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City living back in favor

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Increasingly, people want to live a stroll away from banks and shops.

At 5:30 in the morning, Judy Tafelski jogs by the light of Dunedin's old-fashioned street lamps. She waves, calling out the names of other early risers. Depending on the day's route, she'll pass Kelly's restaurant and the Purple Moon Coffeehouse.

She gets dressed for work, just a 10-minute walk from the two-story condo she shares with a roommate. When the day is done, she'll stop downtown for dinner. Along the brick sidewalks, she'll stroll with her Chihauhua, Pickles.

The lifestyle is far different from how the 53-year-old grew up in suburban St. Louis at a time when living a car-drive away from the city's core was desirable.

But the nation has seen a reversal of the urban flight it experienced some decades ago. More and more, people are craving boutiques, restaurants and banks to which they can walk. They are willing to pay for upscale apartments and condos that cost as much as a three-bedroom house. And they want them smack in the center of town _ despite the traffic, chatter and music just beyond their bay windows.

In Pinellas County, for the most part, the trend has been couched in the catch phrase "downtown redevelopment," which people more closely associate with bookstores, restaurants and cute places to shop.

Yet developers and builders say housing may be the more essential ingredient.

"The presence of residential in a downtown can be the difference between success and failure," consultant Charlie Siemon said.

St. Petersburg and Dunedin are the test cases, having already built townhomes and condos a skip's distance from city halls. Residents are paying $145,000 to $185,000 for townhouses in Dunedin and as much as $2-million for luxury condos in St. Petersburg.

"Over the past five years, things have really been happening quickly," said Dave Goodwin, St. Petersburg's manager of planning programs. "I think people are looking for a more urban lifestyle."

Largo, Clearwater and Tarpon Springs, for example, are not too far behind, laying the groundwork with sewer enhancements, streetscaping and other amenities.

That means more people. More hustle, more bustle. "More concentration," as Dave Healey, Pinellas Planning Council executive director, calls it.

Since 1992, Dunedin, Safety Harbor, Oldsmar, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo, Pinellas Park and Gulfport have taken advantage of special county zoning classifications that allow developers to squeeze more homes on developed land.

Take Largo, for instance. The city doubled its downtown density restrictions three years ago to encourage a more urban setting, Community Development Director Ric Goss said. Before 1997, zoning codes allowed for only 15 units per acre. Now, the city could allow a developer 30 units an acre in that area, Goss said.

It has yet to make much difference in Largo's case, though. City commissioners recently rejected a developer's plan to build a downtown commercial and residential hub because residents complained the plan included too many apartments, which was less desireable to the public than townhomes, Goss said.

Besides zoning, other issues will have to be addressed with regard to "new urbanism."

The planning council is studying the potential impact on schools, transportation, sewer and water systems. A consultant is being paid about $96,000 to compile information for the first phase of a countywide approach to redevelopment. The first "visioning" phase is expected to be complete in March, Healey said.

Nationwide, cities such as Seattle, Jersey City and Chicago are turning old apartment buildings and warehouses into high-end apartments, condos and townhouses. As much is true among east-coast Florida cities, including Boca Raton, West Palm Beach and Delray Beach, said Siemon, the consultant who has worked with Clearwater in its redevelopment efforts.

"There's a national trend," Goodwin said. "We're just catching up."

In Clearwater, redevelopment hit a major snag in July when voters rejected a massive downtown project. Although the proposed movie theater was much-talked-about, the plan relied heavily on rental and for-sale residential units which would have accounted for a significant chunk of the project's square footage, Siemon said.

But not all urban housing was lost with the failed referendum, Siemon noted. Next year, a public and private partnership is expected to net a 100-unit townhouse complex in downtown Clearwater.

Meanwhile, Tafelski and her roommate, Sherril Claus, are content in their Dunedin condo, where the absence of huge front yards and subdivision-style setbacks allow them to get to know their neighbors. They relish the closeness of stores and shops.

Some weekends, Claus says, she needn't bother revving up the engine in her car. Everything she needs _ a night out, a dining experience, a neighbor to talk to _ is just a walk away.