Tallahassee’s Northeast: Looking for Elbow Room

Once considered out in the country, city growth is catching up with Tallahassee’s upscale address

Tallahassee’s northeastern sector, that wedge-shaped area between Miccosukee and Meridian roads, is populated with well-established upscale communities such as Golden Eagle, Killearn Estates and Ox Bottom Manor. It’s home to 60 percent of the city’s population, and many affluent people live among its canopy roads, manicured lawns and half-million-dollar homes.

Those who live there or make a living developing or selling it are quick – and right – to praise the area for its beautiful scenery, fine communities and quality schools.

“The northeast will always have that allure of being a great place to live,” said Jason Naumann, broker/owner of the Naumann Group Real Estate Inc. “It’s always been that way. It has good schools and good communities.”

“What really made the northeast take off was when new schools were built,” said builder Jeff West of West Custom Homes. “When Chiles High School opened its doors, everyone headed northeast. It’d been a number of years since we’d had a new high school built, and this one was very modern. It was very attractive to families, and when it opened, the floodgate opened.”

“I would tell you that the northeast is, in my mind, the most desirable place to live in Leon County,” said Leon County Commissioner Tony Grippa, who lives in Killearn Lakes. “From the landscape to the canopy roads to the rolling hills, it is a unique part of the county.”

Grippa is resigning his commission post effective Nov. 21 to move to Daytona Beach, where he will manage Brown and Brown Insurance, the sixth largest insurance company in the United States. But he still has opinions about Tallahassee, the northeast in particular.

“I don’t think it’s a dirty little secret that the northeast is growing faster than anywhere else,” he said.

“The northeast offers everything to everybody,” said Reagan Hobbs, who owns Twin-Action Realty, which controls 50 percent of the real estate market in Golden Eagle Country Club and handled 70 percent of the total July sales for the Summerbrooke community.

“The big selling point is all our ‘A’ schools,” said Dick Thoma, a 20-year resident of Killearn Lakes and treasurer of that community’s homeowners association. “There is Killearn Lakes Elementary, Deerlake (Middle) and Chiles High. All are ‘A’ schools. That’s a big draw. When you talk to residents, that’s what drew them here. That, and we have a lot of green space.”

But as with every other corridor in Tallahassee, times are starting to catch up with the northeast. There is a changing dynamic at work, brought about by rising construction costs, new statewide concurrency rules and a diminishing inventory of available land. In short, the northeast is running out of “elbow room.” Not that that’s a bad thing, but these factors probably will change the way people think about growth and development in the area.

School Daze

Concurrency is the big buzzword these days. It simply means that additional water, transportation and school infrastructure must be put in place at the same time, or concurrently, when new developments are built in over-capacity areas. When it comes to schools, the goal is to have developers provide the land or extra classrooms necessary to accommodate an increase in students. Getting there, though, is going to take some work.

Leon County School Board Chairwoman Sheila Costigan is especially aware of how northeast Tallahassee is growing, as well as the problems that growth presents to planners. New interlocal planning/school concurrency agreements (which will take effect in 2008, along with Senate Bill 360, a statewide growth management initiative) among the city, county and School Board don’t apply to certain residential developments that began before the agreements were in place. And that, she said, could pose a problem.

“All of the properties you see being developed right now, all of those had been grandfathered in before the interlocal agreements,” she said.

These agreements allow the School Board to sit at the growth-planning table.

“It means pay as you grow,” Costigan said. “It’s not impact fees, which is a good thing, but the school concurrency (means) that developers are going to pay for the infrastructure that their growth is going to make.”

That’s a good thing, but dealing with development already on the books is going to take some creative solutions. If new subdivisions – such as the massive Bull Run development, with its 800 single- and multi-family homes – bring in students, Costigan predicts that “we’re not going to have a place for these kids. We’re already at 100-percent capacity.”

Case in point: Chiles High School, the northeast’s flagship high school, opened in August 1999 with only ninth and 10th graders because the campus was only partially completed. That first year, 460 freshmen and 280 sophomores were enrolled – a total of 740.

At the opening bell of this year’s school season in August – with all grades in place – there were 496 freshmen, 528 sophomores, 513 juniors and 433 seniors, for a total enrollment of 1,970 students.

“That puts us at 100-percent capacity,” Costigan said. “I can tell you we are trying desperately to figure out how we’re going (to cope).”

Like a Stack of Dominos . . .

Touch one, and it affects the rest. That’s the flipside to the new concurrency rules, according to Byron Block, one of the most well-known developers in Tallahassee, especially in the northeast, where his family has lived since the 1920s.

Block – the managing partner of Block Land & Finance Co. Ltd. – has been involved in either master-planning or developing a number of landmark Tallahassee subdivisions or mixed-use projects: The Ravines, The Hermitage, Benjamin’s Run, Avondale, Countryside, The Enclave, Wallwood Heights and others – including the latest, Bull Run.

Block is the managing member of Bull Run Residential LLC, the entity developing 476 single-family lots at the 430-acre Bull Run site, located on the west side of Thomasville Road behind the Wal-Mart and adjacent to Barrington Park – a former apartment complex that has been converted to a 300-unit condominium complex. Both the Wal-Mart and the condo conversion units were part of the original Bull Run master plan.

Block’s experience shows him that the new concurrency rules are going to be a double-edged sword, he said. They may help in some ways, but they will have trickle-down effects in the construction industry.

“There (are) several things happening, but what’s going to change the dynamics of not only the northeast but throughout the county (are) the new concurrency rules . . . They’re factoring in schools and other things that had not been used in the past,” he said. “It’s going to add to the development cost tremendously . . . But our project has been approved and is moving along, and I guess we and SouthWood are protected against some of these new rules, to some extent.”

New Trend: High Density, Lower Cost

A recent residential trend across the state is the “condo conversion,” in which a developer takes an existing rental apartment complex such as Barrington Park and turns it into condominiums for sale.

Naumann, of the Naumann Group Real Estate, said high-density condo conversions are attractive alternatives for developers looking for economically efficient ways of creating new housing at a time when construction costs are rising and available land is harder to find.

“This is an interesting trend across the state . . . it’s very hard to get higher-density zoning, and the land is expensive,” he said. “I mean, if you’re buying land at $150,000 an acre and sit there and say, well, I can only get five units to an acre, my numbers don’t work. I’d have to build a house for $400,000. So apartment complexes that were already built have a much higher density, more units per acre . . . and construction costs in the last year have gone up 35 percent. It’s significant. But these apartment conversions are taking place because the developer knows his fixed costs. Because the units are already constructed, he can deliver a product to the marketplace at a lower price that’s obviously more affordable for people to purchase.”

“The value of property is so high that one, two or three (homeowners) can’t afford to amortize the cost of the land,” said architect Mark Tarmey, of Tarmey/Huffman Architecture. “You need 50 people to amortize the cost of the land . . . You need more density to make it profitable.”

Put simply, “the more density, the lower I can bring the price,” said developer Robert Parrish.

“I think the condo conversion thing is an awesome idea, as long as it’s done in an orderly manner and the end users are the end users,” Parrish said. “But I think it allows for affordable housing, especially (in the) northeast . . . If you don’t have affordable housing, you don’t have a community. You have to provide affordable housing, but you cannot do it at one house per acre. There is no such animal. Affordable housing is high density.”

One local real estate agent involved in selling condo conversions is Priscilla Tharpe, an agent for Midtown at Meridian. The complex, formerly known as Seasons North Apartments, is located in Tallahassee’s Midtown area.

With one-, two- and three-bedroom units in the $97,000 to $150,000 price range, these affordable homes are selling quickly, Tharpe said.

“It’s a place to live in the Midtown area of the northeast in an affordable manner that are not student properties,” she said. “It’s another piece of the puzzle of what we can offer buyers that they never had before.”

Tharpe said her clients are varied, ranging from young, single professionals to empty-nesters simply wanting to trade the headache of a big home for the simplicity of a maintenance-free condo lifestyle.

“We have many people who want to be close to downtown, Lake Ella and the Betton Hills area,” she said. “They’re downsizing for various reasons, or they’re single professionals or young people who love the Midtown area, but there is nothing affordable.”

Some of these new condo owners are retirees looking to simplify or even diversity their housing options.

“What you have are people who are retiring, a fair number of empty-nesters who might have a place somewhere else, a mountain house, but they want a place here; some of them have a business and plan to stay there during the week and maybe have a place in Franklin County on the weekend,” Tharpe said. “And a lot of them live there full time, a lot of teachers, retirees, professionals, quite a few attorneys, single attorneys, interested in being close (to downtown) . . . It’s sort of a trend, and it’s been happening in other parts of the country. It’s just now starting to happen in Tallahassee in the past year.”

But real-estate appraiser Clay Ketcham said he thinks the buyer should beware when considering an apartment-turned-condo. Buyers in some Tampa-area complexes thought they were going to be living in a community with units that were occupied primarily by owners.

“They don’t turn out that way,” he said. “In fact, the developer retains so many units and then flips it all the way back to an apartment complex and then the ones that people have bought are stuck,” Ketcham said. “Now they’re in an apartment complex that they thought was going to be a condominium association.

“And it’s just a big mess,” he said. “At least in the Tampa market, some of these areas are just now coming into growing pains about how this condo conversion idea is going to work.”

The Emergence of Smaller Developments

The expansive Bull Run development may be one of the last big projects in Tallahassee’s northeast – that is, until the 5,000-acre Welaunee Plantation property is opened up for development sometime in the future.

“There are a few large tracts available that are out there, maybe 60, 70, 80 acres here and there and yonder, but not very many of that,” said Block, of Block Land & Finance Co. “But really large pieces – they are few and far in between in the northeast. And so what you’re going to see is people doing smaller projects.”

“What you’re seeing right now, other than Bull Run, are what some people are referring to as these three-acre subdivisions to a 25-lot development,” said builder West, of West Custom Homes.

Naumann also has spotted that trend.

“If you look right now you have Preakness Point, which is right here on Thomasville Road, and it’s a very upscale northeast subdivision, again focusing on empty-nesters,” he said. “Then there’s Pilckem Ridge, off Centerville, and those houses start at $800,000. That place is amazing. There are a lot of little infill projects, but they’re very expensive.”

“Infill parcels begin to take on a higher value because . . . where they were once the things that were passed over, they’re now the only thing that is left,” said Tarmey, of Tarmey/Huffman Architecture. “So now we’re looking at, instead of really big things . . . very smart and very careful infill development. Because there are so many of the big pieces of the puzzle that are in place, you have to think more strategically about what goes in the in-between.”

Another reason for the emergence of smaller developments, Block said, involves affordable-housing requirements.

“Some of the affordable-housing requirements do not apply to really small projects,” he said. “Between affordable-housing requirements (and) the lack of land in the northeast, it’s going to take some pretty adept people to go out and find these small pieces and go through the process as opposed to doing something like Bull Run.”

Developer Parrish said the northeast could run out of space in 20 years.

“If we didn’t have Welaunee, we’re coming close to capacity in the next 20 years,” he said. “What’s in that north-northeast, from Centerville Road to Thomasville Road, there’s not going to be a lot left – other than tear-downs – that hasn’t been developed, because we’re locked in by plantations.”

It’s not just residential. It’s getting harder for retailers to find space too.

“There are retail people right now that are begging to come to Tallahassee . . . I got a call recently from somebody wanting to put in a restaurant and needing three acres here on the northeast part of town,” Parrish said. “I almost challenge you to get in a car and ride around for however many days or weeks it takes to find me three acres. There is no such animal.”

But the huge Welaunee plantation property between Miccosukee Road and Centerville Road offers some long-term development potential, Parrish said. In fact, he’s banking on that with his Regional Center office park, which he calls Welaunee’s “front door.”

“I think you have a capacity of 50 years of growth in Welaunee – ongoing, continual growth,” he said.

But the nature of that growth concerns Grippa, the county commissioner.

“One of my greatest concerns is the planning that the city will ultimately do for Welaunee Plantation,” he said. “Because that’s going to be twice the size of SouthWood when built out. If they’re going to do it right – in other words, protect Centerville Road and the canopy roads and make sure the sprayfield is retrofitted so we don’t pollute Wakulla Springs,” he said, referring to the 2,000-acre reclamation/reuse site called the Southeast Farm, located on Tram Road in the southeastern part of town. The sprayfield has come under fire recently as a source of nitrogen feeding into and damaging the springs, which are classified as Outstanding Florida Waters.

“If the sprayfield is already admitting nitrogen to Wakulla, then this will really impact it even more. So I think Welaunee can be a great development as long as it is planned correctly.”

Grippa said he hasn’t seen any plans that include putting a sprayfield in Welaunee.

“There’s not in any plan I’ve seen,” he said. “All of that effluent (from future development) would go to the southeast sprayfield.”

It’s not just the planning of Welaunee Plantation that needs attention. Tarmey said city-county growth management takes heat for being picky about handing out building permits, but there’s a good reason for that.

“The reason this place looks like it does, and still has some green canopy and a charming historic district, is because with great intention we have worked hard to cultivate that image,” he said. “If we don’t maintain a legacy of advocacy, we’re doomed to sprawl.”

Challenges Today and Tomorrow

Costigan, the School Board chairwoman, knows there are big challenges ahead for the board. Growth and overcrowding don’t affect just one or two schools, and so the question becomes: What is the solution?

New concurrency laws will be a big step forward, as well as donated parcels of land within big developments, but what do you do outside the big developments and until the new laws take effect?

Redistricting may – or may not – be one option. But it has its problems, Costigan said.

“Many people don’t want (redistricting),” she said. “Politically, it’s an unsatisfactory thing to do – even though it’s going to be necessary in many ways. I think we’re going to have to look at it. That is a definite, because we can’t build schools fast enough otherwise. Right now, we are finishing up all the capital improvements on the 10-year plan which the half-cent sales tax said it would pay for . . . and there is, in the ninth year of the plan, discussion of another high school if necessary, which would be in the east or north.”

However, Costigan said redistricting “won’t work” in the county’s current state.

“The No. 1 reason it won’t work is because of the governor’s mandate, the legislative mandate, for school choice,” she said. “Kids who are zoned in schools that haven’t met their annual yearly progress can opt out to go to other schools.”

Geography also adds to the problem of redistricting. In a county dappled with large lakes that have to be driven around, busing would get expensive “because now we have to pay for bus drivers, we have to pay for buses, we have to pay for mileage and more risk management. It’s just a very expensive thing,” Costigan said.

This is not to say that some limited redistricting ultimately wouldn’t happen, she said.

“But it won’t be the fix-all that people would think. There (are) a lot of people who think that when you redistrict, it’s going to fix the problem. It won’t,” Costigan said. “For any given school it might make a hairline dent . . . What’s going to have to happen . . . is to make sure we have these agreements in place for developers to meet school concurrency.”

Aside from school districting, people may have to start rethinking their traditional American views on home ownership – again, because of rising construction costs and dwindling land availability.

“If interest rates continue to go up, then there will be a real crisis in affordable housing – not just in the northeast, but everywhere, because (construction material costs) have gone off the chart,” said Block.

Tarmey said the strain can be seen elsewhere when it comes to public services, roads and utilities – the things that make up a city’s underlying infrastructure.

“(Consistent development) also means expansion of infrastructure and public services . . . When you continue to move outward from the middle, like Tallahassee has, you put a lot of pressure on public infrastructure, and those things are water, sewer, gas, electricity, police, fire, schools, because you’re expanding in a sprawl-like manner,” he said.

Block, meanwhile, says Americans should have taken a page from how European cities were developed.

“In Europe, home ownership is something everybody wants, but they’ve done a better job,” he said. “They have kept their core cities livable. The cities, because of their transit systems, are all very livable, and you know all these cities, Milan, Rome, whatever, there are grocery stores in town, in the city itself, in the neighborhoods, similar to what New York City is.

“But (Americans’) whole idea of home development and residential development and commercial development is so keyed into the automobile, and trying to unlearn that is going to be very hard,” Block said.

Until those old habits change, coping with growth in Tallahassee’s northeast may depend on emphasizing growth in other areas.

“The City and County commissions together need to do a lot better job in the future to (encourage) development on the south side of town,” Grippa said.

The city and county do have such plans – outlined in Blueprint 2000 and Beyond, and in the Southern Strategy – but Grippa said there needs to be fewer “studies” and more action.

“If they would use their money for incentives instead of studies,” progress could be made, he said.

In the end, though, the northeast remains a great place to feel a sense of community, where neighbors know each other and kids can play in safety.

“I think the northeast is made up of neighborhoods, and whether you go to Killearn Lakes or Summerbrooke, people take pride in where they live,” Grippa said. “And so, as a result, you have that true sense of community living out there that you maybe don’t get when you live on a street that’s not part of something bigger.”

Hobbs, of Twin-Action Realty, agrees.

“What excites me about Summerbrooke is, I grew up in a family neighborhood, and I knew my neighbors, I walked around, I played baseball in the streets with all my friends, and it’s hard to find that nowadays,” he said. “But that’s what Summerbrooke is turning into – a lot of kids.”

“Tallahassee is a good place to raise children and it’s a good community,” Tarmey said. “But the vitality of the northeast corridor is an indicator of Tallahassee as a whole.”

“Change has been unreal, but it’s still a great place to live,” said builder West.

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