TAMPA — To kick off sales at his New Port Tampa Bay project, developer Edward Oelschlaeger threw a gala with a buffet, open bar and Cirque du Soleil-style performers. Eager buyers put down deposits on waterfront condos costing up to $2 million apiece.
That was in 2006. Within two years, the economy had tanked and the banks began foreclosing. Yet Oelschlaeger remained convinced that the 52 weedy acres near the east end of the Gandy Bridge could still become the next great gateway to Tampa.
"We just couldn't put it together,'' he said then. "Hopefully, someone else will.''
More than a decade later, Oelschlaeger's vision is finally starting to materialize but with a new name — Westshore Marina District — and a new master developer.
A Fort Lauderdale company, BTI Partners, is moving steadily ahead with plans for what will be a new waterfront community near the intersection of Gandy and Westshore Boulevards. If all comes to pass, there will be apartments, townhomes and condos with sunset views of Tampa Bay. There will be a hotel, shops, a marina and two boat-up restaurants. The public will have access to a waterfront park and up to three miles of trails.
At an estimated cost of more than $600 million, Westshore Marina District will rival other mega-projects that are transforming Tampa's Channelside district and blighted areas along the Hillsborough River.
"It was an interesting site then," BTI executive Beck Daniel said of the 52 acres when Oelschlaeger had it, "and it's an even more interesting site now.''
The development will not come without pain, especially for those living and working in the area. Construction of the apartments will proceed in tandem with work to extend the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway two miles to the Gandy Bridge.
Even without construction, rush-hour traffic on Gandy and two-lane Westshore is a test of patience. Rick Chambers, who owns several units in a condo-style office building near the marina site, says traffic on Westshore at 5 p.m. can back up for 10 blocks.
"I'm personally in favor of the development if the parking and the access and the zoning regulations are followed,'' Chambers said, "and I'm favor of the overhead (Selmon) too, which should have been done to start with.''
If finished on time around 2020, the Selmon extension will reduce traffic on that stretch of Gandy by up to 35 percent and help offset the traffic impact of Westshore Marina District
"In the interim,'' Chambers fears, "it will be a nightmare.''
Like many projects announced in the mid-2000s — including Trump Tower Tampa in downtown — New Port Tampa Bay fell victim to the housing crash. By late 2007, as Oelschaegler returned deposits, not only was the project headed for default on its mortgages but also on $50 million in bonds issued to pay for infrastructure like roads and sewers.
In those bonds, BTI saw a chancre to snag one of the largest undeveloped waterfront tracts in the bay area at a bargain price.
Founded by home builder and investor Noah Breakstone, BTI originally focused on high-end housing and condo conversions. But as the market tumbled, it started acquiring distressed land throughout Florida. The New Port site held special appeal "because it was in-fill in the city of Tampa and waterfront,'' said Daniel, BTI's executive vice president of development.
Using a novel strategy, BTI began buying the bonds, which were selling at a discount and held priority over the mortgages.
"We were able to pick up the bonds at a good value,'' Daniel said, "and through those we were able to pursue a foreclosure'' that wiped out the mortgages. After getting title to the land in 2013, BTI paid the back taxes, cleared fines and restarted the approval and permitting process. It has also resumed the infrastructure work.
"We are glad a lot didn't happen because stylistically this is not going to be the same,'' Daniel said of the current project, which will feature gaslit lanterns at a "monumental'' columned entrance at Gandy and Bridge Street.
Since 2015, BTI has been successfully marketing the site to builders:
• Last month, Miami-based Related Group bought 8.5 acres near the corner of Gandy and Bridge Street where it is about to start construction on 396 apartments. Nearby will be two restaurants, accessible from Gandy and the water, to be operated by a company that already has "multiple'' restaurants in the bay area, Daniel said.
• Another "well- known'' apartment builder — Daniel won't disclose the name — is expected to close in May or June on 12 acres fronting South Westshore and Tyson Street. It plans 350 units.
• A "top 10 national home builder'' is under contract for two parcels where it plans a total of 161 townhomes.
BTI is keeping about eight waterfront acres to develop a pair of condo towers, each about 16 stories with ground-floor shops. A third tower might be added later along with shops, a cafe and hotel.
In all, Westshore Marina District will have about 1,250 residential units — 500 fewer than originally proposed for New Port Tampa Bay.
"I think people will be very happy that we're not pushing the density,'' Daniel said.
Despite the collapse of New Port, hundreds of new houses, condos and apartments have gone up south of Gandy since 2005. They have added to traffic congestion on a state highway that is lined with dozens of businesses and is part of an evacuation route for thousands of Pinellas County residents.
The tie-ups will only increase — at least temporarily — when work starts on the $220 million Selmon Extension, likely in December or January. That project calls for one lane plus a shoulder in each direction, built in the Gandy median and elevated 30 feet.
The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority has pledged there will be no lane closures during rush hour and that driveways to all businesses will remain open. The work is due to be finished in Fall 2020.
"It's pretty quick construction for a road,'' said Susan Chrzan, an authority spokesperson. "I'm not going to say it's going to be fun but we're trying to make it as unobtrusive as possible.''
BTI itself is spending more than $8 million for various road improvements in and around Westshore Marina District, including extending Bridge Street south to Tyson Street. That will relieve traffic on a half-mile stretch of South Westshore.
BTI would also "love'' to have a traffic light at Bridge Street and would pay for one if approved, Daniel said.
The company expects all of the Westshore Marina District projects to be underway within the next year and the first residents to move in around mid- 2018.
As for Oelschlaeger, whose plans for New Port Tampa Bay crumbled, he still thinks the Gandy property is a "great site'' and that "it's terrific for Tampa that it's going to be developed.''
Is he worried about another bust?
"My gut tells me that there is still a very strong market and I think it's probably going to stay that way for some time,'' said Oelschlaeger, who lives in St. Petersburg and has no current developments. "I think the Tampa Bay area is continuing to grow at a nice pace and I don't see that's going to change at any time soon.''