TAMPA — Two years ago, Westshore Marina District was nothing but 52 weedy, empty acres. Now, the first group of townhomes is ready and hundreds of other residences will be finished over the next 12 months.
Nearby, the ramp to the new Lee Roy Selmon Expressway Connector rises 30 feet, part of a project that will slash traffic on surface streets and let motorists zoom almost nonstop from St. Petersburg to Disney World.
In all, $1 billion in changes are coming to the Tampa end of the Gandy Bridge.
"It's very exciting,'' said Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen, whose district includes the area. "We have the opening up of a whole new waterfront community, and the Gandy connector is going to be a huge alternative for people who are now getting off Gandy (Boulevard) and cutting through residential neighborhoods to get to Westshore and downtown Tampa.''
Tampa is in the midst of several transformative projects, led by the $3-billion-plus redevelopment of the southern part of downtown and the revitalization of the city's long-neglected riverfront. But with St. Petersburg blossoming at the same time, it was inevitable that areas closer to Pinellas County would also see dramatic changes.
The most striking of those is Westshore Marina District.
In 2006, a developer announced plans for a huge community near Gandy and Westshore boulevards, kicking off sales with a buffet, open bar and Cirque du Soleil-style performers. Buyers put down deposits on waterfront condos costing up to $2 million in what was to be called New Port Tampa Bay.
The Great Recession killed that project, and the land sat idle. Five years ago, South Florida developer BTI Partners acquired title, changed the name and began selling tracts to other companies.
At a champagne reception earlier this month, Miami-based WCI revealed the first four townhomes in what will be a 35-home community-within-a-community dubbed Inlet Park. Prices start in the $400,000s for the three-story residences, built in a contemporary coastal style with Bermuda shutters.
WCI, a high-end subsidiary of Lennar Corp., eventually will have a total of 140 townhomes in the marina district, many with water views.
Two other South Florida companies, Related Group and Bainbridge, are building apartments. Next month, tenants will start moving into Related's 396 rentals near the entrance while Bainbridge, on the district's southeast corner, will begin leasing the first of its 351 units.
The master developer, BTI, has arguably saved the best for itself — a bayview tract where it hopes to break ground early next year for Marina Pointe, three towers with a total of 340 condos priced from the $700,000s.
"Our project is 40 percent sold, and it's selling at a higher price point than we anticipated,'' said Beck Daniel, BTI's executive vice president of development.
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Adding to the district's small-town feel will be a shopping area, Marina Landings, with stores, restaurants, a market and a salon -— "things that people are going to use on a regular basis,'' Daniel said. Residential and commercial areas will be linked by a waterfront promenade and a network of paths and trails.
Westshore Marina District, which could have an $800 million taxable value when fully built out in 2022, is the biggest but by no means the only new development in the Gandy area.
"Since our project has really picked up steam, a lot of other stuff has popped up,'' Daniel said. That includes scores of new townhomes and apartments within a quarter-mile.
With all the growth in the area, rush-hour traffic can be a nightmare. Motorists trying to make it through the intersection of Gandy and Westshore often have to wait several light cycles, sometimes stuck behind a truck belching exhaust fumes.
To ease the congestion, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority is connecting the Selmon Expressway, which now ends at Dale Mabry Highway, to the Gandy Bridge nearly two miles away. The $203-million project will enable south Pinellas residents to get from Interstate 275 to downtown Tampa, Ybor City and on east without stopping at a single light except near the Derby Lane dog track on the Pinellas side of the bridge.
The connector also will be a boon to truckers, who might be bound for Port Tampa or other industrial areas but have to crawl along Gandy for blocks before reaching the Selmon.
"It will create a kind of seamless traffic pattern for trucks and also help with traffic on Gandy by putting trucks upstairs,'' said Susan Chrzan, the authority's director of public affairs.
Work on the connector has moved at what appears to be a rapid pace even to Chrzan, who commutes from Pinellas over the bridge.
"Every day it's oh, look, a new pier,'' she said.
Elevated 30 feet on a series of giant piers, the connector will straddle the median of Gandy Boulevard. Workers already have erected the ramp at the end of the bridge plus several piers that will support the roadway segments, each about 15 feet wide and weighing 75 tons.
The segments are "basically like giant Lego pieces being built off site in a casting yard,'' Chrzan said. "Once they get enough piers up, they will take those sections up that ramp and post-tension them and pull them together. '' (Post-tensioning is a technique for reinforcing concrete.)
Despite 30 days or so of weather-related delays, the connector is on schedule to be completed in about two years. In conjunction with that project the city is spending $1.8 million on the Gandy/Westshore intersection, which will get an additional left turn lane on north- and south-bound Westshore.
Once the lanes and Selmon connector are in place, rush-hour delays at Gandy and Westshore will be reduced by about 60 percent, an analysis found.
"Oftentimes now you are waiting up to or more than 200 seconds,'' said Tampa transportation director Jean Duncan. "That could go down to 60 seconds so there will be a tremendous improvement in traffic flow.''
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.