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Recession sends gloom into upscale Brightwaters neighborhood

Brightwaters Boulevard is one of Tampa Bay's most prestigious addresses. Curving the length of Snell Isle in St. Petersburg, it is home to doctors and developers, CEOs and high-profile lawyers.

It is a street that exudes an air of gracious living. But like thousands of other American streets, it has felt the sting of a troubled economy and real estate market.

At the north end of Brightwaters sits a 6,000-square-foot bayfront mansion that is in foreclosure. The owner, a prominent eye doctor, is trying to sell it for $3 million.

At the south end of Brightwaters is the storied Perry Snell home, built in the 1920s and now on sale for $18 million. Its current residents, owners of a defunct computer training school, are in financial distress after spending millions on renovations.

In between are 25 more homes for sale — one in every seven, or 14 percent of the 196 properties with a Brightwaters address. Those are numbers you might expect to find in the bland subdivisions that sprang up in Hillsborough or Pasco counties during the boom, not in one of the region's oldest and most affluent neighborhoods.

For Brightwaters, "this is the largest inventory at one time ever,'' says Frank Malowany, a real estate agent for 30 years. "I would say it's a microcosm of the economy in general. Each house has a different story but when you had all your money in stocks or you have a multimillion-dollar business going down it obviously affects where you live.''

Some of those trying to unload their Brightwaters mansions are in construction or development, both hard hit by the recession.

Another seller had three wine shops around the bay area, all now closed.

And like many other American homeowners, some of the sellers are severely underwater on their mortgages. One couple who got a $4.5 million loan at the peak of the boom in 2005 now have their Mediterranean-style home listed at $2.95 million.

Though still sky-high compared with most areas, prices along Brightwaters have dropped as houses languish for months with no takers. It's the same scenario in Tampa's most exclusive enclaves.

"Hyde Park, Davis Islands, Culbreath Isles — very little is selling in those neighborhoods right now and you have a lot of houses that have sat on the market for a year or over,'' says Jackie Colson-Miller, a South Tampa agent dealing in luxury properties. "The only things that are selling are priced exactly right or priced below market.''

Such is the case on Brightwaters.

"The market today is not the market it was a year or two ago,'' Malowany says. "There have been price reductions to the point where property on the market today on the high end could not be reproduced for that price.''

"The interesting thing," he continued, "is that sellers have realized that the market has changed, but the buyers have taken a little longer. They say, 'We want a good deal,' and I tell them, 'You're standing on it.' ''

Another veteran agent, Cary Bond Thomas, notes that some Brightwaters homes have been so expensively remodeled it can be a liability come time to sell. Buyers want a price based on square footage and location, not all the extras the owner has added.

"Sellers will say, 'Geez, it's costing me X amount of dollars,' but most people look beyond that and are hauling in their own decorators and architects,'' Thomas says. "It doesn't make sense to make everything too customized. I had one house that had two new kitchens in five years'' by different owners.

When times were flush, so many homes along Brightwaters were custom-built or got extravagant make-overs that it is rare to find one like Thomas' listing at 753. Built in 1951, it has the original Frigidaire stove, garish wall paper and energy-inefficient jalousie doors.

The California owners, who inherited the canal-front home, have dropped the price from $2 million to $1,150,000. And they're eager for an offer.

"Today, if you can't be realistic about the price, it's not going to happen,'' Thomas says. She recently closed on another Brightwaters property, near the home of Gov. Charlie Crist's parents, that sat for 21/2 years before selling for just over $1 million to a trust.

With Florida's economy in such rough shape, agents say many of the potential buyers are from elsewhere.

"We're getting out of state, also international — some from the U.K. and from Germany,'' agent Barbara Dunbar says. But she acknowledges business has been slow. Two of her Brightwaters listings have been on the market for more than a year even though the prices have been slashed hundreds of thousand of dollars.

On a recent weekday, Dunbar was among several real estate agents hosting open houses on Brightwaters so other agents could inspect the properties while enjoying complimentary sandwiches, desserts and Easter punch.

"It's like car dealers. They're concentrated in one place to draw more people in,'' agent Cynthia Schoenberger said of the unusually large number of open houses that day. She was trying to drum up interest in a $3 million, Tara-style manse with stunning waterfront views that has been on the market for more than two years as its owners go through a divorce.

Several doors away is the five-bedroom, four-bath British Colonial style home that real estate investor Tony Fernandez first tried to sell three years ago as the market began to sag. Getting no takers, he rented it to a Finnish family for $15,000 a month, then put it back on the market last year for $2.5 million.

Now it's down to $2,295,000 and still no offers.

"The market overall is picking up, but I don't think it is necessarily in that price range,'' says Fernandez, who has several other Snell Isle properties that he rents out.

"At that level I think it's kind of stuck for a while.''

Still, pessimism is an emotion shunned in the real estate business. Dunbar doesn't like to dwell on the negative, preferring to talk about Brightwaters' proximity to downtown St. Petersburg with its many restaurants, parks, museums and galleries.

"People go to the beaches, they go other places, then somebody says, 'Go to Brightwaters!' It's the mystique of Brightwaters that keeps drawing them in here.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

Brightwaters Boulevard NE

Recession sends gloom into upscale Brightwaters neighborhood 04/04/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 5, 2010 9:37am]
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