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Chic spreads outward from South Tampa

sandra thompson
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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2001

The residential landscape of the city is changing fast. In South Tampa, townhouses are popping up like crocuses even in places that look like alleys, and the hip Madison SoHo is rising behind Whaley's, swallowing half the neighborhood. But where it is most intriguing is in the inner city, the near-downtown neighborhoods where development has often been one building at a time: a new Victorian in Tampa Heights, a reclaimed cigar house in Ybor City.

Camden Ybor City, Ybor's Madison SoHo, a hip upscale complex over three blocks on Palm Avenue, is now open. Only the smallest building, the one not damaged by the big fire, is open, so only nine people are living there. The apartments are good-looking -- 9-foot ceilings, faux wood kitchen floors, balconies -- and there is a waiting list for the two-bedroom apartments in the unfinished buildings at rents of $1,140 to $1,210.

In Tampa Heights, there is a project of about the same scope that is even more surprising. And, for once, it's not just for yuppies with a capital Y.

Maybe you've seen it from I-275 as you're whizzing past the Downtown East exit. It is a mini-city of leaf green and cream apartments not unlike other attractive new complexes. I did, and I couldn't imagine where, or what, it was.

So I drove over. It is Mobley Park Apartment Homes, on Seventh Avenue from Morgan Street to the interstate, 18 or so human-scale buildings grouped along new streets, all fenced in with a gated entry. At the entrance, pastel balloons wafted in the breeze. The gate wasn't locked, so I drove in and looked around. It was early afternoon; no one was out except construction workers.

Inside the leasing center, you're immediately hit with the smell of cinnamon. A nice young woman took me to see two model apartments, the only ones available, she said, till the next buildings are finished. The apartments are nice: sparkling white kitchens and baths, plush carpet, an attractive hanging lamp in the dining room.

They lack the edginess that other places strive for, for a good reason. People can afford them, which is why such complexes are referred to as affordable housing, with rents adjusted down for working people whose income justifies it. The top of the line -- a three-bedroom, 21/2-bath, two-story townhouse -- rents for $950, or $655; the smallest one-bedroom, $525, or $464.

And, yes, there is a pool and health club.

Across Seventh Avenue, I was struck by a stunning pea green and brown Victorian house, and, next door, a new lavender-gray Cracker-style house. Law offices are in both. Facing the other direction, there is a clear view of the interstate and downtown.

I drove around the neighborhood. To the west, government services buildings and the big pink Central City YMCA; to the east, the Silver Dollar Tavern, Friendly Missionary Baptist Church and McNealy's Boarding House where several people were standing in the yard in the warm sun.

A sign in the middle of an overgrown vacant lot advertised something called Tampa Heights Office Village. Dream on, I thought.

But Alyce Gross of ROAL Urban Properties already has. ROAL is responsible for the law offices; Gross' daughter, a visual effects producer from L.A., designed the green Victorian. ROAL is getting ready to restore another Victorian in the block as well as develop the property that is now Old Bones, an architectural salvage yard. Alyce Gross sees the vacant lots as four two-story buildings in an office campus atmosphere, maybe some of them with live/work lofts.

"This is a concept whose time is almost here," she says. "We're getting to be a real city."

A city, perhaps, where the disconnect between Tampa Heights and downtown, a matter of perception rather than geography, disappears.

On my way home, I stopped at C'est La Vie, the new French patisserie downtown. I sat at a table by the window, ordered a tarte au pomme and listened to the staff speaking French. It felt so cosmopolitan, and to get here from Tampa Heights had taken about a minute.

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

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