TAMPA — Downtown became a lonely place for those who moved into the gleaming skyscrapers built just before the economy crashed.
These new urbanites basically had their own concierge at SkyPoint on Ashley Drive. Parking was never a problem at Grand Central on Kennedy Boulevard.
Those who expected hustle and bustle found desolation instead.
"It was nice having our own personal elevator," said Mark Alma, who moved into Grand Central in 2007.
Investor demand fueled the boom that built Tampa's mid- and high-rises in the last decade. But when credit dried up and buyers dissipated, developers were stuck with hundreds of brand-new units that they couldn't unload. The 2010 census found that more than one of six Florida homes were vacant — the most in the nation.
So it came as a surprise in April when the Tampa Downtown Partnership reported that 85 percent of downtown homes were occupied — 3 percentage points higher than the state average.
For Alma, it was the fulfillment of his faith in downtown. He and his partner had sold their rural Lutz home, bought a unit in Grand Central while it was still a dirt plot and rented a Harbour Island apartment for three years — just so they could walk to a park bench on the weekends to watch their 11th-floor, one-bedroom, unit go up. They closed in 2007, paying $457,900, and never walked away when their home's value dropped by half and their neighborhood seemed empty.
"It's exactly what we thought it was going to be," Alma said.
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Of the 4,325 residential units downtown, all but about 600 are occupied, said Sean Coniglio, managing partner of HCP & Associates, which ran the survey using postal addresses, real estate data and Downtown Partnership statistics.
Drivers circle blocks for parking downtown, the Florida Orchestra entertains a packed park on the waterfront, and lines form for crepes at the Tampa Downtown Market on Fridays.
"People are interested in living in an urban area which has remained, nationwide, fairly popular," said Paul Ayres, downtown partnership marketing director. "People are looking to stay closer to work to save on gas. People want to be closer to entertainment venues so they don't have to drive, and downtown offers that."
While the economy stopped high-rise construction and the sales of new lofts and urban apartments, developers, banks and creditors rallied by filling once-empty towers with renters and bargain hunters.
Michelle Jordan, an agent with Prudential Tropical Realty who specializes in the downtown area, said renters are a good portion of Channel District residents. "When the market crashed," she said, "(developers) got smart and began renting."
But buyers are also getting active. The Towers of Channelside, which cut its prices by half, has sold or closed on all but one of its 257 units, according to the complex. Some units were priced for as low as $168,000. Grand Central at the Kennedy has been full for years, SkyPoint has sold all of its brand-new units and its sister tower, Element, is at least 80 percent full, Ayres said.
Besides pricing, the city's ability to transform downtown from a sterile business center pocked by boarded-up buildings into a thriving waterfront entertainment center also lured residents downtown, the survey found. More than 70 percent cited arts and entertainment opportunities and downtown restaurants as top reasons that attracted them to the urban lifestyle.
Since 2008, major segments of Riverwalk opened up the waterfront. Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park underwent a $42 million reconstruction that turned the park into downtown's living room. The boxy Glazer Children's Museum and the Tampa Museum of Art became architectural and cultural beacons. The Tampa Bay History Center and Cotanchobee Fort Brooke park expanded. The downtown streetcar line was extended. Dozens of restaurants and bars opened.
In 2008, downtown homes were an investment. Now, people just want them as homes. "It's a shift," Ayres said. "A mind shift."
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At City Bike on Cass Street, business has been steady from urbanites looking for bicycle baskets, messenger bags and hangers to tack bikes to their apartment walls, mechanic Micah Daw said. Fresh, a panini deli, salad and cereal bar that opened in August on Franklin Street, has seen a steady increase of dinner diners — a rarity downtown just three years ago. "When we opened, I vowed to stay open until at least 8 o'clock," manager Bryan Goodell said. "Our evening business is picking up."
Goodell lived in the nearby Element for about a year until he got married and moved into his wife's house in the fall. When he lived downtown, he said, he had to drive to get dinner. Now, options abound, from the health-conscious Pizza Fusion in SkyPoint to the Metro Restaurant and Lounge near Fresh. Sixty-nine restaurants now serve dinner, according to the downtown partnership.
"I'm not surprised at all," Goodell said of the number of people living downtown. "It's beautiful down here."
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Carson Hardy, 21, and his girlfriend, Mykie Shapiro, 22, are some of the fresh faces downtown. They moved into a one-bedroom on the 25th floor of SkyPoint, with views of the Hillsborough River, in late April.
Hardy, who is from Bradenton, graduated from the University of South Florida this month and will be an accounting intern at a downtown firm. Like many downtown residents, they are renters. They looked at apartments in South Tampa, but found the sophistication and "grownup" urban experience too good to pass up. They have a pool outside on the eighth floor. They have a waterfront park with fountains across the street where they can watch sunsets.
"We liked the idea of a larger building, and this is close to everything you need. The trolleys take you everywhere, and the cabs are a $3 ride," he said. "It's just a little more fun, a little more exciting and the trend is everyone is moving down here, and as the population grows downtown, there's more reasons to be down here."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.