Foreclosure May Provide Opportunity
March 3, 2009
The developers bought the sprawling property and forced hundreds of longtime residents to move out, with plans to build an exclusive waterfront housing complex.
Three years later, the 160-acre former Georgetown Apartments property is a ghost town of abandoned buildings and empty streets. Like many other high-profile projects in the Tampa Bay area, it has fallen into foreclosure - yet another victim of the housing crisis.
But Tampa officials view its demise as an opportunity to preserve more open space.
Mayor Pam Iorio wants the nonprofit Trust for Public Land to snap up the waterfront site off West Shore Boulevard. The proposal calls for buying the property with money from the nonprofit organization and Hillsborough County's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program.
"This is a beautiful piece of land, situated in our urban core, with great access to the Bay," Iorio said. "To be able to protect the majority of the land from development forever would be of great benefit to our environment and to the community."
Under the proposal, roughly half the property could be developed at a lower density than envisioned by the developers, she said, while the portion along the waterfront could be bought with ELAPP funds and converted into a public park or nature preserve.
"There aren't many opportunities to save large parcels within the city," Iorio said.
The Motta Group of Fort Lauderdale, which bought the property for $125 million in 2005, had planned to replace the 600-unit apartment complex with more than 1,200 homes.
But the slumping real estate market put the kibosh on those plans and Bank of America, which holds the mortgage on the property, is expected to put the property up for sale.
Greg Chelius, director of the Trust for Public Land's Florida operations, said the hope is that the bank will give preference to the conservation group before auctioning it off.
"We're willing to pay a fair price for the property," he said.
The San Francisco-based trust has a successful track record of helping communities across the country to conserve strategic land resources for public use, Chelius said.
He said the drop in property values has become the "green lining" of the housing crisis for conservationists, who have been buying foreclosed properties across the country.
"I think city and county officials recognize that opportunities like these come along once in a blue moon," he said." "If we don't act now, that opportunity will never come back."
Details of the proposal are still being worked out, but Chelius said there are a number of possible scenarios for acquiring the land, including working with a development partner.
If ELAPP funds are used, that would require approval from the county commission.
ELAPP is funded by county property taxes. Since it was created two decades ago, the program has preserved close to 45,000 acres of mangrove-lined shoreline, river swamp, wetlands and lakes, most of it in unincorporated areas of Hillsborough County.
Tampa officials said the city needs to devote more land for conservation.
"We have so little waterfront access for the public, especially in South Tampa," Councilman John Dingfelder said. "I think this would be a good deal for the community."
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