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Some high-end condo buyers want more beach than Beach Drive

By Susan Taylor Martin, Times Senior Correspondent
Published: February 8, 2018 Updated: February 9, 2018 at 12:08 PM
One of the 4 buildings of the new Sunset Pointe at Colony Key buildings is under construction on Tierra Verde. When completed, four buildings will house a total of 130 condo units. The view is looking west toward the Gulf. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

TIERRA VERDE — For many high-end condo buyers, nothing can beat the urban buzz of downtown St. Petersburg and especially Beach Drive.

Then there are those who would rather walk along a real beach instead of a row of restaurants. Who would rather see a pelican out their windows than the pilings of a $75 million pier.

Those are the kind of buyers drawn to a place like Sunset Pointe at Collany Key.

While he isn’t exactly marketing it as Not Beach Drive, development manager Mark Stroud finds that Sunset Pointe is appealing to buyers in their 60s and 70s who prefer a slower pace in a more natural setting.

"Our buyers do (look) downtown because they want to see what others are offering but this is a lifestyle," Stroud says of the 130-unit condo community rising on a private island in the Gulf of Mexico. "The biggest thing I hear is, ‘My grandkids can come and walk on the beach.’"

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But there also have been at least four buyers who once lived on Beach Drive. Among them: Vincent Pusateri, who had a condo in Park Shore Plaza and might have stayed if the city hadn’t approved plans for a new condo tower, Bliss, that totally blocked his view of the water.

"They’re turning it into New York; they’re building on every square inch available," Pusateri says. "It’s changing the overall ambiance of why people come to St. Pete."

But when he and his wife started looking elsewhere, they realized they didn’t have many options.

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Apart from the towers in downtown St. Petersburg, very few upscale condo projects have been developed in southern Pinellas County in the last 20 years. Municipal battles over height and density have slowed construction of new condominiums while older ones tend to be in touristy, traffic-choked areas. That’s part of the reason Sunset Pointe — in a quiet, unincorporated area just a few miles from Fort De Soto Park — is enjoying robust sales.

The first six-story building is finished with all 30 condos sold or about to close. The Pusateris moved in last June.

"We went to Sunset Pointe because there’s never going to be another building in front of me," Pusateri said. "It’s more of a relaxed, small community."

Another 30-unit building is due to be completed in September; all of those units, including a penthouse priced at $3.795 million, have been sold, too. Stroud is about to start taking reservations for the third building, whose pilings are now being pounded into the sandy ground. Depending on how that does, a fourth building, with 40 condos, will get underway.

"We’re being conservative," Stroud says.

There is reason for the caution. Sunset Pointe has a long history, one that nearly ended with the 2008 financial crash.

Ed Medley, a developer and owner of the well-known Billy’s Stone Crab, originally wanted to put a boat storage building on land he had been assembling in Tierra Verde. Area residents bitterly opposed that idea but backed his revised plans for a residential project.

In the early 2000s, the county commission approved land use changes from commercial to residential that increased the density on Medley’s property, including Collany Island, to 12.5 units per acre from five. It was the first time the commission had granted an exception to density rules meant to limit hurricane damage in vulnerable coastal areas.

Medley began pitching his project, called Sunset Pointe.

"This was Ed’s dream," Stroud says. "He marketed it for five years; he put in all the infrastructure, all of the utilities. He pre-sold the first building and had deposits on all the units."

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Then the recession hit and construction funds dried up. "It was really hard for Ed," Stroud says, "because he had worked so hard to get it done.:

The property went back to what became TD Bank. In 2012, while most investors were still wary of new projects, the bank sold the land for $8.6 million to a group that included developer Patrick Walsh; Bob Menke, former chairman of Bankers Insurance Group; Michael Cannova, president of Marlow Marine Sales and Gary Eng, a veteran of the software industry.

Medley is still involved; his Equity Consultants Inc. is handling sales.

Since Sunset Pointe was revived in 2015, the project has enlisted some other well-known names. The general contractor is KAST, which is also building the 41-story ONE ST. Petersburg condo tower. The architect was Curts Gaines Hall Jones, which designed Tampa’s newest condo tower, the Virage, now going up on Bayshore Boulevard.

All of the Sunset Pointe condos have at least three bedrooms and three-and-a-half bathrooms. On a square-foot basis, prices are slightly lower than for upscale condos in more urban areas: Except for the penthouses, units sold so far have gone for between $935,000 and $1.695 million, Multiple Listing Service records show.

Sunset Pointe will have two pools on completion, but it already boasts a white-sand beach that formed over the past few years as the pass between Collany Island and the Shell Key nature preserve silted shut.

"When we started the project, the pass was open," Stroud says, "and we were going to build our own upland beach. Now residents can walk down onto Shell Key."

That beach was a big draw for Scott and Pattie Johnston, who moved to Sunset Pointe five weeks ago from a condo at 400 Beach Drive. While they liked living on Beach Drive, parking had become an issue when they had guests. And after 10 years downtown, they were ready for a change.

Tierra Verde, while not as as bustling as Beach Drive, has its own appeal.

"The other night we left about 5:15, walked an hour on the beach as the sun was setting and walked to Billy’s and had a piece of fresh fish right off the boat," Scott Johnston says. "I know there are six restaurants we can walk to from here."

In September, Hurricane Irma blew open a new pass farther south on Shell Key. The threat of major storms has not fazed the Johnstons and other buyers in Sunset Pointe, whose living areas are at least 18 feet above sea level. Each building is also secured in place by dozens of pilings.

"If we have a hurricane," Stroud says, ‘‘these buildings might be all that is left."

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate