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Making a town into a city has its price

A few months ago I came home to find the house behind mine gone, left in its place a pile of rubble. The view I'd seen for nine years _ the small frame house, the branches of a towering oak tree resting on its second-story porch roof _ had been irrevocably altered.

This was no surprise. I live in South Tampa, where in the past few years smaller, older houses have come tumbling down daily. And this house was a clear tear-down if ever there was one. Though a bulldozer was used to raze it, it might have gone down with a swift kick.

But even with its peeling paint, second-story porch piled with junk and overgrown vines, I liked looking at it. It was kind of old Florida. It was a too-extreme example of what I originally liked about South Tampa _ the big oaks and small houses, the kind of sleepy Southern small-town feel that's all but gone now.

And I feared what would grow in its place.

Now I know. Where a small house stood on a large lot, now will stand two houses _ one at 5,000 square feet, the other at 3,300.

This, too, is no surprise.

All over South Tampa _ in Bayshore Beautiful, where I live, in Beach Park, in Palma Ceia _ mini-mansions are replacing smaller houses. In Bayshore Beautiful, in one short block between MacDill and Matanzas, seven very modest one-story houses have been toppled, replaced by two-story houses in the 3,000-plus to 4,000 square-foot range.

The tear-downs were nothing special, though I do miss the little salmon cottage with a front yard full of pinwheels. But I guess when you're paying $150,000 for a lot, pinwheels aren't what you have in mind.

What you have in mind is a big house with a big price.

"People with money are moving back into the city," says Don Hughes, a Tampa builder. "It's the reverse of the flight to the suburbs."

On that block just mentioned, Hughes has built four big Mediterranean houses all in a row. They appear to be built out to the legal side setback of 7 feet _ and he says he usually builds out all the way on the sides _ which leaves 14 feet between houses. If they seem awfully big for the lots, no one's noticing. One just resold for $535,000 with two offers the first day on the market.

There goes the neighborhood.

And it's a good thing, says James Moore, interim director and associate professor at USF's School of Architecture and Community Design. "What you're seeing is beneficial," he says. "It means the neighborhood is desirable. Your property values are going up."

And, says Moore, who lives on Davis Islands, high land values will translate into higher density, which will lead to pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, places to walk to, neighborhood-oriented retail _ the things that "make a city a city."

Maybe that's the macro way to look at it.

But there is a price. When I moved here nine years ago, as I turned off Himes onto a quiet street of tall trees and modest houses, some with wreaths of flowers on the door or flying colorful banners, I felt a sense of calm.

A small-town feel to a place five minutes from downtown with artisan bread and good restaurants _ you'd have to be the urban version of a Luddite to think it could last.

The lots behind me are now a construction site-to-be, the foliage and minor trees cut down, the ground leveled, the portable toilet in place. The oak tree I see from my kitchen window still stands, minus several branches themselves the size of a smaller tree, its canopy raised to about 35 feet. Right now, with no house to fill in the blank space, it looks like a child's drawing of a tree _ a stick with branches only at the top.

_ Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. City Life appears weekly in the Times.