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Oh, so hip

Longtime New Yorker Cara Novick didn't know what to expect when she moved to Tampa less than two years ago.

She rented an apartment in New Tampa close to her job, but immediately felt disconnected and out of place. Too much traffic. Not enough young people. Nothing to do within walking distance.

"It was culture shock," says Novick, a 32-year-old pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Shriners Hospital in Tampa.

Novick bolted when her lease expired and headed south to the SoHo district, a residential bull's-eye for single professionals in Tampa. She had heard about the new Madison at SoHo apartments and, after several visits, signed up for a two-bedroom.

Since opening in February 2001, the complex between South Howard and Armenia avenues has piqued the interest of people such as Novick who want the convenience of apartment living in an urban setting.

And have the bucks to afford it.

"This is where people want to be," said Brenda Sheppard, the property manager.

Closeness to shopping and dining is one of the Madison's main draws. The complex is within walking distance of bars, restaurants, grocery stores and coffee shops.

"We have some people who park their car at 6 p.m. on a Friday and don't move it all weekend," Sheppard said.

Many SoHo tenants have become regulars at the two dozen or so local restaurants and watering holes.

Socializing tops the to-do list of many Madison dwellers. Residents hang out at the two pools and get together for drinks, dinner or concerts. They also barbecue on the communal grills.

"It's unique how people are so friendly," said Aaron Finkelstein, a 27-year-old industrial engineer.

In his nearly nine months at the Madison, Finkelstein has assembled a whole posse of new friends who gather after work and on weekends. He met most of them in the parking deck or around the pool.

The pools serve as party hubs. There's the main pool for chatting and swimming laps, and the meandering pool on the south side of the complex for sunning and chilling out. Gazebos, hot tubs and comfy chaise lounges create a resort-like atmosphere. A bright yellow, New York-style taxicab parked in main courtyard lends the uptown flavor.

About once a month, the Madison hosts a party for residents, either at the big pool or at a local hangout. They sip cocktails, eat food and listen to a live band. The complex's "social budget" picks up the tab.

The parties always attract a big crowd. Residents meet their neighbors, swap phone numbers and get a little wild. At one of the first events, tenants swilled 48 bottles of wine and two kegs of beer.

Most of tenants are in their mid 20s to early 30s, prime party age. A little more than half come from Tampa; the rest, from neighboring counties or other states.

The majority are single and work full time in a range of professions, from accounting to advertising. A handful attend the University of Tampa on Mom or Dad's bank account, and a few are retired. About 75 work in the military, enough to warrant an extra, round-the-clock security guard.

Dogs easily outnumber children.

Renters in ZOM's properties typically have incomes ranging from $50,000 to $120,000. Many rent because they don't want the responsibilities and hassles of owning a house. Others simply don't have the down payment for a longterm purchase.

Novick, the pediatric surgeon, said buying an equivalent house in the same neighborhood would cost a fortune. Instead, she'd rather spend $1,300 a month for her SoHo apartment. She also bought her dream car _ a Porsche, metallic blue.

Whatever the reasons, the concept seems to be paying off. Within eight months of the Madison's opening, 90 percent of the apartments were leased, exceeding the management's expectations. Today, three units remain and there's a waiting list for three-bedrooms.