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Developers take hint from history

The new urbanism movement puts most things in walking distance to foster the community closeness of old times.

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 21, 2002

TAMPA -- The sun is setting on an early summer day in West Park Village, a community in northwest Hillsborough County.

A family sits in the village green eating ice cream cones, and the tables outside Starbucks and Bellagio, an Italian restaurant, are full. A couple strolls down the sidewalk of the town center, peeking in the windows of small shops.

This little retail and entertainment strip is just blocks away from the Florida vernacular houses, town homes and apartments that make up West Park Village, a quaint, small-town oasis in the desert of suburban sprawl.

There's a label for this type of living -- new urbanism.

New urbanism is a fast-growing trend in residential development that takes its cues from the past.

Communities that reflect new urbanism ideals include housing, workplaces, shops, entertainment, schools, parks and civic facilities all within easy walking distance. Parking lots are behind buildings, and homes are built close to the sidewalks to encourage neighbors to wave to each other from their front porches.

It's an alternative to the automobile-dependent master-planned communities that have defined residential development since after World War II.

"Florida is probably, interestingly enough, on the cutting-edge of the movement," says Ray Chiaramonte, assistant director of the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission. "Usually we take a backseat."

The movement began in the early 1980s with the introduction of Seaside in Florida's Panhandle. That was followed by Celebration, Disney's neotraditional development just outside the Magic Kingdom.

"Celebration is a tremendous resource because it's the largest community in the country," Chiaramonte says. "The population is over 6,000 now. Plus, being associated with Disney, it gets a lot of attention. I have to think that West Park Village wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for Celebration."

Several other projects that embrace the principles of new urbanism are under way in Hillsborough County.

Construction has begun on the town center of Winthrop, a neotraditional community in Brandon. The community was designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, which was responsible for Seaside. The Miami-based firm is considered the originator of the new urbanism movement.

DPZ owns the copyright to the term "traditional neighborhood development," and that's just what Winthrop will be, says its developer, John Sullivan. The residential areas surrounding the town center will feature wide sidewalks, parallel parking and alley access.

The community will include 228 single-family homes, 182 town homes, 370 apartments and 51 live/work units that incorporate commercial space downstairs and residential space upstairs. Winthrop's town center is scheduled to open in early 2003, and some residential areas should be completed shortly after that.

A group of Tampa investors is in the initial stages of development of Main Street at Hampton Lakes, a 40-acre mixed-use community on Racetrack Road in northwest Hillsborough County.

The community will include multifamily housing, retail and office space, a hotel and possibly some live/work units, says Rick Harcrow, director of planning for the law firm of Tew, Barnes and Atkinson, one of Main Street's principal investors. The group expects to break ground on the project early next year.

Terrabrook, the development firm behind West Park Village, has begun construction on MiraBay, a 750-acre waterfront community in Apollo Beach that borrows some elements of new urbanism. In addition to more than 1,000 single-family homes and 400 units in multifamily buildings, MiraBay will feature a town center with retail and service businesses.

Homes will be ready for occupancy in the first part of 2003, says Terrabrook vice president Brian Sewell.

The benefits of new urbanism are two-fold, Chiaramonte says. They are good for the environment because they encourage people to leave their cars at home and walk rather than drive to the bagel shop or stationery store. And, perhaps more importantly, Chiaramonte says, they create a sense of community.

"It's a much different lifestyle than we've been living in the last few years in this country," says Chiaramonte, who lived in Celebration for four years and now lives in West Park Village.

"What happens is you make choices. Are you going to go to the dry cleaners that's three miles away or are you going to go to the one that's a block away?"

Most likely, you'll run into a neighbor at the dry cleaner's shop or at the coffee shop or the pizza parlor, and that leads to what Chiaramonte calls spontaneous community building.

Creating that type of small-town atmosphere and a genuine live/work/play place is not easy in a world of corporate giants with a cookie-cutter mentality. Residents of West Park Village still have to drive to get a gallon of milk or pick up a video.

"The biggest challenge of New Urbanism is to get the national chains that have one style, that put the same thing in Oklahoma City that they do in Los Angeles, to be more sensitive to the community and fit into the neighborhood better," Chiaramonte says. "And it's a big challenge because they're powerful organizations."

At least one corporation has taken the bait.

Publix signed on as the anchor tenant in Winthrop's town center. The two-story grocery store will be built of brick and feature a clock tower.

"It looks like a series of small shops when, in fact, it's one store," says Sullivan, the Winthrop developer.

"We have worked with Publix for longer than two years on a very unique store that will work in a traditional neighborhood development. Even Celebration doesn't have that."

Communities that embrace the principles of new urbanism are not relegated to city outskirts. The S Howard Avenue area, transformed in recent years, exemplifies the ideals of new urbanism.

Storefronts and sidewalks, not parking lots, line the streets. The Madison at SoHo, an upscale apartment community that opened last year, brought in a critical mass of residents who can walk from their homes to nearby restaurants and retail outlets.

"It's a great model for redevelopment of an inner city," Chiaramonte says.

Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena, who chairs the city building and zoning committee, says she would like to see city codes changed so that they include tenets of new urbanism.

"City codes currently are geared toward a suburban model," Saul-Sena says. "What we're trying to do is redevelop neighborhoods that were originally urban."

She points to Hyde Park, West Tampa and Seminole Heights.

Chiaramonte and his staff are working on an amendment to the Hillsborough County Comprehensive Plan that will provide incentives for mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented communities.

He expects the plan to be approved by early in 2003, which would pave the way for even more traditional neighborhood development.

"They say most movements take 20 years to reach their fruition," Chiaramonte says.

Considering that Seaside was developed in the early 1980s, it would seem that new urbanism is ripe.

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