NW Hillsborough / Westchase

Planned living, deed restrictions, South Tampa North...

click to enlarge Brick signs mark the entrances to Westchase. - PHILIP BARDi
Brick signs mark the entrances to Westchase.

Most neighborhoods develop organically. Buildings rise, fall into disrepair and are improved in an endless cycle that forms the character of the place. This is not the case in Westchase, a Planned Urban Development (PUD) located in Northwest Hillsborough County and conceived in the early '90s.

The layout - 28 villages around acres of lush conservation area (i.e., jungle in your 'hood), commercial and retail centers, and an 18-hole championship golf course - was carefully planned and constructed. Today, Westchase is basically complete (scattered construction and neighborhood improvements continue), and the original design is apparent in every aspect of the area.

While some of the original villages dating back to the early '90s look like your standard upscale Florida 'burb (cookie-cutter design, odd pastels), more recent additions are neo-traditional in style. The prevalence of this architecture means that driving a residential street is often like entering a Hollywood backlot.

In design, each street and residence recalls the Americana of Norman Rockwell or television's golden age. Garages are around back to keep cars off the streets, fountains and front porches abound, and the landscaping is impeccable. If there were a way to build in black-and-white, the designers of Westchase would have found it.

On a beautiful Saturday in February, the parks and lawns were filled with children at play, the sidewalks with joggers and people walking dogs. That the scene so typified the "small-town life" of American folklore was undercut only by the vague sense that someone planned this whole thing - it didn't just happen.

This planned experience is best exemplified by the West Park Village (WPV) section, a collection of apartments, townhomes, villas and single-family houses built around a series of central parks, circular drives and a shopping plaza at Linebaugh Avenue and Montague Street.

WPV, which purposefully resembles Tampa's Hyde Park (down to a shared red phone booth), is designed to give the residents a South Tampa feel in the middle of a North Hillsborough housing development. WPV is an extremely walkable enclave, with six-foot-wide sidewalks and streets that span 28 feet to allow for parking on both sides. The area attracts young professionals looking for an alternative to South Tampa's perceived high prices for cramped quarters.

While Westchase tries to emulate South Tampa's cosmopolitan flair in some areas, at its core remains the heart of every neighborhood in Hillsborough - the supermarket shopping center. This one, anchored by a Publix, is located at the main crossroads of Linebaugh Avenue and Countryway Boulevard.

The plaza has over 25 retail shops (all the usual stuff: Blockbuster Video, UPS Store, liquor store, dentist, etc.), and includes - get this - two dry cleaners, two nail salons, three banks and eight restaurants. Although within walking distance for many residents, this plaza is more congested with car traffic and less inviting to pedestrians than West Park Village.

Almost all of Westchase looks brand spankin' new. Deed restrictions force every resident to maintain property up to a strict standard or face stiff fines - or worse. This keeps the neighborhood looking great, but risks rankling property owners who feel the rules infringe on their rights.

The driveway basketball hoop, a rite of passage for many suburban kids, is a common battleground. The Westchase Community Association settled the fight in 2002 by allowing the hoops, provided they are mobile - a popular compromise among community associations, and a good illustration of the line these groups have to walk in an effort to keep all the residents happy (even the young ones).

In addition to the headaches that deed restrictions can cause, the traffic in the mornings is terrible if you have to use the Veteran's Expressway. There are three routes to the Vets from Westchase (via Linebaugh Avenue, Waters Avenue and Hillsborough Avenue), each as clogged as the next between 7 and 8 a.m. Residents commuting north out of Westchase, toward Palm Harbor and a growing technology industry, find their commute more manageable.

Minor annoyances aside, the planning that went into the design and execution of Westchase seems to have paid off. The property values continue to increase, crime is low, and the success of the development has spawned a host of imitators (like the hilariously titled Waterchase) to the north. While residents definitely sacrifice a certain level of authenticity and freedom in exchange for their more idyllic surroundings, it's a sacrifice more and more people are willing to make.

Reading Is Fundamental: A New Library

Westchase wraps itself in Americana. Yellow ribbons and American flags abound (within the deed restrictions, of course). This middle-America image is one aspect of the neighborhood that makes it so appealing to middle-American families. The lack of a library, however, has long been a glaring omission - until now.

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