DUNEDIN — A wave of enthusiasm for residential development on the Suncoast has reached this small Main Street town.
Like bookends on either side of the downtown Main Street, builders plan two- and three-story condos and apartments catering to people who want the urban lifestyle perks of St. Petersburg in an old Florida atmosphere.
At Main and Broadway, Victoria Place will offer rare water views from 30 luxury condominiums set above new retail space.
On the east side of town, a three-story, 124-unit apartment building would be the largest multifamily housing development in the downtown’s history.
And along the water, the Taoist Tai Chi Society has closed on purchasing the faded Fenway Hotel, vowing to renovate the 1920s building and give it new life as a “moving mediatation” center.
City officials are heartened by all the proposals reaching their desks.
But in a development market that’s skittish about risk, questions remain about how long it will take builders to put their money where their mouths are and start breaking ground on these big plans.
“The challenge for us is we are small and compact,” said Bob Ironsmith, the city’s economic and housing development director.
“When they do the circumference around the project and the demographics, it doesn’t make the developer and the bank feel comfortable.”
Tiny Dunedin offers many of the urban pleasures found in larger cities such as St. Petersburg — the eclectic shops and restaurants, including two microbreweries, a year-round calendar of festivals and farmers markets, easy access to bicycle trails and even waterfront parks, albeit on a smaller scale.
St. Petersburg in the past year has seen an explosion of residential construction — aimed particularly at young professionals and some retirees who prefer the charms of city life — with several new midrise apartments open or underway.
Similar projects brought down to Dunedin’s size have been approved by city commissioners, but they’ve been slower to break ground.
The Dunedin Gateway on the east side of downtown is a case in point.
Developer Pizzuti has been plotting to develop the empty 4-acre lot for years, first proposing a commercial complex with medical offices across the street from Mease Dunedin Hospital.
Last year, the Ohio-based company gained approval to erect a three-story apartment building with retail on the first floor. City commissioners had hoped to see the construction finished by the end of this year, but the land remains empty.
The company is reworking the project design to make it more “market friendly” and hopes to break ground by the end of this year, said Naeem Coleman, economic development manager for Pizzuti.
A majority of Pizzuti’s projects are in larger cities such as Orlando, where bigger apartment buildings with more units can be built.
“I think small towns tend to be overlooked a lot of times by larger developers,” Coleman said.
Main Street towns with a strong reputation can be profitable markets, though, if built carefully to appeal to potential residents, he said.
Dunedin this year is enjoying the fruits of more than a decade of urban revitalization, with merchants reporting the busiest year in memory, say chamber of commerce officials.
Some are moving forward with their smaller construction projects, such as Rene Johnson, who is building a pair of high-end condos above retail space next to her restaurant, The Living Room on Main.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, groundwork is being laid for 25 town homes with solar panels and other energy-saving technologies expected to generate zero power costs for residents.
Builders with a strong track record in the luxury market see the potential.
The developer of the Sandpearl Residences in Clearwater Beach, and the forthcoming Rowland Place condos in St. Petersburg, expects to begin presales this summer for Victoria Place in one of the few empty spots near Dunedin’s waterfront.
“We tested the market for about a year in downtown St. Petersburg, and that project was sold out very, very quickly, and we feel that Dunedin is a very charming town and that there’ll be a similar demand for that lifestyle,” said JMC Communities President John Hobach.
Dunedin offers a live-play-work atmosphere like St. Petersburg, Hobach said, though younger professionals who live here may have to find the work part in bigger cities nearby.
“I think the priority is the live and play and, yeah, I can drive to work,” he said.
JMC hasn’t set a hard construction timeline for Victoria Place and won’t break ground until it sees a volume of presales.
Longtime residents also will keep a close eye on what may be the city’s toughest redevelopment project, the old Fenway Hotel.
Last month, the Taoist Tai Chi Society acted on longstanding plans to buy the dilapidated 1920s-era hotel on Edgewater Drive to repurpose it as a national headquarters.
The group spent $2.8 million to buy the Mediterranean-style building and $109,000 to satisfy liens imposed by the city two years ago when its appearance and safety standards fell into decline.
The society has promised to do renovations that other developers have failed to complete.
The society’s president, Pegoty Packman, says the city has been on a path toward rejuvenation for years now and the restoration of the Fenway and other downtown projects are signs of its health.
“A city feels better when all the parts are operating, and it just gives it more energy,” she said.