Charlie and Mari O'Brien don't consider themselves trend setters. Things just worked out that way. The O'Briens will probably be the first family to move into Island Homes, a pricey new residential neighborhood currently under construction on Harbour Island, the $1-billion mixed-use development at downtown Tampa's back door.
"It's going to be exciting to see how this all develops," said O'Brien, an executive with a Plant City trucking company. "One of the things that attracts us is that we're going to be part of shaping a community out here."
The O'Briens already lived in a Harbour Island condominium, but they shopped all around Hillsborough County before deciding to stay put.
"We looked at Avila, Tampa Palms, Hunter's Green, River Hills, Hyde Park and the Bayshore," Mrs. O'Brien said. "But we thought we wanted to move to a place where the other people were new, too. It's going to be a real neighborhood."
O'Brien said he decided on Harbour Island for several reasons of convenience.
"Access to the airport is key," he said. "And I'm a half-hour from Plant City. We can walk to church downtown. And I like that I can walk out the back door to my boat at the marina."
Tampa's new convention center, which was unveiled this weekend, is a two-minute walk.
"We had company last week, and they were delighted," Mrs. O'Brien said. "I mean you can do anything, you're so close to everything."
The O'Briens moved to Tampa from downtown Philadelphia about 18 months ago. Their new home will be their 13th. "We hope this is our last," O'Brien said. "It's got everything we want."
They hope to move before Christmas.
The developer, Trammell Crow's Residential Cos., took over Harbour Island three years ago and initially said it would go ahead with plans for residential development. But the construction didn't begin until last July.
Island Homes, the community's most expensive housing, will include 29 single-family homes, 12 of them along Seddon Channel. Island Homes is the first detached housing offered by Trammell Crow on Florida's West Coast.
Areas have been cleared on other parts of the island for two multi-unit housing projects, Harbour Homes and Island Walk. Harbour Homes will be 84 townhomes on Sparkman Channel priced from $110,000 to $230,000, and Island Walk will be 272 rental apartments with rents beginning at less than $1,000 a month. Construction on both projects should begin next month.
It will be about three more years before all 29 homes are built.
When completed, the new housing will nearly triple the available housing units on the island to 585. The Seddon Cove and Harbour
Court condominiums, which opened first, comprise 72 and 128 units respectively.
"At the end of last year, we had about 160 occupied residences," said Tom Harvey, a partner in Trammell Crow Residential and general manager of Harbour Island. "At the end of next year, we'll have more than 550."
The stately Island Homes are available in one-story and two-story models ranging from 3,000 square feet to 4,300 square feet, with opportunities to create more space. They sell for between $450,000 to $800,000. The lots alone range from $150,000 for an interior parcel to $285,000 for a waterfront view.
The O'Briens' home is the smallest of four Island Homes floor plans. All four plans can be revised. It's possible for two homes with the same floor plan to vary more than $100,000 in price, depending on the options selected.
"The Island Homes are a traditional island-style of architecture," said Jack Stephany, president of Architectural Consultants Corporation, and the designer of the Island Homes. "I originally set out to induce a tropical-type feel."
"There are a lot of classical forms, such as high ceilings, large arches, bay windows, high windows with transoms, hip roofs with flat cement tiles and light pastel colors like beiges, grays and golds."
The Island Homes housing brochure (which Harvey said cost $60 apiece) bills the community as "an unparalleled blend of personal privacy, island-style recreation and urban convenience."
The private entry courtyards of each Island Home can be made even more picturesque by the addition of a reflecting pool. The courtyard and colonnade-lined walkway link the main residence to a one-story or two-story "imagination room."
The imagination room is adaptable to virtually any purpose, from guest quarters to a home office to an exercise room. It is the 1990s version of Hyde Park's garage apartments.
With five grown children living in the Northeast, the O'Briens fit the profile of "empty nesters," but they anticipate family visits. "It's great when there's just the two of us, but at Christmas we'll have 12 people here, so we'll need a lot of room," Mrs. O'Brien said. "The imagination room is the key. It solves our space requirements for those visits."
In the formal dining and living rooms, vaulted ceilings will soar up to 19 feet high. Other ceilings are a minimum 10 feet high. All two-story Island Homes will feature dramatic elevated walkways, connecting the private second-floor bedroom suites.
Transoms and sidelights are prominent features for admitting light. Most rooms are accented by plant shelves.
Among the special luxuries available in the spacious and secluded master bedroom suites are an optional fireplace which faces both the bedroom and the bath, an optional continental breakfast-style morning bar and a private balcony.
Master baths incorporate such features as marble and tile surfaces, vaulted ceilings, private water closets, his and her lavatories, skylights, a step-up whirlpool tub and a glass block-enclosed shower.
Pastel hues, indigenous stucco materials, arches and French doors recall the best of traditional island architecture, and courtyards allow ample room for pools and spas.
Each home includes a completely private enclosed garden and a $10,000 landscape allowance.
Harvey said maintenance fees will be about $600 per month for Island Homes residences. The fee pays for road maintenance and the island's 32-person security force as well as upkeep of the common areas.
Certain deed restrictions apply, such as a limit of two household pets and an architectural board that reviews exterior alterations.
The homes will be oriented on deep but narrow (50-foot) lots. Consequently, all Island Homes will have a very strong entrance axis. Because of the small lot size, the homes are linear in their layouts. Special consideration has been given to assure harmony between neighbors. The residents will have no view into the homes on either side due to careful designing.
Each of the Island Homes will be on a $250,000 linear park (yet to be built) or on the water, where heavily landscaped revetments separate private rear yards from public pathways.
Limiting the neighborhood to just 29 homes assures a certain degree of seclusion, and planning the homes so that each overlooks the water or the linear park enhances the serenity even further.
Harbour Island also recently got permission to expand its marina by 44 slips.
Considering its history, Harbour Island was, until very recently, an unlikely candidate for any kind of neighborhood, especially one of expensive homes.
Originally known as Seddon Island, after civil engineer A.E. Seddon, the island was formed from the muddy remnants left when the shipping channel was dredged for the Seaboard Air Line railroad 86 years ago. From 1909 to 1972, the island was Seaboard's phosphate terminal and was used to transfer cargo from ships visiting Tampa's port to waiting railroad cars.
Since then, it changed ownership many times among various developers and real estate agents. One group envisioned it as the home to a theme park. Seddon Island was purchased by a subsidiary of Beneficial Corp. in 1979 and renamed Harbour Island.
Harbour Island, with its marketplace, hotel and initial 200 housing units, opened in June 1985. The original developer, Lincoln Property Co., bowed out of the project two years later after the project foundered and its financial problems began to mount.
Beneficial, which owns the island, then formed a partnership with Dallas-based Trammell Crow, the nation's largest home builder.
Trammell Crow revealed plans for a new phase of upscale residential housing soon after it signed on, but blamed delays on slow demand and a sluggish economy.
Trammell Crow's Residential Cos. is a subsidiary of Trammell Crow Co. The company, which is known for its commercial and apartment developments, is also building for-sale housing in Boca Raton and Jacksonville.
The long-awaited single-family homes represent a deviation from the island's original planned urban design. Harbour Island is going where the market is, having refined its product line to include single-family homes.
"What we're trying to do now is broaden our production line," Harvey said. "We will expect to have residences for sale on Harbour Island from $100,000 to $1-million in the near future."
Trammell Crow earlier this year announced that it was shelving plans for commercial and industrial projects in Florida because of a lagging market and lack of bank financing. The company was intent to focus instead on its more-profitable residential division.
With the growing city as its back yard, Harbour Island is finally becoming a destination for homeowners. As the only master-planned community currently under construction in south Tampa, Harbour Island captures much of what is bringing people back to the city from the suburbs.
Harbour Island reported a record $850,000 in sales during the last week of August. Harvey attributed the sales increases to a wider range of home styles now offered on the island.
Harvey said 10 buyers, including himself, have already plunked down 10 percent payments on Island Homes. Four homes are under construction and three more will begin construction within the next month.
"When I got here, I assumed Harbour Island was Yuppies who worked downtown," Harvey said. "But I have really been surprised by the different mix of buyers we have."
"Surely, we have young singles and marrieds that work downtown. Things like the lifestyle and convenience and the athletic club are important to them. But we also have empty-nesters and move-downs who are here for the security and the marina and retirees who like the convenience and atmosphere of the city."