After 40 years, Northdale no longer in 'middle of nowhere'

In the 1970s, Bob Sierra saw something few others did — and Northdale was born.
Published May 6 2015
Updated May 12 2015

NORTHDALE — Bob Sierra has ridden the ups and downs of five recessions during his five decades in housing development, and at 82, he's still seeking perfection.

Ask him what he considers to be his best development, and the chairman and CEO of Sierra Properties gives a quick answer.

"My next one," says Sierra, who is still working as a developer while enjoying a partial retirement. "I try to fill voids from other communities and incorporate them into my next project.

"I feel like a failure if I don't continually improve on what I'm doing."

It's not a surprising response from a man who can claim a hand in some of the area's most notable subdivisions, including Avila and Bloomingdale.

It's Northdale, however, that people most readily associate with Sierra, in part because the YMCA that serves the area bears his name.

Some may find it hard to believe that the subdivision celebrating its 40th anniversary this year began in what Sierra calls, "the middle of nowhere."

Rich Peirce, 41, grew up in Northdale in the 1980s and remembers lots of open space and few cars along Northdale Boulevard. The closest traffic light was at Waters and Dale Mabry Highway, and Dale Mabry was only four lanes.

Today, the footprint placed by Sierra has rippled into a thriving suburb.

• • •

Sierra purchased the land to build Northdale from Walter Wyman "Willie" Ragg Sr., in the early 1970s. He had operated a dairy farm in the 1950s and a cattle ranch in the 1960s on the 1,300 acres that fronted Dale Mabry Highway and stretched from Zambito Road to where a Taco Bell sits today.

"Mr. Sierra first contacted Dad in the early 1970s," recalls Ragg's son, 65-year-old Walter Wyman "Wy" Ragg Jr.

By that time, his father had twice overcome cancer and wanted to sell the extensive property to help provide financial security for his family.

"They (the Raggs) asked me 'What would we have to do to have you buy the land?' " Sierra recalls. "They worked out a deal for me."

Sierra and the Raggs became close friends — something, the Northdale creator says, doesn't often happen between a landowner and a developer. From the fertile grounds of the former cattle ranch, Sierra's plan began flourishing.

• • •

With original home prices ranging from the mid $30,000s to high $50,000s, Sierra aimed Northdale at married couples, middle-income families and empty-nesters looking for nice homes on decent-sized lots away from the hustle of Tampa.

"I was building these homes for the typical American who goes to college, gets married and then buys a house," he said.

In all, about 2,700 homes were originally planned, and upon completion the community was expected to have about 7,000 residents.

Sierra's early vision called for lots of green spaces but no golf course. However, he soon realized there would be a problem.

"In Florida, you can't leave open space because it leads to weeds and reptiles. People don't like snakes in their back yards," chuckles Sierra. "For a little more than it would cost to mow the open land, we could maintain fairways."

With that, the neighborhood's 72-hole, 6,824-yard championship golf course was born. The Northdale Golf & Tennis Club would open in 1979, by which time residents were moving into the community.

• • •

The 1980s saw changes. Big changes. Nearby Gaither High School was built in 1984 and Ben Hill Junior High — now Ben Hill Middle — opened in 1986.

In 1985, the construction of the Bob Sierra YMCA began in the same area where two log cabin homes belonging to the Ragg family once stood.

As more homes were constructed in Northdale and neighboring communities, retailers took note. The Northdale Court 6 movie theater and the Northdale Court shopping center (now Colonial Promenade) would open at the northwest corner of Northdale Boulevard and North Dale Mabry Highway in 1985. Frank's Nursery blossomed nearby that same year.

Two decades later, the theater gave way to Crunch Fitness. The Frank's Nursery location has since gone to the dogs — it's now a Royal Pets Market & Resort.

Over on Premiere Drive, the Northwest Regional Library opened its doors in 1986. The library shifted its books to the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library on Bearss Avenue in 2001.

The old branch library building now serves as a regional station for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department.

• • •

After four decades, Northdale is no longer in the middle of nowhere. Now, it's in the middle of it all.

Other subdivisions surround Sierra's creation. Retail and restaurant options are plentiful and the arrival of St. Joseph's Hospital North campus on Van Dyke Road no longer means driving south toward Tampa for an emergency room visit.

And Sierra just keeps on going, leaving more fingerprints on the community.

He's excited about his newest project: Cypress Creek Town Center on State Road 56 near Interstate 75 in Pasco County. The multimillion-dollar project features an outlet mall, restaurants, hotels and other establishments springing up on a 600-acre parcel he purchased decades ago.

Sierra Properties is one of three developers working on the site, with Sierra's group focusing on an area of 40 acres he still owns closest to Interstate 75 and 204 acres north of State Road 56.

Sierra says when he bought the property as a "natural extension" of Turtle Lakes, a community he developed in the 1980s, he and his team did not know the Florida Department of Transportation was planning to build an interchange where Interstate 75 and State Road 56 intersect today.

"Many would think that was a lucky break," Sierra said. "And it probably was."