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Upscale and urban

Al Crook has what many retirees might consider the perfect spot: a condominium with a country kitchen on the seventh green at Isla del Sol. But he just sold it so he can move into an apartment downtown.

"Since I couldn't afford a million-dollar condominium, I thought it would be great living in something like a luxury condominium in the downtown area," the 66-year-old said.

He is exchanging home ownership to become a renter at the Madison at St. Petersburg, the luxury complex near the city's waterfront where rents for a two-bedroom, two-bath flat of 1,251 square feet start at $1,410.

Add the extra costs of being on the higher floors and having views of Tampa Bay, then the charge for water, sewer and trash removal, and the tally can climb to more than $2,000 per month in rent. By comparison, the average cost of a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in Pinellas County is $794, according to a survey by the Bay Area Apartment Association.

Residents begin moving into the Madison this week. The two-building complex with 277 units is under construction by Zom Development Inc. of Orlando and won't be completely finished until October. A second phase of almost equal size will be built soon after.

The Madison is on two blocks bounded by First and Third streets S and Fourth Avenue S and Delmar Terrace. The five-story buildings feature studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom flats and townhouses arranged around a courtyard. Amenities include covered parking, swimming pools, spas, clubhouses, outdoor fireplaces and grills and elevators.

The units range in price from $850 per month for a 611-square-foot studio with built-in furniture to $1,745 per month for a a two-bedroom, 2{ bath, 1,518-square-foot townhouse. The extra charges for views and the like can go as high as $395 per month.

As a luxury rental, the Madison is a change for downtown St. Petersburg. Downtown's rejuvenation has been powered in part by the construction of nearly 200 luxury condominiums over the past five years, but no complexes of high-end rentals. When both phases are complete, the Madison will add more than 500 new residents to downtown, an increase of 7 percent.

Crook, who moves into his two-bedroom, two-bath apartment with a view of Al Lang Field in June, is the type of downtown resident Mayor Rick Baker believes St. Petersburg now can attract. Baker heralded the arrival of the Zom construction crews in May.

"What I have been told by people who know the business pretty well is that you shouldn't make assumptions that the only people who want to live downtown are the people already working downtown."

Consider the amenities that many residential complexes in the Tampa Bay offer, the mayor said. Do they include 20 movie screens (BayWalk), restaurants, shops, the Pier, seven museums, waterfront events and Major League Baseball, all of which are available in downtown St. Petersburg?

"People are moving into downtown whether they work there or not. They like the urban environment," Baker said.

As new residents come downtown to live, particularly in the numbers of the Madison, they boost existing businesses, such as BayWalk, the entertainment and retail complex that has been open less than two years. They also put pressure on businesses to provide services downtown doesn't have, such as a full-scale grocery near the new residences. Publix, long sought after for a downtown store, has agreed to build one near the Madison next year. In fact, the grocery will be part of the second phase of the Madison.

Although Mayor Baker sees St. Petersburg as a residential destination now, the Madison probably can expect to get tenants from the city's core of young professionals who want to live near where they work.

Some of these professionals have the monthly income for luxury apartments but not the savings to buy a house, according to Michael Slater, president and owner of Triad Research and Consulting Inc. in Tampa.

"To (own) in the downtown urban core, to get the lifestyle where you are within walking distance of the museums, BayWalk and the cultural and social (aspects), you would have to spend $250,000 to $400,000," Slater said. "You can buy a house with a payment of $2,000 per month. However, that house would be out in Kenneth City or somewhere."

Even though nearly 200 luxury condominiums have been built in the past few years, few were advertised for sale as low as $250,000.

Forty leases have been signed at the Madison, according to Kristi King, regional manager of Zom residential. The developer considers that a good number because there aren't even models for prospective tenants to visit. King figures leasing will move faster once the models are open.

Zom built the Madison at SoHo in Tampa a year ago and it is about 90 percent occupied. Many of the residents are young professionals. They say they like the urban lifestyle and the community that has evolved among the residents. Zom throws parties in the clubhouse to give residents a reason to get together. It plans to do the same in St. Petersburg, as well as have brunches in the clubhouse every Saturday.

Probably the biggest complaint of SoHo residents is the lack of adequate soundproofing between units. They also mentioned lack of elevators. Zom officials have taken note of the complaints and added an extra layer of drywall between the units being built in St. Petersburg as well as elevators.

The Madison at St. Petersburg won't have a prototype renter until it has been occupied for a while, King said.

It sits near the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, but its prices probably put it out of reach of most students. King said parents of a few students from USF St. Petersburg and Stetson University College of Law in nearby Gulfport leased the 611-square-foot studios and one-bedroom units because they wanted better living quarters for their kids.

"We are seeing retirees, young professors, some students" and young couples, King said. "We are pleased. We are very pleased."

Zom is marketing the Madison everywhere, according to Trish Carney, property director. At recent downtown Friday nights gatherings, she has set up a booth and handed out marketing items and information about the complex.

"We try to get involved in all events downtown," Carney said. The Madison will have a booth at Shakespeare in the Park, an annual spring theater event on the waterfront. Carney is meeting with Festival of States representatives, and she has visited businesses along Beach Drive and Central Avenue.

She and others are visiting schools and doing joint marketing with business neighbors such as the Hilton St. Petersburg and others a bit farther away such as AAA Auto Club South near Tropicana Field. The complex will offer its community room to St. Petersburg business and civic clubs for free, King said.

Crook is ready to move into his new apartment. In addition to the idea of luxury living, Crook was attracted to the Madison at St. Petersburg by its location.

Isla del Sol is "gorgeous and beautiful, but to do anything, you've got to get in your car, drive downtown, find a parking space or go to the parking lot," Crook said.

He likes the idea that he and his wife can walk to many of the downtown attractions. And if they don't want to walk, they can hop on the Looper trolley, which runs by the front of the Madison.

Even though the monthly rent is as much as a healthy house payment, Crook has no qualms about giving up home ownership.

"I'm over that part," Crook said of owning a home. He wouldn't be making the move if he were younger. "I think all young people should invest in property. Owning at this point in my life is not that important."