By the time Lauren Brooks decided to buy rather than rent, housing prices in her Hyde Park neighborhood had gone prohibitively high. So she bought a condo in what many considered a peculiar place to live: the West Shore business district.
Brooks, though, found the area "really promising. There seemed to be a lot of opportunity for a lot of growth."
That was back in 2005, when West Shore primarily evoked images of shopping malls and office parks. But Brooks, a city planner, proved prescient about an area whose urban amenities and easy access to almost every place in Tampa Bay are making it one of the region's up-and-coming residential markets.
Since Brooks moved into her Villa Sonoma condo on Spruce Street a decade ago, five upscale apartment complexes with 1,640 units have opened in nearby areas of West Shore. Five more complexes, with 1,440 units in toto, are either planned or under construction.
"We've had the work and play, and now we're getting the live," said Ann Kulig, deputy director of the Westshore Alliance, a nonprofit organization of area businesses.
Located near a major airport and just a 25-minute drive from Clearwater and St. Petersburg, West Shore has long been Tampa Bay's premier business district and one of the largest in Florida. It has 37 hotels, two shopping malls, more than 200 restaurants and bars (plus a few strip joints) and 4,000 businesses, including PricewaterhouseCoopers, LabCorp and Bloomin' Brands.
Within this relatively compact area, you can catch a movie, buy groceries, watch a football game, even hit the beach at the little-known but lovely Cypress Point Park on Tampa Bay. Yet while almost 94,000 people work there and thousands more come to shop and eat, fewer than 15,000 call West Shore home.
That's one reason Crescent Communities decided to build a 374-unit apartment complex on land it owns on N Lois Avenue. Construction began this month on the $44.5 million Crescent Westshore, which will have studio and one- to three-bedroom apartments at rents ranging from about $1,100 to more than $2,000 a month.
"People more and more want to live where they work," said Jay Curran, Crescent's vice president. "We just took advantage of the opportunity to bring residential to the space because there is a disparity between the amount of jobs and the amount of residents who live there."
Curran, whose Charlotte, N.C., company originally planned to put an office building on the site, said the quality as well as the quantity of jobs in West Shore also pushed the decision in favor of apartments.
"There's lots of employment driven by professional services, pharmaceuticals, finance — the kind of jobs that allow for a higher-end product and the type of housing we try to deliver," Curran said. "The (West Shore) market already is full of restaurants and stores and it has the stadium, so it's got a lot of attractive aspects of the urban core."
West Shore has one big disadvantage, though, compared with more traditional urban cores.
As the resurgence of downtown St. Petersburg has shown, being pedestrian-friendly is a big plus in luring new residents. Shoppers and restaurant-goers like to stroll without fear of being mowed down by cars roaring past at 60 mph.
So far, the words "walkability" and "West Shore" have not been widely used together. The business district is criss-crossed by numerous six-lane highways that at times take on the feel of NASCAR speedways.
"It's better than it used to be," said Kulig of the Westshore Alliance, "but there's certainly room for improvement."
As part of a repaving project on busy Boy Scout Boulevard, which skirts International Plaza, the Florida Department of Transportation is adding sidewalks and widening ones already there. Crosswalks have appeared along Boy Scout, Lois, West Shore and Kennedy Boulevard.
Brooks, who saw West Shore's residential promise earlier than most, likes her condo in Villa Sonoma because it's right behind three popular restaurants — Lee Roy Selmon's, Roy's and Fleming's — that she can easily walk to. It's also possible, if a bit dicier, to get to International Plaza and WestShore Plaza on foot.
But as a city planner with AECOM (formerly URS Corp.), an engineering firm that has worked with the Westshore Alliance, Brooks wants to see the business district become far more pedestrian-friendly.
Much of the focus is on West Shore Boulevard, which already serves as a Main Street of sorts because it links the malls, several hotels and scores of businesses. One idea is planting more trees along the street to provide greater shade and thus encourage people to walk from, say, hotel to mall.
Brooks also envisions a "transit circulator," perhaps a rubber-wheeled trolley, that could run up and down West Shore at lunchtime and ferry office workers to the malls and restaurants.
Even as West Shore becomes more residential, though, it lacks the sense of place that characterizes older, leafier areas like Hyde Park and St. Petersburg's Old Northeast.
"We're still trying to establish our identity as a neighborhood," said Brooks, 35. "What this area is drawing is a lot of young professionals, and even though I'm not a hipster, maybe it could have more of a hipster feel, with some cool breweries and little local shops and restaurants."
Among West Shore's amenities is what the city of Tampa calls a "relatively undiscovered treasure" — the bayfront Cypress Point Park at the western terminus of Cypress Street. With a canoe launch, nature trails and a disc golf course for Frisbee fans, it offers a scenic refuge from the hubbub of other parts of West Shore.
"I never even knew it was here until three weeks ago," said John Turner, who runs the Saucy Dog hot dog cart with business partner Patrick Lacomb. The pair wanted to set up in downtown Tampa's Gaslight Park but are glad a city employee steered them to Cypress Point, which sits behind a large office complex.
"It's a nice, friendly little place," Turner said of the park. "Today we had people coming in waves of eight."
Among those strolling through the park that recent noon hour was 21-year-old Alex Finucane, who recently moved from Jacksonville to take a job with New York Life in West Shore. He likes his new town, and draws a favorable comparison that should thrill Tampa boosters.
"This area is very condensed, everything is within a 5-mile radius. Jacksonville is the complete opposite — it's very spread out and not very metropolitan.
"This feels metropolitan."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.