Tampa, St. Petersburg downtowns see boom in apartments

Published March 13, 2013

TAMPA — The building boom du jour is apartments, and developers are unveiling them at breakneck speed, with more than 3,500 rentals in the works for Tampa and St. Petersburg's downtowns.

From a 36-story riverfront skyscraper to a newly announced luxury high-rise, more than a dozen planned projects could within months add new lights to local skylines.

"There's an electricity about downtown that hasn't existed in decades," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "It's everything we've worked for over the last few years, to create the momentum, to create the demand, to create the environment where people want to live downtown."

Who can these developers thank for a kick of adrenaline after the Great Recession's building freeze? "Millennials" between their late teens and early 30s, the biggest generation in American history, who have largely spurned owning a home.

As they join new job markets or reach prime renting age, they're driving demand toward cultural and urban centers — and convincing big builders to follow their lead.

The apartment market is "the bright shining light" of commercial development, said Darron Kattan, a managing director for Tampa real estate brokerage Franklin Street. "Everybody believes it's got a bright future, and the lenders are just flocking into that sector."

This week, the Atlanta developers of Element and Skypoint, two 30-plus-story towers off the Tampa riverfront, filed plans with the city for SkyHouse Channelside, a 23-floor high-rise boasting 320 apartments.

With walls of floor-to-ceiling glass, the SkyHouse complex is so named for its top-floor deck featuring a swimming pool, fireplaces, a gym and covered lounges.

Novare Group's plans must wind through government review, including a public hearing in June, but the developers said they're ready to spend. Spokesman Thornton Kennedy said the project would cost "in the ballpark" of similar towers in Atlanta and Houston, which cost about $65 million.

SkyHouse would dispatch work crews to the once-comatose Channel District, where rentals are now nearly sold out. The high-rise would join the Martin at Meridian, a $60 million apartment tower planned to stand 24 stories, and Pierhouse, a cluster of 350 apartments by Miami mega-developers Related Group, scheduled to open for leasing April 1.

Even the business district of downtown Tampa, long criticized for dying at 5 p.m., is seeing new life from big builders. At Encore, a 28-acre downtown redevelopment project, plans call for up to 700 condominiums and nearly 800 apartments, including at Ella, which opened to seniors in December. And an as-yet-unnamed skyscraper, outside the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, would stretch 36 stories tall and cost more than $80 million.

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Downtown St. Petersburg is similarly energized, with more than 1,000 apartments in planning or under construction within a one-mile radius. Condos are making a push as well, including at the proposed 14-story Silhouette, where 16 two and three-bedroom condos are proposed to sell for more than $700,000.

Towers are sprouting outside Tampa Bay's downtowns, too. Builders recently broke ground on the Water Club, two nine-story towers of condominiums and townhomes planned for Snell Isle north of downtown St. Petersburg.

The first of 231 apartments at Tampa's Post SoHo Square, near the center of South Howard's neon nightlife, will open next year. NoHo Flats, a cluster of 311 apartments renting from $900 to $1,600 a month, is scheduled to open this fall. And hundreds more are under way in cities like Pinellas Park and Tarpon Springs.

Developers are baiting young renters with attention-grabbing amenities like multilevel health clubs, outdoor fireplaces and tanning beds. Developers also see audiences in empty nesters seeking urban energy, newly arriving immigrants looking for an affordable start, and foreclosed homeowners rebuked by banks who see no choice but to rent.

Though some planned projects, like the 12-story Lansing near Tropicana Field, advertise rents of about $600 a month, most of these new projects cater to the high-end with luxury finishes and upscale designs.

Banks are helping drive this development by doling out much of their financing to apartment projects, which they believe are the safest bets.

Not everything is candy and rainbows in downtown development. The 20-story SouthGate, the first office tower planned for downtown Tampa in 15 years, is still looking for tenants and has been delayed until late 2015.

But the local apartment market has plenty of room to grow before becoming oversaturated, Realtors and market-watchers said.

Apartment and multifamily construction across the country last year was twice as busy as 2009 and 2010 combined, which advocates of city density call good news for urban dwelling. More places to live means more people, and more promise of stores and jobs.

"The barometer I use as I drive around downtown Tampa is how many people I see walking dogs," Buckhorn said. "If they're walking dogs, I know they live there. And I'm seeing a lot of dogs."

Times staff writers Meredith Rutland and Stephanie Bolling contributed to this report. Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or