Why are so many big homes on small lots being built in the Tampa Bay area?

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Bay Times

By Susan Taylor Martin

Published October 23, 2015


On Woodlynne Avenue in West Tampa, two big homes are going up where one used to sit. To accommodate the extra building on the block, the city had to give neighbor John McDonald a different address.

"It was a bit inconvenient," he says. "I had 10 days to change my license; I had to notify the next round or two of paying my bills; I had a shipment that didn't come."

A few miles away in Seminole Heights, Rick Fifer cringes at the big, bland houses being built cheek by jowl with charming old bungalows.

"It's just way out of scale for what's there," he says. "I know we're going to get redevelopment, but let's try not to lose character along the way."

And in St. Petersburg's Snell Isle, Jim Cunneen and his neighbors are fighting a developer's plan to erect two big houses where one formerly stood. They fear the loss of green space will aggravate drainage problems that started when other McMansions were built nearby.

"We have flooding issues like it's no tomorrow, Cunneen says. "I've been up to my mid-calf in water."

Yes, some of Tampa Bay's oldest neighborhoods are changing, and not all of the neighbors are happy.

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While the bay area still has plenty of vacant, buildable land, almost none of it is in established areas like Tampa's Hyde Park and Palma Ceia or St. Petersburg's Snell Isle and Old Northeast. That's a problem at a time many buyers want big new homes in desirable older neighborhoods close to downtown.

The developers' solution: Buy a small house, bulldoze it and build two large houses in its place. Or if the lot's not big enough for two, build one house so large that there's barely room for a yard. Or if there are no small houses available to knock down in one area, go to another.

As the real estate market recovered, the tear-down craze started with older houses in South Tampa and on the water near downtown St. Petersburg. Now that prices in those areas are soaring, developers are moving to inland parts of St. Petersburg and to Tampa neighborhoods north of Kennedy Boulevard.

Along with the new development come complaints of construction racket, drainage problems and insensitivity to existing architectural styles.

"We're trying to keep us from starting to look like suburbia," says Fifer, a Realtor who specializes in vintage homes and is among the Seminole Heights residents upset with some of the new houses springing up.

Bounded on the south by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and on the west and north by the Hillsborough River, Seminole Heights boasts Tampa's greatest concentration of craftsman-style bungalows with their inviting front porches.

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During the building boom of the early 2000s, residents lobbied the city for ordinance changes to protect the area's distinctive flavor. New homes had to have a minimum floor elevation of 16 to 18 inches while garages and chain link fences couldn't protrude beyond the front of a house. Unlike the case in other parts of Tampa, driveways could remain the old-fashioned "ribbon style'' with grass strips on either side of the pavement.

"The whole idea was to try and keep the look and feel of the neighborhood," Fifer says, "but even with that there were certain things we couldn't control. We couldn't tell people that if they had a front porch it had to be a certain way."

So when one developer, Domain, recently began putting up houses with small "faux'' porches, as Fifer calls them, there was nothing anyone could do but grumble.

"Just because you put a front porch on something doesn't make it a bungalow," he says. "This isn't Disney World, this isn't facade-land. People like porches here because they use them. Domain's porches are like a waste of time and money."

Domain's chief operating officer, Kevin Robles, said the company's homes in Seminole Heights meet city codes. However, he added, "We've begun to enlarge the porches because the market has requested it."

Domain has received a warmer reception in Tampa's Oakford Park neighborhood north of Kennedy and west of MacDill Avenue.

Angel Portugues, for one, is pleased that Domain bought a decrepit house across from him on Woodlynne Avenue. In its place, Domain is putting up two large new homes each priced at more than $425,000.

"The girl who sold to them had a house that was falling apart," he says. "These guys have done wonders for us by doing this."

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It's easy to see why developers are being drawn to West Tampa and Oakford Park. Although the neighborhood once was dismissed as an area of modest homes of no particular distinction, many of the houses were built on double-size lots that can accommodate two bigger, more expensive homes.

Additionally, Oakford Park is in the prized Plant High School district and has easy access to the interstate, downtown Tampa and the malls of West Shore.

McDonald, whose house is next door to the ones Domain is building, moved from South Tampa three years ago.

"It used to take me a good 15 minutes to get out to the highway, it's bumper to bumper traffic coming out of there," McDonald says. "Here, I love the convenience. This whole swath of land from the University of Tampa and the river up to West Shore is absolutely in a morph and changing for the better."

Though McDonald didn't like having to switch his address, "ultimately it's a high class problem," he says. He does like the idea of perhaps selling part of his own over-sized lot.

In St. Petersburg's Snell Isle and Old Northeast, a family of Tampa builders is constructing new homes that dwarf some of the neighboring ones. Devonshire Custom Homes, owned by Brooke Layton and her brother, is putting up a 3,300-square- foot house on Snell Isle's Vinoy golf course that is three times as big as the house that once sat there.

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Nearby, their father's company, Devonshire Builders, recently completed two big houses that cover most of their 50- by 100-foot lots.

"In South Tampa, that's a standard lot," Layton says. "We (in South Tampa) are used to maximizing the land and putting as much as we can on it house-wise and everyone is okay with not having a (big) back yard. I myself am okay with not having to maintain a back yard.''

But Raul Da Silva, whose one-story home now has a pair of two-story Devonshire houses looming over it, says privacy is at a premium in his own yard: "When I have a barbecue, they can see what I'm cooking."

So far this year, developers seeking to build big houses have sought 13 variances from the city of St. Petersburg to reduce setbacks, divide lots or narrow the distance from existing homes. Last month, city officials approved the splitting of a lot on Snell Isle's Monterey Boulevard where a developer paid $600,000 for a house, tore it down and plans two much larger homes.

Cunneen and other residents are planning an appeal, either to the City Council or in court.

A few years ago, two McMansions went up behind Cunneen's. So much of the land was paved over that water runs into his and his neighbor's yards. Both have installed pumps to help manage the deluge.

"This past summer was brutal," said Cunneen, a landscape architect.

Concerns about drainage problems aren't limited to the two houses that could be going up across the street from Cunneen's. A Texas-based company paid $394,000 for another home on the same block of Monterey, knocked it down and is also presumed to be planning two houses in its place. That means there could be four big homes with small yards where two smaller homes once sat on large yards.

"The reason it's so beautiful here is the green space," said Cunneen's wife, Cristina. "You start packing in concrete you lose that."