Stalled Florida Projects Draw Interest from Conservation Groups

Business bankruptcies and the stone-cold homebuilding market in Florida, as elsewhere, have turned hundreds of once-busy developments into virtual ghost towns. The potential for crime, blight, and other bad consequences has been a concern for public officials nationwide. But for groups who advocate preservation of open space, there's an up side. In one community after another, non-profit groups have stepped in to turn stalled or failed developments into public lands, devoting the properties to community use as public parks, or simply as natural conservation land. In some cases, the result can be a win-win solution that benefits developers and builders as well as open-space advocates. That's because development deals that include set-asides for publicly accessible open space can offer tax benefits to the developer — and also enhance the value of the portions of the property that remain available to build on. One South Florida example: an aging apartment complex on an oceanfront parcel in Tampa, Florida, known as " Georgetown." Fronting on the Old Tampa Bay, surrounded by old established neighborhoods, and not far from MacDill Air Force Base, the Georgetown parcel is prime real estate. Certainly, that's what Fort Lauderdale-based developers The Motta Group thought when they paid $125 million for the 153-acre parcel in April of 2005. And had 2005's red-hot market continued for a few more years, that investment might have paid off in spades. But things didn't turn out that way — by September of 2008, lenders were foreclosing on the whole project, including the now-empty 1970's-built apartment complex on the landward side of the property. In spring of 2009, reported the Los Angeles Times (“ Empty Florida homes may return to nature,” by Richard Fausset), the property attracted the attention of Greg Chelius, an executive with the Florida chapter of a national non-profit called the Trust for Public Lands. Chelius saw a golden opportunity to apply his group's strategy: Acting as an intermediary that acquires eligible parcels and executes the public-private land deals necessary to turn the properties into public conservation lands. This fall, Bank of America, which now holds the property, found a buyer: the DeBartolo Group. The St. Petersburg Times has the story (" DeBartolo Group completes purchase of Georgetown Apartments," by Janet Zink). Demolition of the abandoned apartments on the site began in November, the Tampa Business Journal reported (" DeBartolo investment group enlists Cross to tear down Georgetown"). By January, the Tampa Tribune reported, demolition was in full swing (" Demolition creates lots of debris," by George Wilkens). As part of the sale, the Trust for Public Land contracted with DeBartolo to purchase the oceanfront part of the property and convey it to Hillsborough County's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program (ELAPP). But details of that complex transaction are yet to be worked out. Meanwhile, DeBartolo executives say they're in no hurry to develop their half of the parcel. But it's likely that the Motta Group's original concept — a dense-packed luxury development of 1,249 condos, townhouses, and single-family homes — will be scaled back in favor of a plan involving fewer (but potentially more upscale) units.