DUNEDIN — The old brick roads of south Dunedin showcase disrepair. Backed-up stormwater drains flood front doorsteps. Unmowed yards line unlit streets. Homes owned by errant flippers reveal years of decay.
Yet in recent years, the neighborhood "was the heart of Dunedin. It really was," said Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski, who grew up there. "That's where Dunedin really started. That's where all the families lived. … I think it just got forgotten."
City staff members disagree on why the center of the city's affordable housing deteriorated for decades, even as taxpayer money flowed into tourist stops, skate parks and downtown amenities. Some blame the budget. Some blame the residents. Others point at City Hall.
"The priorities just weren't where they should be," Commissioner David Carson said. "Downtown, we took care of that, we made it nice and clean and neat. … You get outside of that downtown corridor and it starts to crumble."
City leaders, agreeing that the neighborhood needs help, have planned millions of dollars in capital spending and a workshop Monday to outline the problems.
Some will take years of rebuilding. Others might not be as easy to fix.
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During the boom years of the roaring '20s, vacationers from Florida and beyond flocked to the lavish Fenway Hotel. Flanked by an orange grove and fronted by the gulf, south Dunedin's world-class resort flourished into a busy stop on the Orange Belt Railroad.
Some wealthy visitors didn't want to leave. Instead, they built homes in what would become one of the city's largest historic subdivisions.
"Dunedin was a good place to settle," said Matthew Campbell, the city's assistant director of planning and development. "They figured this might be a good place to put down some roots."
The homes of south Dunedin, many of them one or two bedrooms and built with concrete block, are some of the city's oldest and cheapest, Campbell said. Young families, retirees, teachers and truck drivers have in years past settled into the neighborhood's smaller starter homes and duplex rental units along the area's old brick roads.
Residents say the neighborhood between Douglas and Patricia avenues, which stops at Beltrees Street and extends to the Clearwater border, has an aged and arty charm. Fish mailboxes, roaming egrets and citrus trees sit paces from the front doors.
The Florida feel extends to the neighborhood's housing market.
The peak of postwar growth led into the pop of the housing bubble. Vacant and foreclosed homes bought by investors hoping to profit from the inflated market have sat for years behind for sale signs.
The problem isn't unique to the south side, Campbell said. But the area's low price and old age became especially enticing to investors. Flippers flocked to the south side and, when the market crashed, left it to rot.
"The flippers were unfortunately the type of investors who caused neighborhoods to decline. They got in over their head," Campbell said. "People became property owners with the intent to make a quick buck. … They had no intentions of keeping the property, and they lost their shirts."
The rate of vacancy citywide has doubled within the last eight years, the U.S. Census estimates. And in south Dunedin, one in five homes without a homestead exemption is deteriorated or dilapidated, according to city planning statistics — a sign that landlords gave up on renting or lost the deeds to lenders.
City development staff wrote to commissioners that the problem of crumbling homes is worsened by the "low-income characteristics" of the south side, which make needed home improvements unaffordable.
Daniela Smyth has lived on Orangewood Drive for eight years, watching homes on her street empty and decay.
"This one's abandoned, that one's abandoned. My neighbor's back yard has grass up to here," she said, lifting her hand to her neck. "People are struggling, I guess."
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For south Dunedin owners and renters, the problems don't end with empty homes. Residents say they complained of crime and the lack of basic street facilities like lights and sidewalks but found little support from uninvolved neighbors or city staff.
The biggest problem, residents said, is flooding. Old underground pipes used to drain rainwater into St. Joseph Sound are too narrow, soaking roads, yards and entryways.
"I've been bringing up the flooding issue for four years," said Bree Cheatham, who has lived on Roanoke Street for more than five years. She photographed the swamped streets for a year but, thinking she had enough to convince the city, stopped in 2006. "It was like beating a dead horse."
Nearly 35 years since the city first reported drainage problems, the streets still flood, said Vice Mayor Julie Scales. She said it was most likely a "funding issue" that kept parts of the south side underwater, adding that she believes the faultiest drains have been replaced, work is ongoing and that other areas need help as well.
"Our list is extremely long citywide. There has been investment in the south side, but the need has always exceeded our means," said City Manager Rob DiSpirito. "The need to upsize pipes and replace those that are failing has exceeded what's available.
"There's been no malign neglect. It's just been a question of scale."
But Carson, who runs a pest control business on Douglas Avenue, said former city leaders cared little about the cost when choosing to build glamorous, high-profile projects.
The "unsexy" needs of south side infrastructure suffered.
"I heard from previous staff that there's no money," Carson said, "but we spent $10 million over here and $6 million over there. …
"We have roads that are flooding. Skate parks are wonderful, they're nice to give the kids … but the kids have to understand we have to take care of the priorities."
The current commission, he said, "eliminated the politics" by focusing on what he called the most neglected section of town.
"No one's going to notice those pipes. It will stop flooding one day, and it's going to be miraculous, and no one will ever think of it again," Carson said. "It's hard as a politician to take credit for something that nobody notices."
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Some South Dunedin residents say the neglect starts from within.
"A lot of funding goes toward the north area and the downtown area, I think, because we have more younger people here, working people, renters and more transient," said Douglas Avenue homeowner Kimberly Holtorf. "I don't think there's too many people rallying for the south side.
"The ones who raise the most fuss get things done."
Instilling "community pride" into the south side has been tough, commissioners said, considering the dearth of out-of-town landlords and temporary renters.
Home ownership is the first step. City leaders said they plan to take full advantage of county mortgage-assistance programs and low-interest improvement loans, though they couldn't say how many residents would be interested.
Investment from the city, they said, is just as important.
By 2011, the city hopes to begin $1.7 million in stormwater repair on Orangewood Drive. Workers will replace drainage and piping at three more south side intersections a year after. About $1.5 million in reconstruction on Beltrees Street and streetscaping on south Douglas Avenue will likely begin around 2016.
The work is "100 years coming," Carson said, and a little later than officials would hope. They said, "neighborhood revitalization," especially in a long-neglected area like the south side, will take time.
"Over the years, it has been 'this little effort,' 'that little effort — a lot of talk but not much effort," Scales said. "We need to show we care about all our neighborhoods."
Drew Harwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.