1. Business

Sullivans' Winthrop vision a reality in Riverview

John and Kay Sullivan had no experience developing land as they planned a place where residents could live, work and play.
Published Jan. 8, 2014


One of the newest additions to Winthrop Town Centre appeared to be all but set. • In their ongoing efforts to create a traditional neighborhood on the 148 acres on the southeast side of Providence Road and Bloomingdale Avenue, Town Centre founders John and Kay Sullivan sought to add a pediatric practice that would enhance Winthrop's child-friendly atmosphere, a tenet of the New Urbanism movement. • They found a partner in Miami-based Pediatric Associates, but the group didn't realize the plans called for its offices to be in a live-work building with dwellings above its practice. Vice president Cynthia Manchesi worried the revelation might be a deal breaker.

Instead, the Sullivans shared their vision for this unique development and in the end, the pediatric practice asked if it could lease the apartments to its nurses and staff.

The story is one example of the Sullivans' creation of a community that mixes retail, residential, education and civic entities in a tight-knit area that encourages socialization, civic engagement and a sense of place.

When they fully committed to the challenge of crafting Winthrop in 2000, the Sullivans found themselves trying to get banks and county planners to buy into their vision. But now that it has grown into a reality, they no longer have to sell people using only architectural renderings.

• • •

The Sullivans possess an island of individuality in the middle of suburbia that sells itself. Outsiders come to dine at its restaurants, patronize its businesses, visit doctors, shop at Publix and drop their kids off at the Winthrop Charter School.

"The plaza offers a tremendous variety of mixed-use," said Jimmy McGowan, owner of JB Jewelers. "I'd say it's the nicest plaza in Riverview, and possibly even Riverview and Brandon."

McGowan looked at several locations before deciding on Winthrop. The site caught his interest because of its variety and the quality of landscaping and maintenance. The plaza also attracts a higher-end, more affluent client, he said.

He said he enjoys working with the Sullivans and appreciates that they make decisions not just on their own best interests, but the interests of the tenants.

"When making decisions, Mr. Sullivan evaluates what would be the effects on the tenants in the plaza," he said. "It's not always about the money with him, it's about what's best for the plaza."

Meanwhile, some residents enjoy it all without ever having to get into a car.

"What you're seeing now is momentum because we have enough critical mass," John Sullivan said. "We have restaurants, so more restaurants will come. Doctors are here, so more doctors will come. One house begets another house and another house begets 10. The speed is accelerated."

As the vision continues to crystallize for Winthrop, which also serves as the home of the Tampa Bay Times' Riverview bureau, the Sullivans want more residents who work, play and live all within walking distance of their front porch. The plan to add 51 live-work spaces more than a decade after they began the venture represents a crowning achievement.

"Prior to starting or building Winthrop to the point that it is now, people wouldn't have had any basis for comparison," Kay Sullivan said. "Now they have another choice. Some people like it, some people don't, but now they can choose. They can go to a place like Winthrop and come into a more urban place or they can stay out in suburbia and stay in their housing pod with their McMansion."

It never would have formed if the Sullivans didn't overcome doubts and obstacles.

• • •

Kay Sullivan planted the seeds of Winthrop in 1996, telling John she wanted to leave their Valrico home and move back to St. Petersburg. She didn't like that her social circles never overlapped. She found herself driving to one meeting with a group of people, driving home and then driving to another location to meet with an entirely different group.

"We needed a physical place to unite members of this community as citizens," Kay lamented.

As one of the only tax attorneys in the area, John didn't want to move back to St. Petersburg and more competition. So the Sullivans started working on creating a central place.

Much of the initial work revolved around the old Guyardo property east of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway and Brandon Parkway. The Sullivans hoped to see the 300-acre project grow into its vision of a community gathering place. But long before the project that would become known as Brandon Main Street stalled, they turned their attention to a different effort.

"We were just trying to be some idea people," John Sullivan said. "We tried to share a vision of what was needed in Brandon. At some point, the county got involved, and it was clear that it was not going to work out the way that we had hoped.

"So eventually, we ended up doing it ourselves, much to our own surprise."

• • •

Remember, neither John nor Kay, a former social worker who holds a master's in counseling psychology, could list developer on their resume. But they soldiered on with their dream of a traditional neighborhood development, honing the design by visiting similar communities around the country and sprinkling in ideas they gathered from their travels in the United States and abroad.

Eventually, they started working with architect and town planner Andrés Duany, one of the leaders of the New Urbanism movement. His firm has completed designs for close to 300 new towns since receiving recognition for Seaside, the Walton County community featured in the 1998 film The Truman Show.

With Duany's plan in place, they began to sell their vision. They made one of their first pitches to Publix, designing a store that looked unlike any the grocery chained had previously built.

"We sold Publix an innovative building on drawings that we literally worked on ourselves," John Sullivan said. "They asked us who the architects were and we declined to tell them. They thought we were hiding it, but the truth is, we didn't have one."

The Sullivans laugh at such stories today, but their effort was filled with such challenges. From financing to zoning, permitting and the recession, John says it could have failed — should have failed — at a number of stages.

"But for one reason or another, something came in at the right time," John said.

"And we're very determined. We're very focused on what we're doing," Kay said.

• • •

That focus involves the completion of the live-work buildings, separate apartment buildings patterned after Ybor City's historic cigar factories, and continued development of the 500,000 square feet of space on the development's eastern side.

One of the goals of the residential component, which also includes single-family homes and townhouses, is to make the development accessible to an array of people with varied backgrounds and incomes.

Some Winthrop residents who live and work in the development have already reaped benefits, downsizing from two cars to one and using the savings to cover other expenses.

The Sullivans want community to equal convenience. They encourage retailers to know residents and their children.

"When I was young, I loved bringing people together," Kay Sullivan said. "To me, there's a great deal of satisfaction to think this is probably the maximum effort that I can do to have a shot at bringing people together.

"We're trying to build an authentic community where people can put roots down."

And the Sullivans are one of those families. Their live-work home is under construction.

Times researcher John Martin and Times staff writer Caitlin Johnston contributed to this story. Ernest Hooper can be reached at


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