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Ybor becomes an urban frontier

Development is creating a market for Ybor City's shotgun shacks and bungalows.

The house for sale is marked inside with graffiti, water damage, peeling paint. The windows are so cloudy and cracked it's hard for passers-by to see inside. Watch where you step: Your foot might go through the floor.

There's no garage and little back yard in this Third Avenue home, which sits near bar-lined Seventh Avenue, the rowdiest section of town.

The asking price, once renovations are complete: $149,900.

"People are freaking out, going, "Fran, you got to be out of your mind. This is Ybor, not South Tampa,' " says real estate agent Fran Costantino. "I say, "You just wait and see.' "

The commercial redevelopment of Ybor City _ including the Oct. 5 opening of the $45-million entertainment complex Centro Ybor _ has prompted a residential boom, complete with prices never seen before in the historic district.

These same houses, decrepit bungalows and shotgun houses along Fourth, Fifth and Sixth avenues, sold just a few years ago for $30,000 or less.

Built nearly 100 years ago to house Ybor City's cigar workers, the houses have porches that lean and creak, peeling paint, missing sideboards. Some are owned by out-of-state landlords who rent to tenants who pay by the week. Others are owned by Ybor City families who long ago moved to Hyde Park or other more fashionable neighborhoods.

Now, they are being purchased by pioneers like David Shepard, a Tampa doctor and preservation enthusiast, who fixed up his old house in Hyde Park and was looking for another.

His attention turned to Ybor two years ago after reading about Centro Ybor. He bought a bungalow on Third Avenue for about $25,000 and pumped nearly $100,000 into it, he said, replacing bead board damaged by termites, hiring contractors familiar with preservation and hunting down period doorknobs.

In May, the house won a Tampa Preservation Award and is now on the market for $149,900.

Shepard bought six more houses to renovate.

Still, there's a reason people like Shepard are called pioneers: Ybor City is still an urban frontier.

On this day, while a large bin for construction debris sits outside one of his houses being renovated, a police car sits quietly on a vacant lot. Broken bottles litter the pavement. A drunk weaves in and out of the street.

It is not the picture investors have in mind.

"Some people are not able to use their imaginations," said Stephanie Gaines, an architect involved in numerous Ybor projects. "In the next two years, this area just won't look like the same place."

Now rebuilding after a devastating fire, the Park at Ybor City will have 454 luxury apartments, complete with secured parking. Also going up is Las Palmas, a Key West-style condominium project on Fourth Avenue with prices starting at $106,000.

There's more: Las Villas de Ybor _ 42 single family homes, four to a building with a back yard courtyard and detached two-car garage _ is due to break ground at the end of the year. The 800-square-foot units are selling for $120,000 _ that's $150 a square foot, more than some homes in the stove-hot South Tampa market.

These Ybor pioneers might be the architects of a dream community, but the future lies in the hands of others.

"The buyers are the true deciders," said Warren Weathers, chief deputy for the property appraiser.

Ten to 15 homes in the area would have to sell at these prices for the area to really boom, he said. For now, it is all "market speculation," he said.

But Gaines believes, as do other Ybor pioneers, "Centro Ybor will play a significant role in leveling out the playing field in Ybor. The fights and rowdy people aren't going to have control of the area. Families will."