Low land price entices city

By Janet Zink, Times Staff Writer

Published Friday, February 20, 2009

TAMPA — Conservationists want to take advantage of tanking real estate values to buy prime waterfront property in South Tampa.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio asked the nonprofit Trust for Public Land to put together a proposal to purchase the old Georgetown Apartments property on West Shore Boulevard after learning the 160-acre property was in foreclosure.

"We have this opportunity because of the economy. It will not come around again," Iorio said. "And here's something that's right in the urban core that could be a beautiful environmental site for our residents."

Developers bought the land in 2005 for $125 million, with plans to replace the 600-unit apartment complex with more than 1,200 homes.

Iorio said she turned to the Trust for Public Land because the organization can move quickly with a purchase.

If the deal goes through, the half of the property that fronts West Shore Boulevard could still be developed at about the same density it is now, and the portion on Tampa Bay could be purchased by the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program.

That would require approval of the Hillsborough County Commission.

Commissioner Rose Ferlita likes the idea.

"We need another ELAPP piece of property in the city," she said. "A little bit of development in the front, a little ELAPP in the back. It's a win-win."

Since its creation in 1987, ELAPP, funded by county property taxes, has made possible the purchase of 44,700 acres of beaches, woods, swamps and grasslands throughout Hillsborough County.

But most of that is in unincorporated parts of the county.

"Something like this will be so well received by the South Tampa people," said Ferlita, who was on the Tampa City Council when plans to redevelop Georgetown were announced. "In this case maybe the economy did something positive for that community."

Greg Chelius, director of the Trust for Public Land's Florida operations, said he hopes Bank of America and the other financial institutions involved will give the conservation group special consideration before putting the property on the auction block.

"We don't want preferential treatment in the way of price, but it would be nice to work with them prior to it going out to a nationwide bid," he said.

Chelius said the Georgetown story isn't unique. All across the country, the trust has been finding bargains on distressed properties.

"We look at this as kind of the green-lining of the economic crisis. These types of properties have become available when we couldn't touch them a couple years ago," he said.

Chelius said the organization is working on purchasing a property in Pinellas County for $5.5 million that at one point was valued at least $28 million.

And the nonprofit recently paid $7 million for land in Dunedin that was appraised for $18 million two years ago, he said.

"This kind of opportunity just doesn't come along very often," he said.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.