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Neotraditional community Winthrop in Riverview inches forth

RIVERVIEW — John Sullivan stands with his hands on his hips, looking at two holes in the ground.

His cup of Starbucks coffee rests on the sidewalk next to where he stands in the grass.

He cocks his head from side to side. Two trees are being planted in the churned dirt between the Regions bank branch and a vacant building that was supposed to be home to an online university.

"Yeah, I think they look even," he says with a shrug, then bends over to pick up his cup.

Across the way is his temporary office. Inside the trailer are renderings and building models that rest on big pieces of cardboard.

They show what the Winthrop community will look like once completed. They make sense of the partly built subdivision, the mix of brick walls, marble facades and Roman columns.

This upscale neighborhood — a novel, audacious idea for an area saturated with look-alike subdivisions and strip malls — is Sullivan's life. He quit his job and poured his savings into building his dream: a place where people know their neighbors and walk to the store.

And so far, amid a sour economy and the temporary disappearance of its two biggest restaurants, he has managed to keep failure at bay.

• • •

Sullivan, 51, used to be a tax lawyer. For 15 years, he helped people figure out how to outsmart the IRS.

He and wife Kay live in Valrico. Over the years, they dabbled in local community projects, which evolved into an obsession with development.

The couple started reading books on new urbanism and the idea of bringing back the lost elements of towns and cities: walkable streets and neighbors who knew one another. Soon they realized they could create a place like the ones they read about.

In 2000, the Sullivans and John's brother in Boston made an offer on a dairy farm at Bloomingdale Avenue and Providence Road.

Six months later, they closed on the property. Of the $5 million price tag on the 148 acres, they put $1 million down. The rest was financed. The monthly payments were $25,000.

"The day we closed, I had to take the long way home from Tampa," Sullivan says, sitting inside the Winthrop Starbucks. "I didn't have enough money in my bank account for the 75 cents (it cost then) for the Crosstown. We put everything into this place."

• • •

Everything was wrong for Starbucks. The site was on the wrong side of the morning traffic route, and it didn't have a drive-through. But the coffee people loved the doors.

Sullivan points out the artful arch of the wooden entrance, salvaged from the building that housed the Brussels stock exchange. Throughout the development, there are throwbacks to places that used to exist.

A wrought-iron balcony rail with an "S" in the middle of its skillfully twisted metal is from a Pittsburgh convent. The bronze doors on the credit union are from an opera house that was torn down in Cincinnati.

The pieces match the mix of architecture that makes up the Winthrop town square. Some buildings, such as the one partly leased by the St. Petersburg Times, are made of marble and adorned with Roman columns. Others that house the Publix, three restaurants, specialty stores and apartments, are reminiscent of the brick-and-balcony style in Ybor City.

There have been rough patches: Three restaurant sites sat empty for months in 2008, though they've since acquired new tenants. Sullivan admits that his town is growing more slowly than expected. Nearly a decade after he bought the land, it's only 12 percent complete.

He looks at one example every day.

The field, part of 68 acres purchased by Taylor-Morrison in 2004, has sat empty while the company has retooled its designs and made models more affordable. Taylor-Morrison has built an estimated 40 houses and townhouses out of 320 planned. They range from 1,928 to 2,467 square feet and from $190,000 to $228,000.

Sullivan is quick to point out that though underbuilt, the neighborhood is healthy with no foreclosures. A community center, which will be open to the public, is in the works.

He'd rather move slowly than too fast. The weak economy is one reason he hasn't moved on with retail and residential space planned to run along Providence Road and Bloomingdale Avenue.

• • •

Shannon Cloversettle never thought she'd quit her corporate job and ditch her commute.

But for the past three years, she has owned a specialty pet store in Winthrop with her husband, Jim. The couple also live above the shop with their golden retriever, Trouper.

For them, business has grown as Winthrop has expanded.

"We love the concept and the convenience. Everything we need is here. I don't have to drive to work, and the Publix is right over there," Cloversettle says, leaning on the counter behind her cash register.

That's the same reason Victoria Landerville decided to buy a townhouse a year ago. One recent evening, the retired teacher sat outside with her dog, Holly, watching a neighbor's children play in the streets.

"I grew up in the '50s, and I like that living here is like being in the past," she says. "I didn't want to go to Sun City."

But that doesn't mean she isn't worried about what might happen. She and her few neighbors wonder when their amenities center will be built. And what would happen if Taylor-Morrison or Sullivan went under?

"But I do love it here," Landerville says. "I'm going to try to have faith it's going to develop."

The amenities center has been put on hold because of the state of the housing market, but it will ultimately be built, says Cammie Longenecker of Taylor-Morrison.

Sullivan doesn't have any doubts about the development's fate.

"I don't have other property, just Winthrop," Sullivan says. "My heart's in this."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2454.

Neotraditional community Winthrop in Riverview inches forth 02/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 26, 2009 3:31am]
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