Three years ago, the news that the Sembler Co. wanted to build townhomes in this unincorporated area upset area activists, who feared that the plans would doom their hopes for a community park.
But today, when Sembler celebrates the opening of Duval Park, those same activists will be there, praising the development and urging others to follow Sembler's lead.
What happened to change their minds? Sembler listened to their concerns and swapped some land with the county. Lealman got its park. Sembler got to build townhomes and single-family residences next to picturesque green space.
Duval Park is Sembler's first foray into residential development. The three-phase project will be composed of 79 two-story units built in a Key West style. Each of the four floor plans has a front porch and optional second-floor balcony.
The units, all with three bedrooms, range from 1,211 to 1,699 square feet. The community is gated and pedestrian-friendly and has a pool and landscape maintenance. Prices range from $189,000 to $264,900.
Although the housing market has been in the dumps recently, Sembler thinks the units will sell because they are priced with an eye toward the lack of affordable housing in Pinellas, said Lindsay Northrop, a public relations representative for Sembler.
Ray Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association, said he is thrilled with the project. He sent out an e-mail this week urging Lealman residents and others to attend today's grand opening celebration.
Community activists, he said, have long wanted private money to help revive the area, and Duval Park could be the vanguard of a new era for the area if other developers follow Sembler's lead.
Lealman, he said, is a prime place for developers. The advantages are its central location, high elevation that will protect it from flooding in the event of hurricanes, and the amount of property that is ripe for redevelopment, Neri said.
"Hopefully, other developers will look at Lealman," he said.
Although Neri and other activists have long wanted to see improvements in the unincorporated Lealman area, Sembler's decision to buy the Duval property first sparked dismay. The activists had long lobbied the county for a park in the Lealman area. The county had responded by cleaning up acreage it owned next to Joe's Creek just south of 54th Avenue at 45th Street N.
The county intended to purchase some adjacent acreage that would enlarge the space, now known as Joe's Creek Greenway Park. But Sembler got there first and offered more money.
Neri and others were crushed. But they, and the county, approached Sembler with a land swap proposal. The county would give Sembler some acreage it owned on the other side of the Duval Park property, and Sembler would give the county a roughly equal amount of land next to the park.
The deal was struck. Lealman got its park and the future residents of Duval Park got a park next door and a virtual guarantee that they'll never have to worry about a road or other development obstructing their view.