WESLEY CHAPEL — Nothing stood on either side of State Road 56 when Florida completed it 13 years ago.
Workers cleared trees and pastures to construct the highway through the Cypress Creek area, designed to relieve traffic congestion and connect Bruce B. Downs Boulevard to Interstate 75. Officials also envisioned the road would one day sustain major commercial and residential development.
It was a prediction that went, for many years, largely unfulfilled. When the recession hit and credit dried up, developers abandoned proposed projects. What was left was a patchwork of growth from Land O'Lakes to Meadow Pointe Boulevard.
In the past year, though, development along the road has exploded, and the 7 miles of the SR 56 corridor is one of the fastest-growing areas in all of Tampa Bay.
Those who drive east on SR 56 from SR 54 will see a new Mercedes-Benz dealership and a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant. Bonterra Parc, a luxury apartment building, just opened, and the Ridge at Wiregrass Ranch, a 565-home luxury subdivision, will be complete soon, closely followed by a new elementary school to serve the area. A Holiday Inn Express & Suites is also in the works.
"It's been a long time coming," said Hope Allen, director of the Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce. "A lot of these projects were put on hold, so a lot of these projects had been planned for a long time, and they're now just coming to fruition."
The most high-profile project is the mall, now known as Tampa Premium Outlets. In the works for more than a decade, it was slowed by both environmental permitting issues and the recession. It's finally scheduled to open on Oct. 29.
Development in southern Pasco was all but inevitable, said Richard Gehring, strategic policy administrator for Pasco County.
The bay area has traditionally added 12,000 to 24,000 new homes a year, he said, and the growth used to be absorbed by Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. But Pinellas and northern Hillsborough are nearly out of room.
"What's happened is the areas to the south are predominantly filled out," Gehring said. "Pinellas has 900-something thousand people in it, but has no dirt."
Pasco, on the other hand, has nearly three times as much land as Pinellas and has only about 500,000 people in it, many of whom live on the coast. The low population density means there's plenty of empty space, especially in the eastern half of the county.
But community leaders aren't looking for just any kind of development to fill it. J.D. Porter, owner of Wiregrass Ranch Inc., which oversees a master plan to build up the area of SR 56 east of Bruce. B. Downs, said Wesley Chapel has the demographics to pull in developers who want to invest in high-end housing.
Wesley Chapel households made, on average, $81,311 in 2013, about $15,000 more than the average Florida household, according to census data. Developers see that as a sign that the market can support $1,500-a-month Bonterra Parc apartments and half-million-dollar homes at the Ridge.
It helps that there are relatively high-paying jobs in the area at Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel and the Wiregrass Ranch campus of Pasco-Hernando State College, which was completed in 2014. Raymond James Financial Inc. is also under contract to purchase land along SR 56 east of Bruce B. Downs, though it has not closed on it. The company has said it doesn't plan to build for three to five years.
"Everybody out there bases their vision with live, work and play," Porter said.
An ice rink, expected to open in the winter, will provide the recreation, along with a roughly 120-acre park behind the hospital that the county is obligated to convert into a park and sports area.
But until recently, there had been little new housing. The new residences will help drive new commercial development.
Several big-box retailers have expressed interest to the county to build on lots near Tampa Premium Outlets. Costco is considering a site just west of the outlet mall, and Kohl's is in talks to build within Cypress Creek Town Center, a retail and business park in the works across SR 56 from the outlets.
"The Ridge is bringing more rooftops to the area, which to commercial developers is important because they're looking for consumers to buy their products and services," said Richard Arkin, vice president of GL Homes, the builders of the Ridge.
Gehring, though, expects the outlet mall will pull shoppers from all across Central Florida, not just Wesley Chapel, partly because of its proximity to I-75.
In fact, ease of access to the interstate and Bruce B. Downs is one of the area's biggest assets.
The direct route via I-75 to downtown Tampa, Tampa International Airport and beyond to St. Petersburg makes the SR 56 corridor a relatively convenient place to live for those who commute and travel.
"It's the suburban quality of life, with easy access," said Allen of the Wesley Chapel chamber.
It works the other way, too. Proximity to I-75 means commercial developers who can't find room in Hillsborough can build large retail centers in the Cypress Creek area and pull crowds from the urban centers to the south and even Ocala and Gainesville.
But with the crowds could come crippling traffic, worries Clay Colson, board director for Citizens for Sanity, a group that supports "sustainable development and environmental awareness," according to its website.
Already, the I-75 and SR 56 interchange can get backed up, and Colson said it will only get worse as development continues. And, he said, as more asphalt is laid, water — and with it, pollutants — will run off into Cypress Creek, a tributary to the Hillsborough River, which supplies drinking water to Tampa.
"It will seriously degrade the quality of the water in the creek," he said. "We're polluting somebody else's drinking water."
In addition to the interstate, the Bruce B. Downs corridor has been integral to the explosion in Wesley Chapel, as development crept north along the road from New Tampa. Developers and planners consider the corner of SR 56 and Bruce B. Downs to be central to the growth.
"That's our ground zero," Gehring said.
A medical hub is developing north of the intersection. Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel is expanding, and Florida Medical Center is building an 80,000-square-foot office building.
Furthermore, state roads 54 and 56 are critical east-west arteries to the whole region. It's the only route north of Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa that provides uninterrupted access from the coast inland to and beyond the interstate.
The corridor will only become more vital to the regional transportation grid when the state eventually builds a 7-mile eastward extension of SR 56 connecting it to Zephyrhills.
The combination of demographics and geography, Porter said, was a "perfect storm" for growth in Wesley Chapel.
Contact Josh Solomon at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @josh_solomon15.