Former den of Dearborn, Mich., retirees being transformed into Clearwater condos

CLEARWATER — Donna Dennis is looking forward to her first potluck dinner in the community room of her old apartment building on Island Estates.

She'll invite friends that she knew for years in the former Dearborn Towers. The old crowd used to chip in $5 each for the main course and everyone would bring a side dish.

Dennis can do that sort of thing, even though the old crowd is dispersed and their old home vacant, because she'll have resident privileges in the new condo that will emerge from the extensive renovation of the turquoise landmark that was Dearborn Towers on Island Way.

The 65-year-old retired English teacher bought a two-bed, two-bath unit in Dearborn Towers in 2004, moving in full time in 2010.

And she's reserved a unit — one floor down — at what's now being called Island Way Towers.

The city of Dearborn, Mich., sold the building last year, displacing several dozen longtime denizens who hailed from the once-mighty automaking town. Changing demographics and crushing debt forced the city to sell. The property languished on the market for two years before a Lafayette, La.-based investor group bought the 88-unit structure last year for a little more than $6 million.

Since everyone in Dearborn Towers was from the same place, it was a close-knit group that liked doing things together — from laundry to pool aerobics. People like to talk about who went to which of the city's high schools.

"We were so blessed," Dennis said.

The new 53-unit building will offer modern amenities and panoramic views of the Intracoastal Waterway and Clearwater Beach. And the suddenly snappy real estate market is supplying a steady stream of the curious and serious to its doors.

"Every developer dreams of catching the uprising right at the cutting edge of it and we're there," said Greg Hembree, a contractor and development consultant whose company will renovate the building.

The project will seek a development order from the city's Community Development Board on July 16.

Prices start at $199,000 and top out at $650,000. That likely will attract a different demographic than the retired police officers, firefighters and blue-collar workers that filled Dearborn Towers.

Without even an MLS listing and with just a few advertising flags in the parking lot, more than 1,000 people have inquired about the property since April. More than half of the units have been reserved, said Bridget Cortes, a Realtor marketing the development.

Many of those residents will hail a long way from Dearborn. One reservation is from Sweden.

"There's been a lot of international interest," Hembree said.

When work crews knocked down the interior walls, they discovered the walls were wood-framed — against code even when the structure was built five decades ago. An eighth-story stud had termite holes. Mold was a problem, too, said Hembree.

The new building will be greener, safer and meets FEMA flood-plain codes, he said.

The first residents will likely move in by the end of the year, Hembree said.

As for Dennis, she's thrilled about having a dishwasher and washer-dryer in her new condo ("Everyone used to hoard quarters," she said), but still gets a lump in her throat talking about the special bond shared by a band of Michiganders glad to be free of the slush and harsh winds of a Great Lakes winter.

Dennis wonders whether the new residents will be interested in socializing in Hubbard Hall, named for the longtime Dearborn mayor who bought the eight-story building for his city's residents in 1967.

"Will people in this building want the same kind of shared social activity or not?" Dennis said, lightly touching the Detroit Tigers pendant on her neck. "At most places it's just 'hi' in the elevator. People who left (Dearborn Towers) tell me, 'There's no sense of community,' where they live now."

Either way, the gregarious Dennis is looking forward to meeting her future neighbors.

"This is home," she said.

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters or mail to 1130 Cleveland St., Suite 100, Clearwater, FL 33755.

Former den of Dearborn, Mich., retirees being transformed into Clearwater condos 06/29/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 28, 2013 7:56pm]

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