reasons, the concept seems to be paying off. Within eight months of the Madison's opening, 90 percent of the apartments were leased, exceeding the management's expectations. Today, three units remain and there's a waiting list for three-bedrooms.

Last year, the Madison won several accolades, including the Golden Aurora award from the Florida Home Builders Association, the top prize for builders in 12 Southeastern states. It was chosen from among 297 entries by a panel of industry experts from across the country.

The complex also won an award for best interior merchandising in its price category, best rental apartment community and best landscape design.

Even skeptics of a lot of development in Tampa give it glowing reviews.

"The designers obviously knew what they were doing, and I can't say that often in Tampa," said architect Joe Toph, a partner in Urban Order.

Toph likes the varied look of the buildings and how the units abut the sidewalks. He considers the location ideal for dense, urban living. Instead of driving everywhere, people can walk.

That comes as good news to Novick and other tenants, homesick for a big city.

"I don't feel like I'm in New York, but I feel a little closer," she said.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at (813) 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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