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Living the high life

At least four high-rise condo buildings are in the works for downtown and South Tampa, many of them luxury units with waterfront views.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 17, 2003


[Times photo composite: Ken Helle]
Three photographs were fused to show this panoramic view from the second level of the GrandView condominium complex. Residents should begin moving in next month, and only 10 units are left to be sold.
TAMPA -- From the 19th floor of the GrandView condominium on Harbour Island, downtown Tampa looks and feels like a metropolitan city.

Office buildings rise toward the sky. Cruise ships float in the channel. Streetcars chug through the streets.

Those images clinch the deal for many people buying high-rise condos in South Tampa. So what if they don't have a house with a yard? They've got a view. And it never needs mowing.

"We like the view and we travel a lot so there's always the maintenance and security issue," said Bryan Clark, who bought a penthouse in the GrandView, which opens next month. "I can go and lock up and sleep easy."

High-rise condos have become the residence of choice for many buyers looking for location, convenience and amenities. For the first time in more than a decade, several are in the works in South Tampa, including the GrandView and three on Bayshore Boulevard: One Bayshore at Platt Street, the unnamed JMC Communities project near Wallcraft Avenue and 345 Bayshore, an apartment complex that converted to condos.

Units start at about $250,000 and climb to $1-million or more.

Developers say the timing is right to tweak Tampa's skyline. Buyers stand ready to pay big money for an urban lifestyle, even if it lacks the vibrant street life and big-city amenities of Miami or West Palm Beach.

"This is becoming an exciting place to live," said Bob Abberger, head of Florida development for the Trammell Crow Co. "If you look back five years there was no streetcar, no Channelside, no Centro Ybor."

For years, downtown Tampa has struggled to break its image as a 9-to-5 city that dies after quitting time. City leaders have tried to spur residential development but, without stores, restaurants and other people-friendly amenities, builders have shied away from investing.

Today, low interest rates and a strong housing market appear to be turning that around. High-rise condos usually go up in cycles tied to peaks in home sales. The last one hit in the mid-1980s.

Development experts predict the market can handle the influx of luxury units.

"Most of them should do all right," said Marvin Rose, a housing analyst who tracks the area market for his Rose Residential Reports. "There's not a huge number when you consider 14,000 new homes went up in 2002 in the Tampa Bay area."

Success will depend on the location, size and concept, he said. Even at these prices, many consider them a bargain on the grander scale.

"If these same units were located in Miami and Naples, they would be two or three times the price," Rose said.

The bulk of prospective buyers already live in Tampa and, in many cases, within a mile or two of the condos, according to sales agents. They don't necessarily demand round-the-clock restaurants and rows of fashionable shops. The short commute and waterfront views suffice.

Many buyers are in their 30s and 40s and work downtown. For fun, they exercise on Bayshore or drive to their favorite haunts. Others are empty-nesters eager to give up large, high-maintenance homes.

Retirees in their mid-50s, Vince and Karen Aguero jumped at the chance to put a deposit on a unit at One Bayshore, a combination condo, apartment, townhouse and retail complex. They were tired of their 2,200-square-foot house in Carrollwood and wanted a more urban environment.

[Times photo: Ken Helle]
The penthouse suites at GrandView have a sweeping view of downtown Tampa.
"We picked the place because of the locale. We can walk to the grocery store and to our doctors," Karen Aguero said. "We're really looking forward to it."

Not having the burden of a pool and a yard makes up for the smaller, 1,400-square-foot living space. And don't forget the view.

Crescent Resources, which is developing One Bayshore, plans to start construction in March and open at the end of 2004 or beginning of 2005.

Since July, prospective buyers have reserved about 60 of the 104 condos with $5,000 refundable deposits. The most popular are corner units with circular living rooms facing the water, said Jim Walters, a real estate agent for Smith & Associates in charge of the sales.

The price: $496,000 to $656,000.

Crescent has marketed the site as a full-service community where people can leave their cars in the garage. The first-floor retail space will have a coffee shop, deli, dry cleaners and other amenities for residents and the public.

The developers consider it the "beginning of the urban lifestyle in Tampa," Walters said.

Industry experts say Tampa's buyer pool justifies the new, high-end condos. The depth of the pool remains to be seen.

"Places are selling quickly but there's tremendous uncertainty. Where will interest rates be in 20 months?" said Abberger of Trammell Crow. "I happen to believe that we'll see escalating growth."

Condo developers are casting their net for people who live in the region, rather than trying to lure tourists. Most prospects reside here year-round, although some professionals divide their time between Tampa and the northeast.

Abberger expects the latest round of high-rise condos will max out the city for quite a while. There's only so much land with open, scenic views of downtown, and what's left goes for top price.

Trammell Crow recently backed off projects to develop residential towers near the Curtis Hixon and Fort Brooke parks in downtown. They didn't have a Bayshore address, he said, and the cost of development proved excessive.

Still, they haven't ruled out other Tampa locations.

"Tampa is one of the few cities in the state and in the region that has a true potential of being a 24-hour city," he said.

Joseph Narkiewicz, executive vice president of the Builders Association of Greater Tampa, said the condo market will remain strong as Tampa continues to build on its reputation as an attractive place to live.

"The Tampa Bay region is now a player," he said. "We've hosted some Super Bowls. We have fantastic golf courses, the port and the international airport."

If the market sours, developers can leave floors unfinished or offer deals. When the condo market bottomed out in the '80s, builders gave away cruises, trips and cars to close a deal.

That hasn't been a problem for the Byrd Corp. of Clearwater, developers of the GrandView. A month before the opening, the company has sold 54 of 64 units, including six of the eight penthouses. Buyers like the location opposite downtown and the amenities, such as a concierge, boat lifts and adjacent pool.

The condos range from $235,000 for two-bedroom units on the first level to more than $969,000 for the 3,800-square-foot penthouses. The penthouses come as a shell and buyers hire contractors to build the interior, spending another $350,000 to $600,000.

Then there's the condo association fee, which runs from $280 to $606 a month, depending on the unit.

Vice president Brooks Byrd said the company wouldn't have built the GrandView unless the city had solid plans to entice people downtown. Without a residential base, downtown can't evolve into the urban community that planners envision.

Byrd said units sold faster than expected, in part because the GrandView offered something unique. Several buyers committed before crews installed the first beam.

"I think the demand is there," Byrd said. "People are ready for it."

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

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