By Nick Stubbs, Tampa Bay Times: If you like what big cities have to offer but value quiet, friendly and neighborly communities, then the downtown area of St. Petersburg may have it all.
The city, founded in 1888, is famous for surprising people with its art culture, abundance of historic homes, brick streets, hexagon- paved sidewalks, decorative iron street lamps, and shady oaks. Many of the neighborhoods are a short walk from downtown and are on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. They are easily identified by the word “historic” preceding their names. Their charm and character have wooed many.
A little farther from the downtown hub, but still in biking distance, are neighborhoods like Magnolia Heights and Snell Isle to the north, where many of the homes were built between the 1950s and 1970s. To the souththere’s Bartlett Park, Harbordale and Cromwell Heights, with a mix of mostly older homes. These outliers are nearly asaccessible to downtown, thanks to networks of sidewalks and biking trails. In all directions there are many small studios, larger apartments and condos for rent for those not ready to make the plunge into ownership.
All offer an eclectic city lifestyle without the drawbacks associated with big cities, said Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. It has all the amenities and cultural draws of a big city, but “it works because its scale is not intimidating.” “We are blessed,” he said, adding that St. Petersburg is the ‘largest little city on Earth.”
Steinocher lives in the historic Crescent Lake community just north of downtown. To the east is the Historic Old Northeast neighborhood, established in 1911; to the west is Euclid Place-St. Paul’s, a historic district nearly as old.
What’s great about these neighborhoods is that each has a local park or public green space, and everything downtown has to offer is within biking or walking distance. Steinocher said it’s the reason the area is drawing so many younger residents.
“It’s unlike anything you’ll find anywhere in Florida,” Steinocher said. “It’s a place where you can divorce your car; it’s pedestrian- safe and bike-friendly.”
Katie Shotts, chief operating officer of the Pinellas Realtor Organization, agrees. She bought a home in Shore Acres north of downtown. She can’t part with her car because she works in Clearwater, but gets to downtown St. Pete by the bike route through Snell Isle and merges onto Beach Drive heading south.
Shotts did a lot of research to whittle her dream community down to St. Pete. “I run, bike and swim and this area is extremely pedestrian friendly,” she said. “There’s always a lot of people out (walking or biking) and there is a lot of respect for pedestrians among drivers.”
But there is a lot more about living near downtown that helped close the deal, said Shotts. “It’s a strong community with people who really care about their neighborhoods—people who care about their quality of life,” she said. Socializing with fellow walkers and bikers brings people together, Shotts said, but in addition to all the people to see, there are places to go—plenty of them.
Steinocher notes that the city has six museums, hosts the largest Salvador Dali collection outside Europe and is home tothe Florida Orchestra and Mahaffey Theater. It also is home to the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team and the Tkmpa Bay Rowdies soccer team, and SunkenGardens. Artists are drawn to the “Burg” forits architecture, its “scene” and its scenery.Downtown buildings themselves are art canvases adorned with murals; there’s avibrant nightlife; and
the downtown region is overflowing with microbreweries, restaurants and shops. Some 1,000 events are held every year, drawing as many as 10 million visitors.
Many residents are former visitors who discovered the charm of the downtown area. Some of those areas include:
• Historic Roser Park is just south of downtown. Founded in 1911 by Charles Roser, inventor of the Fig Newton, upon entering the enclave one is transported to another world of rolling hills that emerge like magic from the surrounding flat topography.
• Old Southeast was officially established in the 1950s and has some 1,300 residents. It surrounds picturesque Lassing Park on Tampa Bay.
• Historic Kenwood is a 375acre neighborhood and an artists’ enclave with ornamental street lights and Craftsman bungalows dating from 1913. Many of them have been highlighted in the community’s annual Bungalow Fest.
• The Round Lake Historic District is six blocks west of Vinoy Park. With its 1,000 historic buildings, it was named a U.S. historical district in 2003.
Many other neighborhoods, newer and older, surround downtown. Buyers and renters can expect most single-family homes to date anywhere from around the turn of the century to the 1970s or ’80s. There are limited numbers of new homes and townhomes on the market at any given time, along with newer condos and apartments.
The bad news for buyers? Downtown-area residents are settled into their “forever homes” and availability can be a problem, said Brad Billings, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate in St. Pete. “The biggest problem is there just isn’t enough inventory,” he said. “Downtown is exciting and vibrant; those already here don’t want to leave, but buyers keep coming.”
Buyers need to be preapproved, know what they want and be able to pounce when they find it, said Billings. Be prepared for potentially protracted house hunting, he warned. One of his clients is renting while searching for a home, even though it could mean having to pay a penalty for breaking a rental lease when the right home comes along. Another client waited two days to think about a deal and lost out.
The market will likely soften for sellers going forward, and there are a couple of new townhome developments in the works, Billings adds. There also are opportunities to buy older homes that can be approved for demolition to build a new house. He advises working with a Realtor to ensure access to the newest listings, and discourages snoozing.
“Move quickly” when you find what you like, he said. Right now, “the days of thinking about it overnight are over” when it comes to the “hot” downtown St. Petersburg market.