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As pioneers of lofts open homes, new views arise

sandra thompson
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© St. Petersburg Times
published January 25, 2003

It's exciting to see the birth of a neighborhood, and that's what was offered last Sunday when loft-dwellers opened up their homes and work spaces in the Channel District. Actually, it might be more accurate to say the conception of a neighborhood, because what is not yet there is as intriguing as what it is.

In the district, which is north of the Channelside complex, artists have been living and working in space carved out of warehouses and garages and other nonresidential buildings. There are only a few -- this is not Ybor City 30 years ago. In fact, awhile back, one of the residents speculated the population here would reach 20 only if you counted stray dogs and cats.

There probably won't be any more artists, either. Property is too high-priced now. The empty buildings are in the hands of developers. Walk down 12th Street, the street behind Channelside Drive after it turns toward Ybor City, where several loft projects -- most in renovated warehouses -- are planned.

Stand outside Cooper Johnson Smith Architects and imagine the corner of 12th and Whiting as it could be in a few years. The old Model T Building, a 1925 car storage space, converted to lofts, and, diagonally across the intersection, a new loft building, both part of the project called Victory Lofts. Also at 12th and Whiting, if all goes well, a brick warehouse redesigned into lofts by Cooper Johnson Smith.

Look in the other direction, and you could see the tall stack of a cruise ship jutting into the sky.

Further up 12th Street an empty shell of a building is becoming Channelside 212 Lofts. More loft projects are planned for 11th Street and Channelside Drive at Washington.

If you have any doubt of the seriousness of all this, two women pointed out as "real estate ladies" were standing on a corner, handing out fliers for the Victory Lofts.

Sunday's event was a fundraiser for City Council member Linda Saul-Sena, who was credited with the zoning changes that allowed live/work spaces here. It didn't draw a whole lot of people away from the Bucs game, but it was still the only time I've seen people on the streets of the Channel District. So it was easier to imagine a residential neighborhood growing up here among the warehouses and sidewalkless, treeless streets.

It reminded me a little -- just a little -- of what SoHo was like in New York years ago, when artists were first starting to live there. It was pretty bleak. Warehouses are not the friendliest buildings, and without trees or landscaping or the amenities we usually associate with residential neighborhoods, the urban landscape can be off-putting. You either like it or you don't.

The new residential and live/work spaces that become available will not in any way resemble the spaces of the people already here, the ones who got in before the developers. Like the warehouse where steel sculptor Dominique Martinez lives and creates his huge artworks, or the loft occupied by artist Linda Ackley and her husband, Alan Eaker, that has a bronze foundry out back. Or the heavy equipment garage-home of Richard and Kim Markham that incorporates a swimming pool in a former grease pit, a forklift and an indoor-outdoor plaza big enough for a tractor pull.

The new spaces will be much more tame.

They won't be huge. They won't be cheap. The Victory Lofts, for instance, will run from $140,000 to $800,000. And they won't be lofts in the strictest sense: homes created with ingenuity from spaces not particularly hospitable to human living. They'll already have kitchens and baths, granite counter tops even. Not to mention, in the case of Victory Lofts, a fitness center and a rooftop garden.

They'll be, well, loftlike condos, alternative space for the rest of us who are urban pioneers only after the work's been done -- and all that's needed is us, the people to fill it.

-- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at . City Life appears on Saturday.

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