The Great Recession had already saddled downtown with hundreds of vacant apartments and condos when Matthew Midyett and his two brothers invested millions to open a Powerhouse Gym in late 2008. • People said they were nuts; who would use the 17,000-square-foot facility? • The gym opened with just 300 customers. But today, that number has grown to 4,800, a testament to a surprising boom in residential life in downtown Tampa.
Despite the lackluster economy and a generally stagnant housing market, downtown finds empty-nesters, young professionals and retirees jostling for condos or apartments as soon as they hit the market.
Unlike other parts of the Tampa Bay area, downtown's 4,325 residential units suffer from minimal foreclosure and short-sale listings.
Midyett has expanded six times since opening at 1120 E Kennedy Ave., growing to 31,000 square feet. He credits the downtown migration for helping him pay off $1 million worth of equipment. Most customers are neighborhood residents, not just downtown workers.
"We took a chance," he said. "Many people are buying into the urban lifestyle. It's booming. The less people that drive, the better."
Shannon Robins is among the converts.
While living in suburban Atlanta, she and her boyfriend spent hours sitting on clogged interstates. After her employer transferred her to Tampa, Robins wanted more than a change of scenery.
"We want to be in the city," said Robins, who grew up in Clearwater. "There's no way I'd move to the suburbs. We want the ability to walk places and to ride our bikes everywhere."
Finding that lifestyle wasn't as easy as she thought it would be. Even with a Realtor scouring the market for units priced between $1,500 and $1,800, Robins said that most places had multiple offers within hours. She finally found a $1,995-a-month unit at the Grand Central at Kennedy building.
A survey conducted this year by HCP & Associates reported that 85 percent of downtown Tampa residences were occupied. While the dismal economy stopped high-rise construction and the sales of new lofts and urban condos, developers and banks started filling empty towers with renters.
Prices were sliced by half or more. But there's more to the downtown renaissance than that.
The city transformed a once-sterile business center with boarded-up buildings into a thriving waterfront entertainment hub. 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 back yard.
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 streetcar line was extended. Dozens of restaurants and bars opened. The St. Pete Times Forum is undergoing a $35 million-plus facelift.
Another sign of progress is a new dog park nestled between a tire shop, oil company and vacant lot near the Port of Tampa. The city is putting another dog park at E 12th and Washington streets.
Still needed, residents say, are convenience stores and coffee shops. And a grocery store.
"Even a small grocery store would be a winner," said Gil Parsley, who moved from Arizona 16 months ago.
'Center of everything'
After living on Harbour Island years ago, Parsley wanted a thriving urban center where he could walk everywhere. The retired commercial real estate worker ditched his large home and bought a two-bedroom condo in the Slade at Channelside.
He now walks to the gym, restaurants, movies and parks. His car rarely hits the road.
"I like it. I feel like I am in the center of everything," Parsley said. "It was a win-win for me."
The city is working to meet the demands of people calling downtown home, said Bob McDonaugh, Tampa's urban development manager. He expects a grocery store to open in the near future.
"We're getting pretty close, but we are not there yet," he said. "We're trying to make this a great place to live."
Cranes will soon be back in business. Two apartment projects will add more than 700 units and a park near the Channelside district.
This summer, a Miami developer paid about $27 million for 215 vacant condos in the 294-unit Slade complex. The 215 units are now nearly all rented.
The developer of the Grand Central at Kennedy is converting luxury rentals to condos. Nearly half of the 296 units had been rentals. Tampa-based Smith & Associates has sold seven units since June 15.
Prices range from the low $100,000s to $300,000. David Traynor, a Smith vice president, said seasoned professionals from 35 to 55 are showing more interest than younger workers. Given that luxury buildings take several years to go from the drawing board to completion, potential buyers "realize this is the last opportunity" to buy new construction, he said.
More moderate means
Luxury units aren't the only additions.
Sage Partners recently built Metro 510. The 120-unit apartment project wrapped around the historic St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church at Harrison and Morgan streets. Prices range from $588 a month for a one-bedroom unit to $808 for a three-bedroom unit.
Debra Koehler, president of Sage Partners, plans to target service workers and entry-level employees who cannot afford luxury units. The apartments have granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances and offer "a very hip, urban feel," she said.
The rentals go on the market Monday. She expects to fill the complex by year's end.
"There's been a demand for this," Koehler said. "The reason people want to be downtown is because of all the after-5 p.m. activity."
The neighborhood is ripe for more growth, said Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership. A factor contributing to the resurgence, she said, is that the area wasn't overbuilt during the housing boom like Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
Given the area's proximity to downtown St. Petersburg, Burdick said both areas aren't competing for the same buyers or renters. "We have a lot of opposites. St. Pete is a complement. People want to come to these places."
Tammy and Gary Swisher moved to downtown Tampa from Sarasota more than a year ago so Gary could stop commuting to a downtown law office. They rented an apartment to share with their three poodles and kept their Sarasota home.
The nearby movies, shopping, dining, arts and entertainment sealed the deal. She said they never have to leave the neighborhood and can walk everywhere.
"I don't see a drawback to this," she said while walking her dogs. "We like the convenience of everything."
Mark Puente can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.