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IMAGINE ALL THE PEOPLE, THE URBAN CHIC

Out of curiosity, my husband and I stopped a while back for an open house at a new high-rise near downtown Tampa. We toured the pool, the gym, the sleek lobby.

Standing on the tiny condo balcony overlooking a ribbon of Bayshore Boulevard, the saleswoman informed us you don't just buy a home here.

"You buy a lifestyle,'' she said. She said it at least a half-dozen times. How do you not roll your eyes?

But after taking the Urban Tour of Homes through downtown Tampa last weekend, you start to see how such a cheesy-sounding slogan could come to pass. What's more, you might be willing to take a slice of that cheese, along with a nice pinot grigio, out to the pool deck overlooking a city humming with life. Oh, and use the free WiFi, too.

Is this downtown thing that St. Petersburg has long enjoyed really ready to happen here?

No question, this was not a tour for gushing over the heart pine floors of bungalows in historic neighborhoods. Didn't matter. Plenty of us were jonesing for a peek inside the new towers and condo clusters, whether we came to buy or just indulge our inner nosey neighbor.

We saw stainless steel appliances, granite counters, floor-to-ceiling windows, clubhouses with movie rooms, concierges ready to call in our dinner reservations. On rooftop decks, you could almost see the beautiful people lying on striped lounges and sipping raspberry mojitos. Views that overlooked the park, the river, the University of Tampa minarets and the bay had a way of making you forget square footage.

At SkyPoint, the sea-blue glass high-rise with the ambitious slogan "Touch the Clouds - Own the Sky - Soar," dog biscuits sat in a crystal bowl at the elegant front desk. Plasma TV screens played quietly everywhere.

Some places we saw looked like an ad in this week's New York Times' Sunday magazine, which advertises compact apartments "starting at $12-million." Tampa, of course, is a more modest market. Most places we saw hovered in the $400,000 range, and a few were in the $200,000s. On one flier, a printed price of $649,000 was crossed out and $549,000 written in pen.

Most interesting was the grittier channel district, with lofts of exposed concrete, brick and pipe. Sure, the views still take in scrubby vacant lots and graffitied warehouses. But the Florida Aquarium and Channelside restaurants and movies are your back yard. Cruise ships pass not far from your windows.

According to the Tampa Downtown Partnership, 636 condos existed in the downtown area before 2006. By the end of this year, 1,500 more are expected to be completed, though that building boom has slowed. Some had initial prices as low as $170,000. Some reach seven figures.

Insiders debate the effects of the sluggish real estate market, but most will tell you downtown Tampa will be a very different place 10 years from now.

That's all very heady, but bustling nights are not the norm yet. Condos advertise a "vibrant downtown Tampa market'' and "street-front retail," artfully leaving off the addendum "to come." "In the heart of the arts district" also seems a tad premature.

At a hot restaurant called Fly, they offer valet parking even though blocks and blocks of nearby streets go vacant at night. Still, we valet. We are so ready for this big-city thing.

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