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Home alone

Published Sep. 13, 2005

Liz Darby took her four-wheel drive into the neighborhood where she was going to live. At the back of her subdivision, on off-road dirt, she saw the lot where she planned to build a home.

She looked around. No other houses were standing.

Five months later she and her husband, Brian, moved into Arbor Greene, becoming the first family to close on a lot in this new suburb on the edge of the city. They gambled that Arbor Greene would become what its brochures promised: an award-winning master-planned community with a town center, parks and 975 upscale homes.

Hundreds of other families will follow, and as they fill new homes, they are changing the look of this stretch of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. They fit a profile, according to real estate brokers: typically, young couples from outside the Tampa Bay area. About 65 percent have never lived in Hillsborough County. Many are new to Florida.

"In New Tampa, virtually everyone is new," said Marvin Rose, publisher of Rose Residential Reports.

You meet them up and down Sugar Brooke Drive. Jan and Billy Murphy of the Phoenix suburbs wanted a neighborhood far from Tampa but close enough to shop at stores such as Home Depot. Sally and Warren Miller come from Colleyville, Texas. Now a half-country away from their grandchildren, they keep in touch over the Internet.

Out of the woods, builders are carving new suburbs for families like these who arrive with specific requests. They want new homes with yards and pools, good schools and a quick commute. They cannot necessarily afford that checklist in established south Tampa neighborhoods, so they make their destinies on the outer bounds of the city.

Here, though, they also discover that life in a new suburb means giving up things, too _ like a sense of history. Brian Darby looks at all the trees that are being destroyed in this place that bears the name Arbor Greene and wonders why no one cares.

"Doesn't it bother you that they tear down hundreds of acres?" he asks.

Jan Murphy misses her parents so much that they might move to Tampa Bay from Arizona. Jo-Anne Provost, who moved from Canada, misses the bus system her teenagers used to take all over Ottawa.

There are so few stores and restaurants near Arbor Greene that many retailers do not know the subdivision exists. A florist could not locate the Darbys' street on a map.

"This is supposed to be a surprise," the driver told Liz when he telephoned. "But I do not know where you live."

Leaving the snow

The dream of a leisurely Florida life is what drove Brian Darby to uproot his family from Long Island, where he had lived for 40 years.

There he rode two commuter trains for 2{ hours to his job in Manhattan. When it snowed, the trip could take more than three hours. "All I do is think of February 1995: 37 inches in less than 24 hours," he said, although his fair skin burns easily in Florida's sun.

Today he drives a convertible, for 30 minutes, to work at Citibank's West Shore office.

As much as Brian wanted to move, Liz wanted to stay where she was. "We lived in the same town our whole life," she said. "We were very comfortable."

Florida was an almost foreign-seeming place where people had trouble understanding her New York accent and department store clerks were unnaturally friendly. "At Macy's (in New York), they don't even say hello," she said.

But Citibank offered Brian a better job in Tampa, paying more money than he could make in New York. The couple would save about $3,500 a year in taxes. Liz could afford to stay home with the boys, Brian, 4, and Patrick, 3.

They made their decision on a restless night in May, then both came down in August and looked everywhere, it seemed, for a house. Liz drove as far as Tarpon Springs and Orlando. The couple kept returning to New Tampa, a stretch of bedroom communities brimming with young couples with kids.

The appeal did not surprise their Realtor.

"A lot of these people never have had the opportunity to live in a new home," said Viola Wallace of Coldwell Banker. "If you are from New York, when you are going to get a chance to buy a new house?"

Here they could afford luxuries, too. Arbor Greene's $2-million community center resembles a tropical resort with two junior-Olympic-size pools, eight lighted tennis courts, a fitness center and a poolside snack bar.

The developers spent more than $500,000 to plant oak trees, design nine neighborhood parks, set aside nature preserves and dig lakes. Sixty-eight percent of homes back up on some sort of nature.

"You have everything at your disposal," said Provost, who lives in another section of Arbor Greene. "There is no reason to leave the community."

Builders take good care of these new residents too. For buying early, there are discounts on the homes and, often, a free pool.

In Arbor Greene, families also enjoy a sense of control over the character of their neighborhood. Many moved from city streets where a $200,000 house could sit next to a dump. In deed-restricted Arbor Greene, one builder typically constructs all the homes in a section. Homes that cost about $190,000 go in one neighborhood; homes in a higher-price league go in a different enclave.

"I like that," said Brian Darby. "If you live in the neighborhood . . . you have a common thread. No one is that much better or that much worse."

"You figure you should live with your own kind," he said.

Alone in the burbs

They had to wait for their own kind, though. In the beginning, all they felt was isolation.

The night of their closing, the Darbys couldn't find an open restaurant nearby to celebrate. They have to drive miles for movies. "I didn't have any friends," Liz Darby said.

She visited the model home, at first to ask questions about her house. But then she became friends with the saleswoman, Kathryn Brandt, who sold her her house.

There was no one else to talk to.

As more homeowners trickled in, friendships formed. "A bond develops when you have nobody else," Liz Darby said.

Jan Murphy has loaned two of her neighbors a self-help book: After the Boxes are Unpacked. The Christian text helps families adjust to moving to a new town.

The seven families who now live in the Darbys' neighborhood have hosted dinners for each other. The topic of conversation, more often than not, is their new homes.

Almost no one grew up in Florida, so families do not need to navigate cliques as they would, for example, in Palma Ceia.

"How are you going to meet someone in south Tampa?" said Wallace, the Realtor. She grew up on Bayshore Boulevard and Davis Islands, where families have belonged to clubs and krewes for generations.

Still, life on the frontier is not always easy.

"It is a different culture of living," said neighbor Sally Miller, 58, a former Realtor who moved from Texas so that her husband could work in Tampa. "You are separated from your family and friends. . . . Your husband is at a new job. You are lost."

Overall, Miller said she is glad she came to Arbor Greene. She has become a sort of grandmother figure for the others, teaching one younger woman how to cook.

"It hurts to leave my children and grandchildren, she said. "You can choose to be happy or choose to be unhappy."

Still, it's hard for some to accept that a move is final.

Liz Darby keeps two trash bins of winter coats in the attic in case they go to New York. Brian Darby gave away all his winter clothes; he figures he will never need them again.

It will be a while before the acclimation is complete.

Cory Provost, Jo-Anne's 16-year-old son, misses his friends in Canada. Since moving to Arbor Greene at the beginning of this year, he hasn't found many new friends, his mother said.

She is encouraged that a new family with a teenage son just moved to their street.

"Maybe they will hit it off," she said.

Construction continues in Arbor Greene, a New Tampa subdivision that developers promise will be an award-winning master-planned community with a town center, parks and 975 upscale homes.

The landscaped entrance to Arbor Greene leads to a subdivision that, real estate agents say, attracts mostly young couples from outside the Tampa Bay area. Many are new to Florida.

Billy Murphy works on his Arbor Greene lawn. In the background, construction continues on other homes in the new subdivision. Murphy and his wife chose Arbor Greene because they wanted to live in a neighborhood away from Tampa but close to shopping areas.