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Sidney Colen

Sidney Colen developed On Top of the World and Kenneth City

CLEARWATER —Sidney Colen came to Florida in 1947 with a vision. He would combine quality housing in a growing retirement mecca with a more intangible element: community.

He dreamed big, building a city northwest of St. Petersburg named after his son, Kenneth.

In the 1960s, Mr. Colen broke ground on an even more ambitious project: thousands of condominium units in the middle of Clearwater, at a time when few developers were gambling on the concept at all, let alone financing it themselves.

He called it On Top of the World. Mr. Colen, who died Thursday at 90, doubled down on the dream in the 1970s, building an even larger On Top of the World community outside Ocala.

Through it all, the man behind the vision contained contradictions. He added international-looking facades to his condo village behind a huge globe marking the entrance — a Pagoda roof here, a Swiss chalet there — but rarely traveled himself, preferring work over leisure.

He waxed philosophical about freedom and individualism, but was regarded by some residents as a controlling and secretive owner who bristled when his policies were questioned.

"I think he is credited with being one of the pioneers of condominium developments, certainly in Pinellas County and certainly in projects that aren't on the water," said Tarpon Springs real estate consultant Marvin Rose. "He proved that if you provide lifestyle and price in a good location, it doesn't necessarily have to be on the water."

Mr. Colen grew up in Pennsylvania and Toledo, Ohio. After high school, the grocer's son tended bar, then formed an interior decorating business. He might have gone through with plans to move to South America had he not taken his father's advice to buy a house first.

Along the way, he fell in love with Ina Gotler. The couple married in 1948 and settled in St. Petersburg. "My grandparents basically outsmarted him," said Kenneth Colen, Mr. Colen's son.

He began building houses for others. To keep his standards high, the young developer named projects after his children — Merna Park, Leslee Heights and Kenneth City, the latter begun in the early 1950s between St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park.

Mr. Colen envisioned a self-supporting city with no property taxes. He targeted the modest two- and three-bedroom homes with terrazzo floors for middle-income people.

"He treated us like we were friends, not just new residents," said Muriel Whitman, 83, a Kenneth City resident since 1957 and its mayor from 2006 to 2009.

The community did not go as planned. The taxes Mr. Colen fought against came in the back door, through ad valorem taxes voted on by the City Council. Mr. Colen called the experiment a failure.

"They adopted regulations patterned after the city I was protesting against," Mr. Colen said at the time. "Doesn't that tell you something about people?"

In 1957 he built Clearview Oaks, a 584-unit condominium development in St. Petersburg.

On Top of the World followed in 1967, incorporating trees and a memorable international look. "If you get below the surface it was all the same," Rose said. "He put a couple of thousand dollars on the exterior and made them look like they were from Russia or Saudi Arabia or whatever."

Mr. Colen clashed with residents at least twice over issues ranging from complaints about maintenance to his family's control of the development's management company.

"I think he was also very shrewd," said 23-year resident Joanne Golder, 73. "He had a way of making you feel like you were a schoolkid in a schoolroom, and I personally resented it."

But in a dispute over finances in 2001, 75 percent of residents said they were happy with the status quo and voted down an effort to hire an internal auditor.

Part of the ongoing appeal lies in an abundance of club activities and services, another of Colen's priorities. "If you don't have anything to do at Top of the World, it's your own fault," said 27-year resident Frances Giaros, 75.

In 1982, Mr. Colen began a second On Top of the World outside Ocala, which is home to about 10,000 residents and growing.

As pneumonia encroached, Kenneth Colen urged his father on. "I said, 'You can pull through this, you're stubborn,' " recalled Colen, 56.

"He said, 'No, I'm not stubborn. Stubborn is being resistant to the truth in the face of truth. I am strong-willed, resolute and resourceful.' "


Sidney Colen

Born: March 27, 1919.

Died: Oct. 29, 2009.

Survivors: wife Ina; daughters Leslee Colen and Merna Brein and her husband, Jeff; son Kenneth Colen; sister Dolores Gruen; and numerous nieces and nephews.

Sidney Colen developed On Top of the World and Kenneth City 11/02/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 3, 2009 7:04am]
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