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Builders find room for luxury homes

Clearwater Village's developers envision 126 Mediterranean-style homes with a median cost of $450,000 to $500,000.

By ROBERT FARLEY
Published August 10, 2003

CLEARWATER - Unicorns. Free lunches. Large tracts of undeveloped Clearwater land.

None of those things exist, right?

In fact, 24 vacant acres do exist in Clearwater, land that has been largely untouched since mules grazed there some 80 years ago. Developers snatched it up, of course. And then they thought about what to do with their blank canvas.

Surrounded as it is by a church, low-income apartments and modest homes that sell for about $100,000, the development group first considered "medium income, high density housing." Translation: about 215 townhouses in the $135,000 to $150,000 range.

Two things changed their minds.

One was the numerous majestic oaks, many over 100 years old, that dot the property. The developers decided the homes would have to be built around them, making a townhouse plan unworkable.

The second thing that changed their minds was survey results. They did lots of surveys. More than a dozen. They asked folks living in waterfront condominiums in downtown Clearwater things like what they considered their ideal living community, what kind of architecture they liked and what they'd like in a kitchen.

What the developers came up with for Clearwater Village says much about the unique real estate market in Clearwater these days. The plan now is to build a gated community with 126 Mediterranean-style luxury homes. Two-car garages; 10-foot ceilings on the first floor; water treatment systems standard.

Eventually, there will be a community center and pool, with its own little cafe. Monthly homeowners association dues will cover lawn care and security. Need someone to walk your dog and water your plants while you take off on a vacation or business trip? Call the project concierge. Median cost of the homes: $450,000 to $500,000.

Plunking down such an upscale development amid two-bedroom, ranch-style homes where most homes don't even have garages - except the pole barn variety - would seem to violate the old real estate adage about location, location, location.

But in Clearwater, real estate experts say, this kind of residential oasis is very desirable. Clearwater is built out, but there is a demand for luxury homes. Small pockets of land, no matter where they are, are prime for upscale development.

Take Coachman Ridge, said Realtor Luigi Kalaj, where some homes sell for more than $700,000 or $800,000. It sits across the street from a mobile home park. Nearby, Coachman Hill Preserve overlooks a cemetery. Yet the massive homes there top $1-million.

Clearwater Village should be an easy sell, said Kalaj, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Real Estate of Countryside for 16 years.

"There is no competition for Clearwater Village," Kalaj said. "It's gonna go. It's really the right time."

People are tired of having to drive all the way to East Lake, Trinity or Lutz, Kalaj said, where there is still land for new, upscale developments.

"People are working so much harder today, they want to be close to where they work in St. Petersburg or Tampa," said Marilyn Waldorf with ReMax Realtec Group in Palm Harbor.

That's why pockets of high-end homes can succeed most anywhere, she said, even amid an otherwise very modest neighborhood. Look at the exclusive Bayou Club south of Bryan Dairy Road near Pinellas Park, she said.

"We need stuff like that there," she said of Clearwater Village. "That location in that area. It's going to be something unique."

All over, she said, there is a demand for luxury housing. People want the high ceilings and multiple-car garages, "and they are willing to pay for it," she said.

That was born out in the surveys conducted by the principals of Clearwater Village. They mainly surveyed residents of Pierce 100 and 500 North Osceola, both waterfront condominiums in Clearwater.

People said they wanted a safe community. Clearwater Village will be gated.

They said they wanted to know their neighbors. So there will be a community center, a community pool, a tree house for kids.

What they didn't want, said Bud Reichel, one of the partners in the Clearwater Village project, was to have to take care of their yards. So the homeowners association will take care of that. Monthly association dues are expected to average $275.

Those surveyed also wanted to see high aesthetics. So while all the homes will have a Mediterranean flair, home buyers will be able to customize the features of their new home.

Homes will have big and numerous windows. Roof tiles were imported from Greece. There will be fountains in the courtyard, lush Florida landscaping and some small reflecting ponds. Attached homes will range from 2,200 to 2,800 square feet. The stand-alone houses will span from 2,800 to 5,700 square feet.

There goes the neighborhood.

Actually, says Kalaj, who is not affiliated with the project, property values in the surrounding neighborhoods are sure to rise.

Just what the neighbors fear.

"Just means higher taxes for us," shrugged Kent Snyder, who was cutting the lawn this week, all by himself, at his father's home on Poinsettia Avenue, where he lives part of the year.

Snyder, 39, a chef, said he was a little surprised to hear developers were building half-million dollar homes in his blue-collar neighborhood. His is a neighborhood of small, ranch-style homes. This is a neighborhood where people work on cars in their driveways. Sprinkler systems are few and far between.

"It's going to look kinda out of place," Snyder said of Clearwater Village. "But I guess the growth has to go somewhere. We're out of room. I mean, in Japan, I hear they build golf courses on rooftops."

The Clearwater Village project is just getting started. The model home is nearly complete. It will eventually become home for Reichel, who is president of the Tampa Bay chapter of World Institute of Scientology Enterprises (WISE), a group made up of business people who employ a management program developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

The other two Clearwater Village partners, Patrick Valtin and Ido Fischler, also plan to live there.

The first phase of 31 homes, some attached in groups of two or three, is projected to be completed by September of next year. Bulldozers this week began pushing dirt for construction of the entry road into the first phase, off N Betty Lane. Construction of the second phase is expected to take another two years after that. When completed, the main entrance will come off Kings Highway.

"We're convinced we've got a niche in the marketplace," Reichel said.

[Last modified August 10, 2003, 02:02:50]


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