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Unfinished condo project punctuates Brooksville growth miscalculations

Southern Pines Condominiums were billed as luxury living in a growing Hernando. Now it sits incomplete and empty.

RON THOMPSON | Times

Southern Pines Condominiums were billed as luxury living in a growing Hernando. Now it sits incomplete and empty.

To anyone who has noticed the forlorn-looking cluster of buildings on State Road 50 just east of Brooksville Regional Hospital, it's probably no surprise the developer has filed for bankruptcy protection.

The grounds are weedy, the swimming pools and fitness center deserted and the parking lots empty except for a jumbo golf cart — with three rows of seats — built for crowds of prospective buyers that never showed up.

Only two of the 18 residential buildings planned for the project, Southern Pines Condominiums, have been completed. And only two of the proposed 288 units are occupied — one by the condos' developer, Charles Sasser.

All this is too bad, and not just for the usual reasons it's too bad when a development goes south — the blight on the landscape, the jobs that never came to pass, the empty residential units adding to the glut on the market.

See, Southern Pines was supposed to mean something for Brooksville.

Nobody was ever going to confuse our town with proven big-city condo markets (and in many respects, thank goodness), not even six years ago, when development fever was spiking and Sasser first brought this project before the County Commission.

But well-placed condos can make nearly any city feel more urban.

Put a lot of people — especially ones able to afford condominiums — close to stores and restaurants, and you create demand for more stores and restaurants.

The shopping and services built to satisfy this demand draw more people, creating even more demand, all while gobbling up far less open space than Hernando's dominant pattern of single-family homes.

Before developers co-opted the term, this is what was called "smart growth.''

So what went wrong?

Well, I did say well-placed.

"The ideal market for a condo is someplace where single-family homes are really expensive and the site has a unique amenity: a downtown, a waterfront or maybe a world-class golf course,'' said Tampa Bay area housing analyst Marvin Rose, who has toured the project.

Even in seemingly ideal locations such as Tampa and Miami, desolate condo towers have been among the visible symbols of the real estate bust.

If a condo could ever work in Brooksville — and Rose mostly doubts it — it would have to be much smaller than Southern Pines and within easy walking distance of downtown. Sasser's project is more than 2 miles away.

"There may be an opportunity for a small, infill townhome project in an area where you can walk to the post office and stores and stuff like that,'' Rose said.

Location isn't Southern Pines' only problem.

The faceless buildings surrounded by chain-link fence look more like a half-finished compound of dormitories than "luxury condominiums," as they are called on the project's Web site. When I also read there that the condos were selling for "an incredible $219,900," the only thing that struck me as incredible was the nerve to ask that price.

The units are now available for $159,000, said the project's office manager, Cynde Mason, who showed me around the condominiums last week. She was pretty convincing about their appeal, especially to the target market of empty-nesters: no lawn to mow or pool to clean, no worries about security or maintenance if owners decide to spend a few months up north in the summer.

She emphasized that Sasser's company, Hernando Beach Inc., filed for bankruptcy only to reorganize. The sales office remains open, and she expects the project to turn around once the housing market improves and prospective buyers are able to sell their current homes.

"Actually, we've had a great deal of interest,'' she said.

Well, maybe, but I have to agree with Rose, who called the project "very ill conceived."

I'd like to be able to blast the county commissioners, all of whom intended to vote for the project and — to their credit — denied Sasser's rezoning request only because he refused to set aside land for a frontage road.

And I can justifiably criticize the Brooksville City Council for annexing and approving Sasser's plans without this set-aside.

But I can't say much about the council's approval of the project's general concept back when every stretch of highway looked like an inevitable growth corridor and a lot of us were less skeptical about what qualified as smart development.

I was all for it.

Unfinished condo project punctuates Brooksville growth miscalculations 06/27/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 10:40am]
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