I in the sky

Testing the condo waters in downtown Tampa.

click to enlarge THIS IS DOWNTOWN TAMPA? The fifth-floor pool and waterfall at The Towers of Channelside. - Ben Fry
Ben Fry
THIS IS DOWNTOWN TAMPA? The fifth-floor pool and waterfall at The Towers of Channelside.

When Tampa's second Urban Tour of Homes took place this past June, I couldn't resist making the rounds. I'm a suburban dweller, and the prospect of lower gas bills, shorter commutes, nightlife accessible by foot and other amenities associated with downtown living — well, it all seemed pretty exciting.

That was just the feeling real estate agents wanted to inspire when they set up the tour, a showcase of nine properties in and around the downtown and Channelside districts. The objective, said Paul Ayers of the Tampa Downtown Partnership's Planning and Management Committee, was to "drum up excitement over downtown living."

But let's face it: Tampa is no Manhattan. And while its long-promised urban renaissance is indeed beginning to take place, it is happening painfully slowly. I wondered: Would the residential amenities be enough to offset what downtown lacks?

Well, yes and no.

The properties on display during the tour were unquestionably very nice. The 30th-floor units at Skypoint (which is reportedly 85 percent sold out) offered impressive views from the balcony and the floor-to-ceiling-windows, the glass erasing the boundary between structure and sky. The Towers of Channelside showcased a unit with a 659-square-foot terrace and a great view of downtown in the distance. The fifth-floor deck featured a bar and a pool complete with a walk-over bridge and a faux-mountain waterfall. It was hard not to be impressed.

But as I listened to the muffled hum of cars rolling on the rain-soaked streets from the Skypoint balcony, I wondered what was available outside these walls after hours. Wouldn't living here be like occupying a high-end condo in the middle of an office park? The view of a cruise ship docked at Channelside added to the lap-of-luxury feeling of the Towers, but wouldn't a home in Channelside be like having the mall as your next-door neighbor?

Still, as a marketing tool, the tour worked. Despite the rain, people showed up, curious to see the properties. A slow but steady line of people — young couples, old couples, gay couples, baby boomers, all walks of life — straggled in at each property. Most were obviously just browsing, as if strolling through a booth at the flea market. A few asked standard questions: How much do the units run? ($550,800 and $469,000, respectively, at the two Skypoint condos; the unit prices at the Towers vary by model and floor but were comparable.) How many square feet? (At Skypoint, just over 1,270 square feet; at the Towers, the two units were over 1,300 and 1,700 square feet, respectively.) How much are the condo association fees? (Over $400 a month at Skypoint and 34 cents per square foot at the Towers.) Most visitors gave the units a cursory glance and moved on — some at Skypoint undoubtedly cashing in the complimentary drink vouchers downstairs at Taps Wine and Beer Merchants, the first restaurant to move into the retail space on the ground floor.

Realtors who showed units during the tour said they saw more people wanting to buy into the downtown lifestyle.

"We thought it was a pretty productive event," said John Montesano, a broker with Homeward Real Estate, the sales team at the Towers of Channelside. Montesano said he has "had a lot of follow-ups" but no buyers yet, although he said he does anticipate future sales stemming from the tour. Currently, only 40 percent of the 257 units there are sold, said Patty Francis, a sales associate with Homeward Real Estate.

"I felt we had more people who were serious to purchase," said Keith Zimmerman, a real estate agent with Keller Williams, who was showing a unit at Channelside Lofts. Zimmerman said during the first urban tour people were looking out of curiosity but had no plans to buy. With the more recent event, "we picked up a couple of serious buyers," although they haven't bought anything yet.

While the properties — and their amenities — are very livable, current downtown dwellers give the urban core a mixed review. Residents said they love their urban homes and the centralized location, but feel the downtown renaissance still has a ways to go.

"I like living there — it's not like living in the suburbs (with) all the box stores," said 24-year-old writer Dan Sullivan, who lives at Channelside's Grand Central at Kennedy. However, "there's still a lot that's missing. It doesn't have the residential neighborhood feel."

"It's definitely improving," said Josh Cahill, a 23-year-old Skypoint resident and the owner of Channelside Title. However, "it's 9 to 5, in a sense," he added. When downtown workers get off, downtown clears out.

The move to downtown has cut commute times and fuel costs, despite the fact that it is still necessary to drive most places. Cahill moved from Brandon to be closer to his office but said he still has to drive the five miles to work because there is no efficient public transit system, one of the major flaws of downtown Tampa living. He said he would take public transit if it were more readily available.

The hunt for food was a challenge, Sullivan and Cahill both said. To get groceries, you have to go to Dale Mabry, South Tampa or SoHo. But one benefit to downtown is its central location, they added — it's easy to get to other places in town.

Despite any drawbacks, the residents I spoke with think downtown is only going to get better with time.

"It's interesting. It's definitely different from living in the suburbs," said Cahill.

"Slowly but surely," said Sullivan, "it will get better."

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