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Building a new life on an old design

Old-fashioned, small-town living can be found in a brand new neighborhood off Linebaugh Avenue.

By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 5, 2002


TAMPA- Michelle and Tom Wiebe are used to living where they play. As a 20-something couple living in Clearwater, they sought the night life of South Tampa. To end the commute, they bought a house in Ballast Point.

Then came Cameron, now 20 months old. The Wiebes were no longer as interested in hitting restaurants and clubs. They started looking for a place to raise Cameron.

The search ended at West Park Village, the new, 185-acre development in Westchase that mimics old-fashioned, small-town living -- complete with front porches, brick streets and a town square.

At the village, the Wiebes found tree-lined sidewalks and shops within walking distance.

They also saw South Tampa neighbors, following a trail north.

The Wiebes may be on the cutting edge of an interesting demographic shift, as the Baby Boomlet generation settles into the easy rhythms of parenthood. Priced out of the roomiest of historic Hyde Park bungalows, unable to finance a Bayshore address, some are opting for old-time charm reinvented.

They get it on Linebaugh Avenue, 6 miles west of Dale Mabry Highway, in a neighborhood only now emerging on maps.

"The funny thing is, two of our couple-friends who have kids about Cameron's age and live in South Tampa came up, and we showed them what we're doing here," Mrs. Wiebe said.

"Within a week, both couples bought lots up here. And the weird thing is both of the wives grew up in South Tampa and went to school there and everything. I couldn't believe they'd leave it."

The first of its kind in Hillsborough County, West Park Village is loosely modeled after Disney's groundbreaking Celebration, a planned community some find perfect and others, too perfect.

"We had looked at Celebration years ago and my husband liked it so much we considered commuting," Mrs. Wiebe said.

"So this is sort of a mini-Celebration."

The village, as promoted, was supposed to combine Norman Rockwell amity with new home amenities.

By all accounts, it has delivered, say those who are snapping up homes.

Middle-schoolers on bicycles roll past the pizzeria and ice cream shop.

"We come here a lot," said Dean Neaverth, who lives in original Westchase but enjoys exploring West Park Village with his friends.

"It's kind of set up like downtown."

At the Starbuck's coffee shop, customers crowd the sidewalk tables. Couples leisurely sip lattes. Across the brick-paved main street, Quality Plus dry cleaners manager Danielle Witkop stands on the sidewalk to chat with a neighbor, who lives in the apartments above the businesses.

The original West Park Village brochures have come to life.

As it nears completion, the village shapes up like this:

About 500 single-family homes, villas and townhomes, most already occupied.

A first phase of 320 apartments, 68 percent of which are already leased.

A second phase of 297 apartments that will begin construction this month.

A town center with 41,000 square feet of business space, housing 22 businesses with the final retail lease now in negotiations.

Homes and townhomes range from $110,000 to $300,000.

The place buzzes with energy and optimism, fulfilling the lofty predictions made by its developer, Terrabrook, when company officials began hyping the project in the late 1990s.

Ray Chiaramonte, assistant executive director of the Hillsborough County Planning Commission and a West Park Village pioneer, said the community is living up to its expectations.

With wide sidewalks, sweeping front porches, plenty of parks, and a grid-style layout of homes built on alleys, West Park Village was designed with neighborliness in mind.

And the neighbors are happy to play along.

"I was sitting on my front porch just the other day, drinking iced tea while the kids were in the park across the street hunting for Easter eggs," said Chiaramonte, who lived in Celebration for four years before moving to West Park Village.

"And my neighbor sits on his porch and plays guitar. I really do use my porch, more so than I did in Celebration. And I find more pedestrian activity than in Celebration."

As an urban planner, Chiaramonte is a big fan of neo-traditional developments, also called "new urbanism." In the cookie-cutter suburbs, where cul-de-sac sprawl rules the day, communities like West Park Village are more dense, have more commercial and recreational outlets within walking distance, and reduce residents' reliance on cars.

They try to emulate the close-knit community fabric of a Georgetown or a Hyde Park.

In West Park Village, residents can go out their front door, walk across a "village green," fetch their dry cleaning and sling it over their shoulder for the short walk home.

"There is probably a whole generation of people where it's inconceivable to them to bop up to the pizza place," Chiaramonte said.

"It's improved a lot since some of the stores and restaurants started opening up downtown. It's created kind of a focal point.

"I was out there last week at lunch time and was surprised to see the amount of ladies with baby carriages. There's actually life during the day, which is not common in most suburbs."

There's life at night, too.

The Wiebes, who are building a home in West Park Village, have spent the last six Friday nights hanging out at the busy town center.

"The village is just packed," Mrs. Wiebe said. "It's almost weird. People just sit and talk. I grew up in a small town in Ohio with one street light and I haven't seen people do that since I lived there."

The easy-going lifestyle is as much a selling point as the stylized architecture in the community, said Laura Dumke, a sales consultant for David Weekley Homes, one of the larger builders in West Park Village.

"They love the community, that's why a lot of people buy out here," said Dumke, who also lives in West Park Village. "It's kind of a small-town feel. The neighbors are always planning activities. There's always something going on."

Elaine Novak, who moved to West Park Village in December, said it's easy to make an acquaintance nearly every time she takes the family dog for a walk.

"We're in Phase 3 and have no neighbors across from us yet, but I do find that every time I go outside, someone will wave," Novak said. "People are constantly waving. I used to live in Berkeley Square" -- in Westchase proper -- "and you didn't get that wave there."

Novak's neighbors, Steve and Dawn Grossman started "Lights and Lemonade," a couple of years ago. One Sunday evening a month, neighbors turn on their porch lights and get together for lemonade and news of the day.

On Carlos Quiros' street, they go for more substantial libations.

"We didn't really have a happy hour, so the first Saturday of the month we meet at a different house and bring our drinks," said Quiros, who moved to West Park Village two years ago. "It's wonderful. It is really wonderful.

"I used to live in Lake Mary in a community called Sheffield. I lived there for 10 years and was active in community and the homeowners association. But I could count my friends with the fingers of one hand and still have some fingers left. Here I know a lot more people, I just love it."

- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 269-5304 or at mabe@sptimes.com.

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