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Ybor's new life geared for living

Its entertainment sector already rolling, the historic district's residential development heads for a renewal.

By JANET ZINK
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 2, 2002


YBOR CITY -- If developers, investors, preservationists and natives have their way, Ybor City will see a return to its residential roots.

The transformation of Ybor into a hub of Tampa's nightlife was a slow one that started in the 1980s, when clubs of the moment would open and close as fast as the flicker of a mirrored ball.

Seventh Avenue gradually began buzzing with bars and restaurants, and the opening of the shops, movie theaters and restaurants of Centro Ybor in 2000 infused the historic district with a steady hum of activity. Even in the middle of a weekday, restaurants bustle with business.

The push is on to develop residential areas. Supporters hope the area will see a turnaround similar to what's happened in Hyde Park, Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights.

Residential development "is an extremely high priority," said Vince Pardo, executive director of the Ybor City Development Corp.

"There's been a lot of development over the past few years of the commercial core. To keep the retail we have and bring in new retail, we need to have a good residential basis around the commercial core."

New construction and renovation of historic houses on the streets south of Seventh Avenue are gradually establishing that basis.

Last year, the 454 apartments of Camden Ybor City opened to residents, and its management reports the community about 60 percent full. Rents range from $710 to $1,245 for apartments with 635 to 1,130 square feet of living space.

In addition to being able to walk to Ybor and stroll back home on weekend nights, residents can also hang out by the community pool and work out in the fitness center.

The 16 condominiums at Las Palmas de Ybor went on the market just over a year ago, and they've all been sold.

Alicia Smith moved from Orlando into Las Palmas in November with her husband, Matthew, and their 3-year-old daughter. They had visited Tampa a year earlier to watch the Ohio State University Buckeyes play in the Outback Bowl.

"We just fell in love with Ybor," Alicia says.

When Matthew got a job offer in Tampa, they chose Ybor.

"We love it," she says, admitting that it takes a special kind of person to move into Ybor. It can get loud on weekends, she says. But she and her husband like to get a babysitter for their daughter and walk to Seventh Avenue for a cup of coffee or to catch a movie.

Three new condo projects are slated to break ground in Ybor before the end of this year.

Developer William Dobson plans to start construction this month on the first phase of the Ybor Village Lofts located on Fifth Avenue between 19th and 20th streets.

All but one of the eight units have been pre-sold. They range from 912 to 1,453 square feet, have two bedrooms and two bathrooms and a price tag of $138,000 to $220,000.

Steve Yturriaga of Ybor Realty Group, expects to start building the Fifth Avenue Villas in November with a completion date set for one year later.

Located on 20th Street at Fifth Avenue, the gated complex will include seven commercial units and 29 homes of 1,100 square feet with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. Yturriaga says he already has sold nine of the villas.

ABC Capital Corp. aims to break ground on CitiLofts Ybor this fall and have them ready for move-in in spring 2003.

Residents can choose from two different floor plans -- a 1,364-square-foot home with a one-car attached garage and a 1,720-square-foot unit with a two-car garage. Homes start at $184,500 and have two bedrooms, two bathrooms, patios downstairs and balconies upstairs.

Lori Wood, a real estate agent with Smith and Associates who is marketing the property at Republica de Cuba and Fourth Avenue, says three of the 13 lofts have been reserved.

People have also been buying and restoring historic houses in Ybor, most of which were built between 1900 and 1925.

"Just drive down Fifth Avenue and you see where homes that were pretty much abandoned have now been rehabilitated and people are living in them," says Del Acosta, administrator for Tampa's Architectural Review Commission.

The Florida Department of Transportation is in the process of moving and renovating 38 houses to accommodate the widening of Interstate 4.

"Once all these homes are completed with FDOT there's going to be a significant inventory of completed restored houses online," Acosta says.

The old homes are not particularly cheap, even if they need work. Gone are the days when Florida vernacular homes in the historic district sold for as low as $25,000. Today, even a condemned structure can command $70,000 and those in mere disrepair go for $150,000.

People who bought five to 10 years ago, however, are reaping profits.

Real estate investor Eddie Serralles says he bought a fourplex in Ybor City six years ago for $25,000 and recently sold it for $250,000.

Speculators are scooping up property north and east of the historic district.

"Anything south of I-4, you're paying top, top dollar," says Serralles, who built his real estate, construction and property management business by renovating properties in Tampa Heights.

Serralles recently bought 12 houses in the area north of I-4 and south of Columbus Avenue and paid around $35,000 for each of them.

"These little 1,000-square-foot bungalows are going to sell for $200,000," he predicts.

This fall, the city will consider extending the local historic district four blocks east of 22nd Street to encompass more of the national historic district. That should improve property values in the area, says Ybor real estate agent Fran Costantino.

Though she's a huge booster of Ybor residential development, Costantino admits crime is still an issue. She has renters in homes east of 22nd Street who want out of their leases because their homes have been broken into or they've been mugged.

The city has stepped up police presence in Ybor.

Costantino says when she opened the offices of Costantino and Company on Fourth Avenue east of 22nd Street in 1999, she arrived at work every morning to find the ground strewn with hypodermic needles and prostitutes standing on the corner.

"People thought I was crazy. They said, 'Fran, why are you going back there?' Because I grew up here," she says.

Her office is next to her grandmother's old house and in the same building where her father and grandfather ran a monument business. When she was a little girl, she played in the yard without fear, she says, and she's determined to see a return to that.

In the past three years, her stretch of Fourth Avenue east of 22nd Street has cleaned up significantly, she says.

People living west of 22nd Street say they feel safe, although they do stay watchful.

"I've always been a cautious person," says Smith, who lives in Las Palmas. "I always walk around with pepper spray on my key chain, and I always will."

She said that when she lived in Boca Raton there was a string of muggings and assaults that had the community on edge. She feels no more afraid in Ybor.

Nonetheless, most of the new condominiums will be gated for added security, and the builders are offering financing incentives to encourage buyers.

Although it's only creeping along, most real estate agents and city administrators say that the residential renaissance in Ybor City is inevitable.

"I own three properties down there so I believe in Ybor City," says Stephanie Collore, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker.

"I'm sitting back and waiting to see what happens."

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