Some are vast, abandoned tracts of neglected grounds with weeds peeking through the cracks of weathered cobblestone. Others neared completion but froze in time when the housing bubble burst nearly a decade ago. They share a cause of death: The Great Recession.
Typical ghost community
A classic case of a community left in limbo is Michael Creek, a development at the east end of the Wabasso Causeway in Indian River County. Initially approved in 2005, it was to be 60 luxury waterfront homes on 24 acres on the Indian River Lagoon. Developers in 2008 said they planned to aggressively market the properties to baby boomers in South Florida and northern states, despite a slump in the housing market.
Construction started in early 2007 but by late 2009 it was stopped, said the project’s one-time engineer, Joseph Schulke of Vero Beach-based Schulke, Bittle and Stoddard.
Now the community is nothing more than a network of cracked, unfinished streets; concrete paths that lead to nowhere; and overgrown vegetation cordoned off from the main road by a plastic fence and rusty padlock.
At least 10 other developments in Indian River County suffered a fate similar to Michael Creek’s, records show.
“The story on a lot of projects is at the peak of the market, people were still buying land,” Schulke said. “They paid a lot for the land, paid for all the entitlement work, paid for the construction and then the recession came and you couldn’t get the type of money needed per lot. It’s pretty simple.”
The project’s developer could not be reached for comment.
Economists generally agree the recession lasted from December 2007 to June 2009. Some predicted in 2005 the real estate boom would come to a screeching halt and the bursting bubble would mean the loss of 5 million to 6.3 million jobs.
It was late 2005 when the recession started to hit South Florida and the Treasure Coast, said Brad Hunter, chief economist for HomeAdvisor – a nationwide company that matches people with professionals who do home improvement and construction work.
“By 2006, it was a whole different ballgame,” he said. “Instead of builders raising prices, builders were offering incentives, and the incentives started getting bigger and bigger and bigger as they were trying to jump-start sales that had fallen completely flat. Sales fell for Treasure Coast builders by 90 percent.”
Port St. Lucie, the nation’s second-hardest-hit market behind Las Vegas, was billed as a place where buyers could purchase the same home as in Palm Beach County and for $60,000 less, Hunter said. That drove development north to St. Lucie County, some into Indian River County yet very little in notoriously slow-growth Martin County, Hunter said.
“St. Lucie was a bubble – a big one – and when it popped, it was devastating,” he remembered. “There were builders that went out of business, never to return.”
Port St. Lucie officials acknowledged the city was “the epicenter for the boom and bust,” but declined to comment further. There are at least five ghost communities in St. Lucie County. Four, comprising nearly 600 acres, are in Port St. Lucie, records show.
Victoria Parc in Tradition, approved in 2004 as 222 single-family and 222 multifamily homes, still is just a sea of green sewer hookups. Visconti on Westmoreland Boulevard, approved in 2001, consists of just four homes and a partially built gate. Visconti and its partner ghost community across the street, Ravello, together called for 336 homes, city records show.
Who lives there?
According to Hunter, the economist, these unsightly communities drive down property values of surrounding neighborhoods.
“(The blight) requires that the builders provide homes that are so attractively priced that people are willing to overlook (the blight), especially if those buyers can buy into the narrative that, sooner or later, that blight will go away and their neighborhood will actually go up in value,” Hunter said.
Jalisia Taylor rents a three-bedroom town home in the Waterstone development off Indrio Road in St. Lucie County. Out front, its sign is obscured by tree branches, weeds and overgrown grass. Likewise, the guardhouse sits empty, glass windows shattered and covered by trees branches and weeds that cling to the structure like moss.
The 240-acre development, approved in 2006, was to be 720-units: 544 single-family homes and 176 multifamily homes, according to St. Lucie County.
Only four town homes were built, one of which is Taylor’s.
“That’s been broken for over a year now,” Taylor said, gesturing toward the broken window on the unmanned guard house.
Waterstone is a peaceful community, but the overgrowth needs to be manicured, Taylor said. She pointed off into the distance, where the promised clubhouse never was built.
She’s worried by the lack of security.
“People just pull up whenever they want,” she said, and law enforcement rarely patrols the area.
Signs of life
Hunter shuns the term “ghost developments.” Instead, he prefers “zombie communities.”
“They’re the walking dead, but sooner or later, the dead come back to life,” Hunter said. “And now it’s finally starting to happen.”
For some ghost communities and unfinished developments stifled by the recession, there are signs of life, such as structural skeletons beginning to rise and the nostalgic sound of heavy equipment once again filling the air.
EcoVillage at River Place and Pine Trace, both in Port St. Lucie, are feeling a pulse again. Pine Trace, a planned 126-home community on nearly 40 acres and first approved in 2005, is adding 122 homes to just four existing homes.
“KB Home actively monitors the market to assess the local demand for new homes and determines the best time to activate a new community,” spokeswoman Cara Kane said. “We are encouraged by the increased demand across our footprint.”
EcoVillage earlier this year broke ground on the first of 23 buildings. The 18-acre development, approved in 2005, will have 118 two- and three-bedroom town homes priced at $169,000- $209,000, developers said.
In Indian River County, Bent Pine Preserve, a 79-acre, 139-home community first approved in 2005; and Orchard Park, a 36-acre, 73-home community approved in 2004, are seeing signs of life, officials said.
Frank Wacha, a Realtor and developer of part of the Avonlea Commerce Park in Martin County, this year plans to revive construction on the incomplete commercial and residential project, he said.
Martin County is a different case than St. Lucie and Indian River counties, where residential development came to a crash. Commercial plazas were struck by the recession in Martin County, where most residents and lawmakers are proud of its slow-growth approach to development, county records show.
Wacha’s 49-acre development stalled in 2007.
“There was virtually no development or commercial money available. Nobody was lending. The banks were going under … so, consequently, if you were partially into a project, the money that you had counted on no longer was available,” Wacha said. Even staying current on property taxes was a challenge during the bust, he said.
The existing commerce park consists of 23,700 square feet of mixed-use space. Wacha plans to break ground on his own home on the property by August, then start on more commercial buildings, he said.
© 2016 the Treasure Coast Newspapers (Stuart, Fla.), Nicole Rodriguez. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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