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A front porch for today

Longleaf offers residents a retro neighborhood and a laid-back attitude that accepts today's lifestyle.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2002


"We shape our buildings. Thereafter they shape us." -- Winston Churchill

photo
[Times photo: Lance Rothstein]
Tom Moulton, left, and his father Gail Moulton walk their dogs along a sidewalk in front of the Longleaf town hall.
ODESSA -- If you plant a village green and crown it with a Greek-pillared town hall, will residents turn from being couch potatoes into civic-minded neighbors?

If you build houses close together, call them cottages and embellish them with front porches and picket fences, will people become more Aunt Bee and less Ebenezer Scrooge?

The answer from Pasco County's Longleaf community, encouraging for those looking for a break from cul-de-sac and privacy fence suburban development, appears to be yes.

Mayberry it isn't. Many Longleaf residents still commute 20 miles to work and return in the evening with little but a weary glance at rocking chairs on the porch.

But after only a year and a half, Longleaf, a neighborhood touting the concept of traditional neighborhood design, has won the loyalty of many of its first 70 families north of State Road 54.

Every Wednesday, about 20 residents gather for coffee on a different neighbor's porch. Last week it was English sausage, eggs, potato scones and fried mushrooms on the porch of a couple named Quinn.

A ladies' Bible study occupies the town hall one night a week. Children's kick ball matches and adult football games swell the village green over the weekend. A Christmas craft fair drew hundreds. A small downtown with shops is coming soon.

"I'm one of the Longleaf pioneers, and you couldn't move us out of here," said Rich Ebert, whose 2,000-square-foot bungalow decorated inside with Disney motifs has become a neighborhood gathering place.

Late afternoon last week, as the first working parents arrived back at Longleaf from scattered offices, Ebert brings his rust-colored pointer dog named Chauncey to the sunny village green.

Five minutes later, two neighbors, Tim Horton and Mark Williams, appear across the expanse of Bermuda turf, leading pet greyhounds.

All three men and their children gather at the swing sets at Fernandina Street and Micanopy Road.

It's cocktail hour, only their cocktails are beer bottles wrapped in rubbery insulation to keep them cool.

As they talk, several kids on bicycles rifle down the back alleys with garages that typify Longleaf. A pair of teenage boys toss a baseball. A woman trails behind her grandson, who's blowing bubbles.

Like many in Longleaf, the men are refugees from typical suburban development: big garage in front, limited sidewalks, fenced-in back yards with screened patios.

Williams gave up a house in New Port Richey's Mill Run neighborhood when his wife insisted Longleaf was where she wanted to live.

Ebert and his wife, Mary Ann, downsized from a home in the gated country club community of Crescent Oaks in north Pinellas County.

"You either played golf or you didn't get to know your neighbors," Ebert said. "Here everyone watches out for everyone else."

Longleaf was designed to buck the trend of post-World-War II development sparked by the returning GIs who flocked to such mass production communities as Levittown, N.Y.

The developers are Jay B "Trey" Starkey and his younger brother Frank. Both in their 30s, Trey is the main money man, and Frank is the architect. They grew up on the Odessa family ranch of which Longleaf occupies a fraction.

The Starkeys built narrow streets and marked them with parking spaces. That tends to slow traffic and increase intimacy. All roads and sidewalks lead to the village green, town hall and community swimming pool. A future elementary school is so close Longleaf kids won't need buses.

The Starkeys deliberately mixed housing styles and prices: Single story "cottage" models neighbor two-story balconied "tropicana models." Multicolored town homes face the village green from the south. Porches are mandatory.

It was no small task finding builders to erect houses in styles popular in the 1920s, styles found in older neighborhoods such as Tampa's Hyde Park. The Starkeys chose three: Image Custom Homes, Windjammer Homebuilders and Beauland Homes.

"It's always amazed me that builders say people don't want front porches because of the Florida heat," Frank Starkey said. "Then why did people freakin' move here?"

Longleaf's marketing has stressed hominess -- gift baskets for new buyers include personalized bird houses -- but even the brothers expressed surprise how fast residents bonded into a community.

"We had nothing to do with it other than providing the village green," Trey Starkey said.

"We didn't even suggest they do any of this," Frank Starkey added.

Among the biggest Longleaf boosters are Bernie and Annie Quinn, a couple from Aberdeen, Scotland.

The couple once owned a summer place in New Port Richey. Returning from Citrus Park Town Center mall, they passed Longleaf and were snared by its promise of a return to yesteryear.

"If half of what they said was true, it would be worth coming," Annie Quinn said.

Bernie Quinn quit his job as an underwater welder for offshore oil rigs in Scotland and they moved to Longleaf.

The couple's photo is on the cover of promotional brochures for Longleaf. Annie took a job as a hostess at Longleaf's welcome center. It was they who served the full British breakfast for their neighbors last week.

"It's like living pre-World War II," Annie Quinn said.

A stroke of inspiration at Longleaf was the construction of a communal postal kiosk. Residents must collect their mail there, encouraging even recluses to socialize. On a message board at the kiosk, misspelled children's scrawl announces kickball games.

Even more fundamental to the project's grand design is the construction of downtown Longleaf. It will feature six shops with apartments upstairs. Groundbreaking could be later this year.

The Starkeys said interest from prospective businesses has been brisk, including a dentist, an attorney, a hair salon and an Italian restaurant and bakery.

Tampa Bay housing analysts are keeping tabs on Longleaf, the second major neotraditional project in the area after West Park Village in the Westchase section of Tampa.

Westchase's developer, Terrabrook, is planning to use traditional design in its Connerton project, 7,000 homes and a city center proposed for a ranch southeast of State Road 52 and U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes.

The market allows only a few developments like Longleaf, housing analyst Marvin Rose said, citing the continued appeal of big stucco homes surrounded by big green lawns and privacy fences.

"There's no question it's a niche product that will appeal to a significant but limited number of people," Rose said.

But for Gail Dubose, Longleaf is the start of something big. She and her husband, John, moved to Longleaf from the Tampa community of Northdale, their home of 20 years.

Gail grew up on a farm in Illinois, so Longleaf suits her. Her yellow one-story faces cypress trees. She has seen her first bald eagle. Inspired by the Gay Nineties atmosphere, John Dubose has erected Victorian scroll work on the couple's facade.

As the sinking sun glints off a weather vane atop one of the model homes near the town hall, Dubose imagines a time when Longleaf grows to its planned 900 homes, the town streets canopied by mature oak.

"My husband says it takes him just as long to get to work from Longleaf," Dubose said. "But when he gets here after work, it's really home."

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