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Story by Susan Thurston [email protected] | Photos by Luis Santana [email protected]

So, what's it really like living in downtown Tampa?

The real estate boom promised a flood of new people living in downtown Tampa and the Channel District. Finally, Tampa would bustle after dark. New businesses would open. Restaurants would serve dinner. To a certain extent, it happened. Not quite as boldly as envisioned, but certainly more lights dot the skyline at night. • So who are these modern pioneers? And what do they think of Tampa Bay's version of urban living? • Tbt* spoke with residents of five new condo and apartment buildings about the lifestyle, the perks and the pitfalls. While owners lamented that they've lost considerable money on their units, they aren't completely depressed. For those who like stunning views of the city and action outside your front door, Tampa's urban core is a pretty good place to live.

Grand Central at Kennedy

Mark Alma and James Englert waited three years to move into their condo at Grand Central at Kennedy. During construction, they sold their big house in rural Lutz and rented an apartment on Harbour Island. On weekends, they'd walk to their future home and admire it from a park bench below.

They finally closed on their Channel District unit in fall 2007. They like most everything about it and have no plans of leaving any time soon.

Financially, it wouldn't make sense.

They paid $457,900 for their one-bedroom 1,200-square-foot unit on the 11th floor. Now, a bank is considering a short sale of a similar unit for $200,000.

"Fortunately, we didn't buy it as an investment,'' said Alma, 45. "This was a purchase that we wanted for ourselves. A heart buy.''

They bought the corner unit for its floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides and 270-degree views of downtown Tampa and the port. They were tired of maintaining a big house and wanted a more urban lifestyle. Alma, a Gulf War vet, had retired; Englert works at Kennedy and West Shore Boulevard.

Alma estimates they've lost about $150,000 but doesn't dwell on it. He's confident the market will improve.


Maj Vasigh has tried just about every item on First Watch's menu.

He knows the burgers are just as tasty as the eggs. He knows that adults can order chocolate chip pancakes off the kids menu.

The knowledge comes from experience. The 26-year-old lawyer visits the Tampa Street diner every chance he gets, which is quite often, given he lives and works within walking distance.

Vasigh rents a small one-bedroom unit on the 18th floor of the SkyPoint condos on Ashley Drive. He and his English bulldog — named Cyrus, as in "The Great" — moved there in 2007 after he graduated from law school. A native of Ormand Beach, he rented the unit off Craigslist from an investor in Massachusetts. The $1,200 rent was actually more than he could afford, but he figured he wouldn't have to join a gym or pay to park at his downtown law office.

Renting in SkyPoint is like "living in the nicest dorm in America,'' he says. Neighbors hang out together and throw impromptu parties and cookouts at the pool. When Chris Rock was at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, SkyPoint residents got last-minute tickets for $25 apiece.

The Place at Channelside

Like a lot of people, Blake and Missie Hayden were excited about investing in downtown Tampa's Channel District.

They wanted to be part of a new neighborhood and figured they'd make a nice bundle on their investment. They bought a two-bedroom, 1,400-square-foot condo in The Place for $447,400. Then the market crashed, scaring away buyers, many of whom walked away from their 10 percent deposit. The Haydens thought about bailing, but decided to see it through. They would rent their other townhouse in South Tampa — at a loss — and wait for the market to improve.

The couple closed in July 2007 and, for a few months, had the 245-unit complex mostly to themselves. They love the building's modern look and have befriended neighbors.

"I was the first guy to go in the pool, use the hot tub and the pool table,'' he said with a laugh. "We're part of the building.''

Blake, 32, and Missie, 31, understand that turning a profit might take a lot longer than expected. The developer went bankrupt and 171 of the units were auctioned to a single buyer, who is renting them. For now, the Haydens and their black Pomeranian, Raven, are staying put, enjoying the views of the pool — and mini beach — from their balcony. Blake, an insurance account executive, is a member of the governmental board that oversees Channel District matters for the city. Missie is a real estate agent and rents condos at the nearby Grand Central at Kennedy. In August, they'll welcome their first child, a rarity in The Place.

"If we had to do it again," Blake said, "I would still move down here."

The Element

As a medical sales rep, Nikki Billingsley spends a lot of time in her car, driving to accounts stretched from Brooksville to Bradenton. So when she's home, she wants to hang up her keys and walk. That desire brought her to the Element, a new high-rise apartment building on Franklin Street.

Billingsley and her boyfriend, Andy Wood, moved in Jan. 15, when the building opened. They rented a two-bedroom unit on the 10th floor but relocated to a larger unit on the 32nd floor last month. Their rent is $1,900 a month.

The couple had been living in FishHawk Ranch but hated the commute. "I love getting in my car and being five minutes from everything," said Billingsley, 32.'

The couple walks whenever possible or hails a cab, which can often take longer. To save her feet from blisters, Billingsley hits the streets with two pairs of shoes: flip-flops for the trek and heels for the destination. Recent outings included the Britney Spears concert at the St. Pete Times Forum, Spamalot at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and the Gasparilla Arts Festival. One weekend, they biked to Centro Ybor to catch a movie. Billingsley and Wood, 41, eat downtown a few times a week; when they moved in, she went to every restaurant to get a menu. A lot of them deliver.

Towers of Channelside

From the balcony of his 14th story condo, Jimmy Brantner keeps watch on his business, Marine Towing of Tampa. When duty calls, he drives there in minutes. When it doesn't, he and his wife, Harriet, take the elevator to the infinity pool or visit one of the restaurants within walking distance. The Brantners were the first residents of the 257-unit Towers of Channelside. After years of commuting from Clearwater's Sand Key, Jimmy loved the idea of watching his tugboats from his living room. With their children grown, an urban environment seemed like a nice change.

"When I saw this go up, I said, 'This is where I want to be,''' said Jimmy, 67. "I couldn't wait to get in it.''

The couple closed in July 2007, paying $425,000 cash for their two-bedroom, 1,400-square-foot unit. There was no pool or working elevator. They slept on an air mattress until they could move in their furniture.

The Brantners bought their condo to live in, not as an investment. It's gone down in value, to be sure, but they have no plans to sell. They feel badly for the developers and buyers who lost money. The couple has taken full advantage of the downtown amenities. They often bump into people they know, like when they saw their grandson and his friends at Stump's Supper Club. Harriet, 57, works from home as a real estate agent and often walks to the bank, post office and even Publix. For her mother's 85th birthday, they went to Phantom of the Opera at the performing arts center.

They hailed a golf cart.

Favorite haunts: Tinatapas at Channelside; Streetcar Charlie's and Bernini in Ybor. "We try to do a different restaurant each week.''

Pros: Can walk or ride the streetcar to movies, restaurants and activities. As Channel District residents, they get discounted streetcar rides.

Cons: The value of condos has significantly dropped. Most of the occupants are renters, many of them college students at the University of Tampa. (Hence, the pools can get pretty wild on weekends.)

Favorite haunts: First Watch; Moxie's; Eddie & Sam's Pizza; The Rack; Taps Wine & Beer Merchants (although he's scaled back a bit to save money). Every so often, he hits Channelside Bay Plaza. "My friends make fun of me for going, but I love it because people are having fun. They're celebrating something. Stumps and Howl at the Moon put me in a really good mood.''

Pros: He garages his car for days at a time. From his unit, he can assess traffic on the interstate when he does need to drive. Most of the places he goes are a $5 cab ride or less.

Cons: His auto insurance premium doubled. The smell of French fries from Five Guys wafts up to the pool, making it impossible to resist. Suburbanites have trouble understanding he lives on Ashley Drive.

Favorite haunts: Eddie & Sam's Pizza; Acropolis and Samurai Blue in Ybor; AJA; Fly Bar and Restaurant.

Pros: Concerts at the St. Pete Times Forum are a 6-minute walk away. They feel safer in the Channel District than where they used to live in South Tampa.

Cons: Have to drive for basic necessities, like a dry cleaners and a grocery store. Most of the retail space in Channel District condos is vacant.

Favorite haunts: Taps; Five Guys; Jimmy John's for subs at the pool.

Pros: Plenty of outdoor restaurants where she can bring her dog, a chocolate Labrador retriever named Nala. Good security, especially at night when an armed guard is stationed outside the Tampa Electric Co. offices.

Cons: Has to walk a few blocks to find a patch of grass for her dog. Litter and noise from an adjacent nightclub, Club 112.

Favorite haunts: Red Brick Pizza; Zelda's; Zudar's; Bernini; and the Columbia Restaurant— both at the Tampa Bay History Center and in Ybor — for a 1905 Salad.

Pros: When they took a cruise out of Tampa, they just rolled over their luggage and walked onto the ship. No parking fees or flights to catch. Bird's-eye view of fireworks at Channelside on holidays.

Cons: The closest grocery store is quite a long walk. People have the misconception that the buildings are mostly vacant. The Brantners' floor is full.

So, what's it really like living in downtown Tampa? 04/30/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 30, 2009 4:15pm]
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