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LIVE, WORK, SHOP

While many of his neighbors are joining the wagon train of caffeinated commuters, Pat Roberson rises from bed late, sniffs the morning air from his Pasco County front porch and disembarks for the office.

Travel time: Two minutes.

Roberson is a landscape architect with Florida Design Consultants. About a year ago, the engineering firm moved its 75 employees into chic offices in Longleaf, a neighborhood on State Road 54 determined to redefine the suburbs.

As part of its live-work-and-shop philosophy, Longleaf lets Roberson live a few blocks from work, eat lunch at home and drop in on his daughter at her day care across the street. A deli, cigar shop and hair salon are rising from a soon-to-open "Main Street" outside his office window.

"I don't get to use the excuse "I'm stuck in traffic' when I'm late for work," the 37-year-old father of two says.

Longleaf's embryonic downtown is the first of what developers hope to duplicate across Pasco: integrating houses, apartments, shops and offices in one walkable community.

Will they succeed in stemming the flow of about 50,000 commuters from Pasco bedroom communities to offices in Tampa?

The experience of Longleaf and other developments suggests you need a favorable alignment of business forces: a developer dedicated to seeing it through; a convenient location populated densely enough to sustain a downtown; and a careful layout appealing to businesses and customers.

"It's all in the design and all in the location. And putting those two pieces together to meet the market is where the trick is," said Geoffrey Booth, an expert on new-style development with the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.

"Just putting a name on it and calling it an urban village isn't enough."

New River, a planned development near Zephyrhills, has pitched a downtown business district. So has Wiregrass Ranch off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. Aside from its proposed 16,000 homes, Wiregrass markets itself as Wesley Chapel's future "business center."

Longest in the works is Connerton, a proposed New Town community of 8,700 homes under construction in Land O'Lakes east of U.S. 41, where a large downtown should rise from what's now a cattle ranch.

The Tampa Bay area's first suburban "downtown," the West Park Village section of Tampa's Westchase community, has been a hit. It was modeled on Hyde Park, the leafy Tampa neighborhood built 100 years ago.

Even on a Thursday morning, it hums with life. A couple of dozen pedestrians sip coffee under umbrellas at cafe tables at the local Starbucks. Others grab a bagel at the deli and drop off clothes at the dry cleaners.

The main street is lined with three-story buildings adorned with iron-railed balconies and awnings. Sidewalks are brick paved. Residents lease apartments above the storefronts, a la Manhattan, or else live in rows of townhomes or 1920s-style houses with front porches.

With the success of Westchase under its belt, developer Terrabrook has moved on to the green fields of Pasco. Within about five years, Connerton is supposed to have a downtown bigger than Westchase's.

Doing Westchase one better, Connerton plans to break ground this year on a U.S. 41 commerce park, part of its goal of creating a job for each of its 8,700 homes.

Terrabrook plans to connect the commerce park to the rest of Connerton by a road, sidewalks and bike trails. Enticing corporations to move in will be key.

"I see nothing but opportunities for success," general manager Stewart Gibbons says.

Thus far, Pasco's main experiment in neighborhood integration has been Longleaf. The developers, the Starkey ranching family, admit success has been mixed so far.

Longleaf's first 200 homes are mostly throwbacks with narrow streets, alleys, traffic circles, picket fences and front porches.

Considering the national building boom sparked by low mortgage rates, sales have been disappointing, largely through forces outside the Starkeys' control.

The widening of its main access road, SR 54, started last year after years of delays. Road builders have disrupted Longleaf's entrance.

"How would you like to market real estate with that going on?" said Trey Starkey, who dreamed up Longleaf with his architect brother, Frank. "It's been a brutal bus ride."

Similar delays have afflicted construction of Longleaf's commercial hub, a row of apartments above storefronts at Starkey Boulevard and Town Avenue. Once completed _ the first stores will open in a couple of months _ the commercial strip should approximate Westchase's size.

The biggest coup was landing Florida Design Consultants. For president Edward Mazur it was a choice between little Longleaf and the sprawling Trinity community across SR 54. The Starkeys won, luring the company's high white-collar salaries.

"The first guy in gets a good deal," Trey Starkey said. "They are certainly a seed industry for us. They definitely got a better deal with us."

The seed has already sprouted. Moving next door to Florida Design was Reprographics Digital Copy Center, a firm that prints most of Mazur's construction plans.

Despite resistance from Mazur, the office building was trimmed architecturally with a sloped tin-style roof to match the rest of Longleaf. The Starkeys insisted on it.

Mazur saved his creativity for inside. The 24,000-square-foot building boasts high-buffed black granite floors, space-age furniture by Scan Design and glass doors that flood the ultra-modern lobby with light.

The Starkeys insist Pasco can't thrive solely as a bedroom community. It needs better jobs than retail work paying less than $10 an hour. To that end, they've set aside space for industry on their remaining 2,500 acres.

"In the long haul, when oil prices go crazy and people don't drive like they used to, you've got to have employers in your neighborhood or you're really going to have trouble," Trey Starkey said.

Some question whether all Pasco developers will stick to their plans. Frank Starkey suspects that for some developers, the term "town center" is marketing buzz meant to convey an illusion of homespun tranquility.

As evidence he points to Cypress Creek Town Center, planned for Interstate 75 and State Road 56. The project will include offices and apartments, but the main game is a 1.3-million-square-foot shopping mall.

But if developers sincerely focus on replicating what Terrabrook did in West Park Village, the concept can work, Starkey said.

"The companies doing this have enough marketing horsepower and marketing savvy to pull this off," he said. "Let's face it. They've made strip centers work for years, and strip centers are horrible places."

Shoehorning larger employers such as factories and large corporate headquarters into a town center isn't easy. One solution is the Connerton model: a commerce park a mile from, but still connected to, thousands of homes.

Even big boxy stores that long favored shopping centers on busy highways have begun to find old-style main streets congenial.

Booth cites Washingtonian Center in Gaithersburg, Md. Developers persuaded a Target to install a two-story downtown store. It was such a success, Target replicated the format elsewhere.

"It can't be just shops fronting a busy road," Booth said. "A town center is someplace where people can promenade up and down to shop."

Roberson is a believer in his neighborhood's return to yesteryear. He grew up on Church Street in Dade City, where everyone knew everyone else, and wants to re-create that in Longleaf.

His wife, Heather, a professor at St. Petersburg College, also skips the daily commute, monitoring her students' work from a household computer. Roberson's mother moved into Longleaf a block from her son.

"In my old job in Tampa, I was wasting an hour in traffic," Roberson says. "Now I can come home in minutes and spend more time with the family."

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