A condo hip before its time

Published March 9, 2007

Live and own right here. Walk anywhere you need to be. Look out on Tampa's skyline every night from your downtown home.

It's a pitch one can see all over downtown on banners for SkyPoint, Element and other burgeoning developments.

It's a pitch that has young professionals finally buying that Tampa can provide an upscale, urban lifestyle.

It's a pitch One Laurel Place made 25 years ago.

Most midrise and highrise condos arrived only recently. One Laurel was ahead of the curve by a couple of decades.

It was a little too far ahead, as downtown living wasn't a draw in 1982. Sales were slow to start.

But the city grew. Urban pioneers moved in. One Laurel filled up, at first thanks to a largely gay populace. In more recent years, it has attracted a broad expanse of young professionals, seniors and everyone in between.

For most of that time, this 10-story tower by the north end of Ashley Drive was the only game in town. Now it's facing all sorts of competition.

While the housing market downturn slowed some plans, new condos continue to sprout up nearby, boasting all sorts of luxuries, including in-house retail and wireless Internet.

At One Laurel, the owners aren't worried. They like their old-school home on the north end of downtown. They like the space they get for the price. And they figure they hold up okay against the newcomers.

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One Laurel remains popular: All but one of the 97 units are occupied, either by their owners or renters. The vast majority are owner-occupied.

Many residents talk about the convenience of this location, which borders the Hillsborough River and neighbors the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. They can jump on Interstate 275 or I-4 just seconds after pulling out of the parking lot.

"This is the best location in town," said Eleanor Nesbit, who has lived at One Laurel for four years.

Nesbit, 68, checked out condos at places like 345 Bayshore, along tony Bayshore Boulevard, before settling on One Laurel.

"You get much more for the money here size-wise," Nesbit said. "The other places I looked at, my furniture wouldn't fit in there."

The One Laurel developers originally planned to build two towers on the property, but the first tower's units didn't sell well for the first few years.

The complex converted to rentals for a while. Its location and prices appealed to couples with two incomes and no kids, said Albert Burruezo, a Tampa real estate agent.

Accordingly, as of the late 1980s, most of One Laurel's residents were gay, he said. So were most of the condo board members.

Burruezo, who is gay, lived with a partner at One Laurel in 1988 and 1989. The condo tower was well known in the gay community at the time, particularly for colorful parties in the six penthouses.

One Laurel Place appealed to gay couples for several reasons, Burruezo said.

"This was one of the few highrises that weren't rentals, and Bayshore attracted an older crowd," he said. "The performing arts center is right next door, and you can get anywhere quickly."

One Laurel's residency is no longer predominantly gay, Burruezo said, though gay residents certainly remain part of the mix.

Jim Davis, One Laurel's building manager and a resident of five years, said the complex now has a diverse group of owners. It really doesn't have to promote itself, Davis said.

"Most of the new condos down here have management companies, but we're self-managed," he said.

The units generally sell in the $250,000 to $260,000 range and don't stay on the market too long. Most run a little over 1,100 square feet. That's considerably larger than some of the new kids on the block. At Skypoint, for example, units range from 725 to 1,400 square feet and $170,000 to $330,000.

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Not surprisingly for a 25-year-old condo, One Laurel is a bit dated when it comes to amenities. There is no social hall, no workout center, no art gallery. The board recently removed a set of tennis courts and is leaving the area open for general activity.

The building does sport a swimming pool, hot tub and some new landscaping, and the board plans to modernize the two elevators.

Soon, young professionals will fill the new condos and lofts down the street. They'll attract new shops, new restaurants, new communities.

Having some new neighbors will be a change of pace for Lee Smith, 82. She and her husband, Norman, have lived at One Laurel for about 11 years.

"We were alone for so many years, and now it looks like we'll just be surrounded," she said.

Smith, like her friend Eleanor Nesbit, likes to walk everywhere. She walks to the performing arts center, where she volunteers as an usher. She walks to services at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

"I like the activity in the city," said Smith, who grew up in Chicago and lived in Los Angeles for a while.

She and Norm lived on Davis Islands for 20 years, but she finds One Laurel more convenient. "I think this is just the best place to live," she said.

As for Norman?

"Primarily," he said, "I like it because she does."

Rick Gershman can be reached at rgershman@sptimes.com or 226-3431.