A History of Westchase
WOW celebrates Westchase’s 20th anniversary with a historical series about the land that would become our home.
July, 2011: Early Land and People
Our story about the land that became Westchase begins tens of thousands of years ago. Florida's environment before the arrival of people varied significantly over the millennia. Sea levels rose and fell, and much of Westchase, as well as Florida itself, was underwater for many years. At one time the nearest dry land was where Atlanta sprawls today. Because the Florida peninsula was under the sea, shark's teeth and other marine fossils are common finds in central Florida.
The earth’s climate has always been changing; it has been sometimes warmer and sometimes colder. The changing temperatures also changed sea levels. During cold periods, or Ice Ages, more of the earth’s ocean water is trapped in glaciers and ice caps, lowering the sea level. When the climate warms, the ice melts and sea levels rise. The rise and fall of the oceans is important for Florida. Our peninsula is essentially part of the seabed that is either exposed or flooded depending on the prevailing climate.
The most popular historical model of human settlement of North America holds that sea levels were so low 15,000 years ago that dry land was exposed between Asia and Alaska. Gradually people moved across this land bridge before sea levels rose and cut the connection. Another theory, growing in popularity among scientists, is that people came to the Americas from Asia by sea, initially settling along the coastlines. If so, many of the earliest prehistoric sites in North America are now covered by ocean.
Archaeologists believe that humans first arrived in the Tampa Bay area 12,000 years ago or more. The earliest archaeological sites are concentrated along the Hillsborough River and the eastern part of the county, although some have been found under the waters of Tampa Bay and more than 100 feet under the Gulf of Mexico.
Sea levels have risen about 400 feet since the peak of the last Ice Age 25,000 years ago. Then the coastline was 100 miles west of where Clearwater Beach sits today. Anybody who has gone fishing for grouper can probably identify the ancient coastlines as well as any archaeologist. The sharp drop off that makes for such good fishing represents the glaciations of the past, which caused the changes in sea level. Although these sea level changes were quite significant, they occurred gradually over a long period of time, giving Florida’s settlers time to adapt and adjust their way of life.
Today the area we call Westchase is a warm, humid and inviting place to live, but 12,000 years ago a cold, dry, and daunting land greeted the first Floridians. The first seasonal residents hunted in what was probably a series of oak hardwood hammocks (a raised area of trees) located nearly 100 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Access to fresh water limited where people could live. Deep sinkholes were reliable sources of water, but many of the rivers were lower and probably intermittent in flow. The lakes dried up or shrank drastically after the rainy season was over, much like the African savannah today. As sea levels rose and fell slowly over millennia, the shoreline moved gradually closer to its modern location. About 4,000 years ago Tampa Bay not only had a shoreline similar to today’s, but its numerous lakes, rivers, and creeks as well.
The earliest residents of Upper Tampa Bay were nomadic or seasonal people called PaleoIndians. They hunted mammoths, bison, camels and other large game called megafauna. Their weapons were huge spear points up to six or seven inches long and hafted to wooden shafts. The PaleoIndians also trapped small game and collected nuts and berries. Their lifestyle dictated that they live in small, mobile bands, following their prey’s movement, or travelling to where plants and fruit were seasonally available. They also traveled to find the necessary raw materials to make stone tools and weapons. Prehistoric stone quarries are located in both Hillsborough and Pasco counties; the closest to us is a small site on Rocky Creek, less than a quarter-mile from Westchase. Numerous prehistoric quarries are on Sweetwater Creek about three miles away.
Once sea levels stabilized, coastal communities began to develop due to the ease of obtaining food and the availability of freshwater from rivers or creeks. The types of trees changed in response to the warmer, wetter climate; pine and cypress replaced the hardwoods. Major rivers east of modern Tampa included the Palm, the Alafia, Bullfrog Creek, and the Little Manatee rivers. The Hillsborough, of course, is the largest river to drain into Tampa Bay. All have substantial numbers of archaeological sites nearby.
In our area, smaller creeks and streams also provided freshwater to small bands of Native Americans. Rocky Creek and Double Branch are major streams that border Westchase to the east and west and drain directly into Tampa Bay. Prehistoric sites have been found along these creeks, including small mound sites. All along Tampa Bay’s shore are shell middens (piles of discarded shell and bone), campsites, and small villages, especially where the creeks are wide enough to paddle a canoe. The creeks gave our neighbors of the past access to inland food sources, freshwater, stone materials for tools and other technological components. Larger settlements sprang up at places like nearby Upper Tampa Bay Park, where archaeologists have found shell middens and habitation sites. Sites further up the creeks were more seasonal, smaller and more likely to be temporary camp sites or hunting camps.
For as long as mankind has existed we have made decisions about where to live based on the basic needs of food, water, clothing, and shelter. Native Americans lived where they could reliably acquire freshwater, such as a stream, spring, pond, or lake. Both sea and land food sources were abundant in Tampa Bay. These included fish, clams, oysters, deer, turtle, nuts, berries and fresh greens. Hunters no longer needed large spears to hunt the now extinct megafauna. Instead they developed a new technology – bows and arrows – using much smaller stone points. Shelters were made from trees, vines, bark, and mud, but archaeologists believe that Indian mounds also provided shelter from storm surges.
As time passed, the climate continued to change, growing increasingly warmer and wetter, ultimately becoming the hot and humid subtropical Florida we know today. Human society became more complex and groups grew larger when food and water were available year round. People were now able to settle in one area. Groups ultimately became capable of supporting a larger artisan class. These individuals created beautiful new designs in pottery, canoes capable of sea voyages, bone hair pins, weaving technology, and the domestication of plants and animals.
In archaeology, the term “type sites” refers to places where a particular culture is first identified or where the most extensive study of that culture is made. One type site on the shore of Tampa Bay is Weeden Island, located near the west end of Gandy Bridge. It is recognized for its delicate pottery with abstract designs. The Weeden Island culture is recognized in the southern Gulf region of the United States from central Florida northward to southern Alabama and dates from 1,700 to 1,000 years ago. Recently, archaeologists working at the Weeden Island site recovered an extraordinary 40-foot canoe, made from a single pine log. The shape of the canoe suggests that it was used for travel in open ocean waters rather than inland creeks. Perhaps our local Weeden Island people traveled far abroad. Spanish records show that Florida’s Native Americans travelled regularly by canoe and traded with Cuba, which required voyages across the Florida Straits.
Another local type site is at Safety Harbor, which was the capital of the Tocobaga nation or tribe. It served as their ceremonial center from about A.D. 900 until about 1700. From 1,000 to 400 years ago, many different chiefdoms existed along Florida’s Gulf coast, including the Tocobaga, Calusa, and the Timucua. The Safety Harbor site, located in what we now call Philippe Park, was dominated by a tall, man-made mound created from layers of sand and shells. Houses and temples with wooden platforms and thatched roofs were scattered around and on the mound. Smaller villages socially connected to Safety Harbor existed throughout the bay area. We know there was interaction and trade between chiefdoms along the Gulf coast, and peaceful competition between the Calusa and Tocobaga escalated into warfare at times.
Things turned ugly with the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s, however. Conquistadors Hernando de Soto (1539) and Pánfilo de Narváez (1528) led expeditions through Tocobaga territory. Conquests of new lands rarely occur without violence, and the Tocobagans’ encounters with Narváez and De Soto were no exceptions. Tales of initial encounters between the Spanish and the Native Americans tell of the destruction of the Tocobagans' ceremonial grounds and huts. At times conflict between Native American groups also worsened as the result of European contact. In 1567, Carlos, chief of the Calusa at Charlotte Harbor, allied himself with Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, best known as the founder of St. Augustine. With Carlos, Menéndez traveled to Safety Harbor, where he convinced the leaders of the Calusa and the Tocobaga to end hostilities. Menéndez left a small garrison of Spanish troops at Safety Harbor with the purpose of converting the Tocobaga to Christianity. The Spanish were not warmly welcomed, however, and did not stay for long.
Although the Spanish did not establish a permanent settlement at Tampa Bay, their sporadic appearances brought crushing cultural changes to those who were here. The Spanish ushered in new political alliances and new weapons. The most dramatic agent of change, however, proved disease. Illnesses like smallpox swept through Native American populations with no natural immunity from Old World diseases. With mortality rates reaching 90 percent in some areas, the Native American social fabric was shredded. Ceremonial centers like nearby Safety Harbor were abandoned.
Tampa Bay was a quiet place for the next 100 years.
Archaeological Sites You Can Visit
Safety Harbor Mound at Philippe Park
2525 Philippe Parkway in Safety Harbor
Not only is the mound at Safety Harbor still standing, but it’s now part of Philippe Park. It’s open to the public and only a few minutes away from Westchase. The mound has paved pathways to the top, where you’ll find a great view of the bay. If the kids don’t get tired from climbing to the top a dozen times, the park’s well equipped playgrounds for different ages will thrill them. With picnic pavilions, restrooms and a boat ramp, the park is a wonderful place for a family outing.
1800 Weedon Drive NE in St. Petersburg
In the 1920’s, tourists traveled to Weedon Island to watch archaeologists from the Smithsonian Institution excavate the remains of past civilizations. Today Weedon Island Preserve still attracts tourists and local residents who enjoy the miles of trails, boardwalks, and canoeing through mysterious mangroves. Located on Tampa Bay near the west end of Gandy Bridge, the preserve features a museum with interactive exhibits on the environment and the people who lived here in the past.
Crystal River Archaeological State Park
A little further away but close enough for a day trip, is Crystal River Archaeological State Park. Thousands of years ago, this site was an important ceremonial center on the Gulf Coast. Today the state park includes six prehistoric mounds and is a National Historic Landmark. The park has a visitor center and is a good fishing spot in addition to being part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. Consider combining a visit to the park with a snorkeling trip to the river itself, where you might encounter a manatee. 3400 N. Museum Point in Crystal River,
August, 2011: European Settlement and the Railroad
While they established no permanent settlements in Tampa Bay, the Spanish, arriving in in the 16th century, brought crushing cultural changes and diseases to the Bay’s Native Americans. In response, Florida’s original inhabitants abandoned nearby ceremonial centers like that in Philippe Park in Safety Harbor.
With the Native American social fabric in tatters, Tampa Bay grew quiet after many Native Americans fled the area for Cuba. Only local wildlife visited the Indians’ abandoned and overgrown footpaths and towns. Occasional human visitors passed by in boats, yet they didn’t stay long. Gradually Native Americans moved back into Florida again as they were pushed out of their southern homelands by colonists and settlers. Once here, they became the Seminoles and established new towns and farms of their own.
Britain took Florida from Spain in 1763, but they had very little interest in Florida’s Gulf coast. A few pirates roamed the seas, and a small assortment of Spanish, Cuban and Seminole fishermen established camps on Tampa Bay. The British did name a river after Lord Hillsborough; although he was the colonial secretary of state, Hillsborough never visited Florida. After only 20 years, Britain gave Florida back to the Spanish, who also neglected to take much interest in it. After the American Revolutionary War, U.S. slaves took advantage of this neglect, and escaped south into Spanish territory, often becoming part of Seminole settlements. Eventually, the young and growing United States picked Florida up from Spain in 1821.
Through all those years of early European and U.S. contact, Florida was a very sparsely populated place. Hardly anyone had reason to visit or remain in the slightly swampy land at the top of Tampa Bay that was to become Westchase. To put it bluntly, there were many other better places to live.
The Hackley family started a plantation at the mouth of the Hillsborough River in the early 1820’s. The large trees along the river proved a fantastic business opportunity in what is known as the naval stores industry, providing tar, pitch, turpentine, masts and lumber to keep ships sailing. Perhaps unfortunately for the Hackleys, the spot they chose was soon appropriated by the U.S. Army to build Fort Brooke. Although Tampa grew around Fort Brooke, there were still very few people living here: soldiers, Seminoles and roughly 100 civilians in Hillsborough County by 1840. At the time, Hillsborough County covered many more miles than it does today. Ten separate Florida counties have been carved from its original boundaries.
Although slight, this burst of growth led settlers to explore more of Tampa Bay. The Frenchman Odet Philippe, one of the area’s most colorful and controversial pioneers, came to Safety Harbor in the 1830’s. He claimed the land around the abandoned Tocobagan mound on the bay’s shore, located in today’s Philippe Park. Stories and myths still spin around Philippe. Was he truly Napoleon Bonaparte’s personal physician, held prisoner by Horatio Nelson following the Battle of Trafalgar? Was he truly a French count, the great-grandson of a king? Was he truly captured by the pirate Gomez, who then rewarded Philippe for medical services rendered with treasure and a map pointing to Tampa Bay?
Historians have both repeated and refuted these stories, but they agree that Philippe was a man of many interests and much initiative. He was part of a grand old Florida tradition of coming here for a fresh start, having left his previous home in Charleston after some failed business dealings.
Once living at his Safety Harbor homestead, which he called St. Helena, Philippe engaged in a wide range of entrepreneurial pursuits, including operating billiards halls and bowling alleys in the fledgling town of Tampa. He raised cattle, was part of the trade between Cuba, Tampa and South Carolina, and may have been the first to grow grapefruit in Florida. When a major hurricane hit Tampa in September 1848, the old Indian mound served Philippe well. His family and he were able to climb to its top to escape the rising tidal surge although their farm buildings and crops were destroyed. Philippe lived at St. Helena until his death in 1869. His daughters married sons of other Tampa Bay pioneer families such as the McMullens and the Booths, who owned large cattle ranches in what is now northern Pinellas County.
Even with the founding of Tampa and the arrival of a few pioneer families, few people lived in the future Westchase area in the late 19th century. Settlement of northwest Hillsborough County began in the 1860’s with early settlers such as William Mobley, who farmed and timbered. Mobley was a slave owner, and after the Civil War, some of his freed slaves stayed and settled nearby, most notably the Allen family. By the 1880’s, enough settlers existed in and around Keystone to establish both a school and a post office.
In the 1870’s and 1880’s, Florida was a harsh frontier with very poor transportation and an economy that had suffered through colonialism, territorialism and the Civil War. Growth was slow, hampered by lack of capital and infrastructure. Rivers were Florida’s first highways, and if a place couldn’t be reached by boat, it was likely to remain sparsely settled. Tampa itself was nothing but a coastal village struggling to get by. In 1882 visiting journalist Kirk Munroe reported that Tampa was “a sleepy, shabby Southern town,” yet one of its greatest assets was an “implicit confidence in its own prosperous future.” This optimism came primarily from rumors of a railroad.
Henry Plant, a Connecticut native of who ran transport companies in the South during the Civil War, turned that rumor to reality. After the war Plant worked to create his own network of trains and ships, eventually choosing Tampa as the port connecting his railway system with steamers running to Key West and Havana. The arrival of Plant’s railroad in the early 1880’s greatly stimulated Tampa’s economy and drove development of other railroads and new cities on the bay. Still, no one was particularly interested in the land in northern Hillsborough County. Plant’s railroad stopped in Tampa, and most people traveled between Tampa and St. Petersburg by boat. Even upon the arrival of the 20th century, no road or rail connections existed between the two cities.
The lack of development meant that northern Hillsborough County had plenty of large, first-growth trees. With the turn of the 20th century, Florida’s growth created an increased demand for this lumber. Lumber companies bought large tracts of timberland and built tram lines to carry felled trees to mills (a tram is a small train or rail car). Dowling Lumber Company bought 50,000 acres of land from the Gulf Pine Lumber Company in 1909, and built a sawmill on Gunn Highway, about one-half mile south of State Road 54. At about the same time, the Lyon Lumber Company opened a sawmill in Odessa.
Also in 1909, Charles Lutz built a railroad from Odessa to the Lutz Depot, which was named after his brother William, an engineer for the Tampa Northern Railroad. Charles Lutz’s railroad was the Tampa and Gulf Coast Railway, nicknamed the “Peavine” because of what could charitably be called a less-than-direct route. In 1913 the Tampa and Gulf Coast Railroad (T&GC) formed and took over 22 miles of the Tampa and Gulf Coast Railway lines to Tarpon Springs and Port Richey. The tracks east of Gulf Pine to Lutz were abandoned and that portion of the railbed was straightened to become Lutz Lake Fern Road.
By 1915 the T&GC included 78 miles of track in Hillsborough, Pasco, and Pinellas counties and was the first direct rail connection between Tampa and St. Petersburg. An eight-mile connecting track between Lake Fern and the Tampa to Clearwater route ended at Tarpon Junction, roughly the intersection of Linebaugh Avenue and Wilsky Road today. That train ran north of Tarpon Junction until the 1980’s. Today bicyclists and joggers follow its old route along part of the Upper Tampa Bay Trail.
Meanwhile, just down the road to the west, Milo Thomas, a native of Frostproof, returned from World War II and began building a 1,450-acre ranch that would eventually hold 3,500 suburban homes.
Who Were Sheldon and Linebaugh?
Anyone who experiences Westchase’s rush hour traffic soon finds himself muttering the names Linebaugh and Sheldon. Who were these people who unwittingly find themselves so memorialized?
Henry T. Linebaugh was a real estate developer originally from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He arrived in Polk County in 1883 and moved to Tampa roughly three years later. Here he began his career working in the local orange groves with his brother Charles. Stated one historical record, “On his arrival in Florida his means were limited, but through energy, economy and wise investments, he can now count the value of his possessions into the tens of thousands of dollars, and he is recognized as one of Tampa’s most progressive citizens."
Henry Linebaugh established the Linebaugh Library in Murfreesboro with a $5,000 financial contribution and stipulated that the library be named after his mother, Mattie V. Linebaugh. The father of 11 children, Henry Linebaugh died in 1943.
Raymond Sheldon, a native of Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, Canada, was a pro-union lawyer in Tampa in the 1930’s. Originally the proprietor of his father’s gasoline filling station, Sheldon received his law degree in 1935. He served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1936 to 1941, and in the Florida State Senate (as Hillsborough County’s only state senator) from 1942 to 1950.
Sheldon also ran an unsuccessful campaign to be the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial candidate in 1944, finishing fourth of six candidates in the primary. Returning to private law practice, Sheldon remained active in county politics by chairing the Democratic Party’s committee. Sheldon locally headed the 1960 Kennedy-Johnson presidential campaign, which won the county. He died in 1970.
September, 2011: The Thomas Family Builds a Ranch
With the arrival of the railroad in the 20th century, the history and settlement of Upper Tampa Bay were profoundly altered – and the stage was set for the Thomas family to shape the land that would become Westchase.
Even after the train came through, however, the future Westchase area remained relatively uninhabited. In 1913 automotive manufacturer R. E. Olds, who invented the Oldsmobile, bought over 37,000 acres of land on the shore of Tampa Bay with the idea of creating a new town. Despite the advantage of being on the route between Tampa and St. Petersburg, the town never quite met Olds’ expectations. It did, however, achieve a lasting presence in the area as Oldsmar.
It was appropriate that a car maker should have a hand in shaping Upper Tampa Bay because the automobile was poised to transform Florida. Once Henry Ford’s automated production lines started churning out affordable automobiles, car ownership in the United States skyrocketed. By the end of the 1920’s, six out of ten American families owned a car. This increased mobility, allowing people to move out of the cities into suburban and rural areas. It also transformed travel between cities. The increased presence of cars in Tampa also resulted in a need for more paved roads, as cars tended to get stuck on the state’s sandy roads.
After World War I, the American Forestry Association suggested planting trees as memorials to soldiers. The Tampa Rotary Club took this idea and added a twist. It proposed planting trees along a new highway with monuments engraved with the names of all the men from Hillsborough County who served in the war. Lined with oaks and oleanders, the memorial highway would be similar to tree plantings along highways in Sarasota and Volusia counties in Florida, as well as projects underway in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Minnesota and Michigan.
Hillsborough’s Memorial Highway was dedicated in January 1921 and was a 13.5-mile, paved stretch of new road that ran from Howard Avenue in Tampa westward around the northern end of the bay. It ended at the Pinellas County line. A few years later, Pinellas County extended the road to Safety Harbor and Clearwater.
The roads and railways came in handy when the Tampa Downs horse race track opened in 1926. As it does today, the race track sat just on the Hillsborough side of the county line northeast of Oldsmar. Race-goers could drive, catch a bus or even ride a special train from Tampa Union Station to the track.
In the 1920s, tourism and development shifted from north Florida to south Florida, and the horses followed. Miami quickly became the state’s racing capital. Owned in part by Kentucky Derby promoter Col. Matt J. Winn, Tampa Downs briefly challenged Hialeah Race track near Miami. Racing, however, was very sporadic at Tampa Downs; it occurred only in the wintertime and not even every year until 1947, when the track was reorganized as Sunshine Park. Today it is known as Tampa Bay Downs.
Yet even this nearby facility did not spur development in Westchase.
It was in the post-World War II era that the Westchase area first came to be used on a large scale. The Thomas family were cattle ranchers in Polk County, but the Great Depression hit them hard. They scaled back their operations and relocated to Oldsmar. Three of the six Thomas children – Milo, Emery, and Gus, Jr. – served in the military during World War II. Before appearing for duty, the trio sold their cattle, banking the money to restart the family business after the war.
Milo and Emery were Seebees, and Gus served on a Navy transport ship. After the war, the brothers moved back to northwestern Hillsborough County and began buying small parcels of land, eventually patching together enough property for a ranch. Their sister Dora and her husband Guy Kingery were also partners in the enterprise.
Gus also worked for the phone company in Tampa, which helped the brothers solve one problem on the ranch – a postwar shortage of barbed wire. Gus collected old telephone wire and the Thomases hooked it up to car batteries all around their property to keep their cattle contained. Soon the Thomases were running about 1,000 head of cattle on about 3,000 acres of land. Approximately 1,500 acres owned by Milo and Emery and 1,500 acres belonging to Dora and Gus. The first land the Thomas family owned in this area was a 30 or 40-acre parcel where Milo started a dairy. This is now the section of Linebaugh Avenue that leads to the Westchase entrance.
At the time when the Thomases were compiling their ranch lands, Linebaugh Avenue did not go farther west than Armenia Avenue. Waters Avenue did not exist. Hillsborough Avenue was a two-lane road, and Sheldon was a dirt road. To get across Rocky Creek, the Thomases had to go down to Hillsborough Avenue and cross it where there was a bridge.
In 1950 Milo Thomas built a ranch-style home for his wife Fay on Thomas Ranch Lane. The road sits just south of Linebaugh Avenue off Sheldon Road. According to his sister, Dora Kingery, the Thomases cut their own timber and had their own sawmill. Gus built a second house there in 1953. Another benefit of Gus’ job with the phone company was that he was able, in 1953, to get the first telephone in this area. Several Thomases built houses on Thomas Ranch Lane, and Dora Thomas Kingery, now in her 90’s, still lives there. According to Dora, other early families in the area included the Eckerds, Rawls, King, Haynes, Fuentes, and Driver families.
Working together, the four Thomas siblings managed to buy a Ferguson farm tractor. Dora stills thinks of the tractor fondly, saying, “it was like manna from heaven” to have a tractor for land clearing. Later, the Thomases bought a bulldozer and used it to clear their own land and to do some clearing for the Turners, who owned property adjacent to the Thomas Ranch. The Thomases also hired the King brothers to do some land clearing and to dig an 80-acre lake off Sheldon Road near the end of Lake Sunset Drive.
It took the Thomas siblings about 15 years to accumulate their property, which served as an active cattle ranch. In the 1950s into the 1980s, cowboys worked the land and tended the cattle herds. Eventually, the growth of Tampa’s suburbs encroached upon the ranch. Milo Thomas moved his dairy to property off State Road 54. More people living in northwestern Hillsborough County began creating problems. Trespassers cut fences on the ranch and the wooded portions became popular with hunters.
Dora Kingery remembers her family’s ranch fondly. “It was a lovely place,” she stated.
Yet even with all of the Thomas family working together, it became harder to keep everything going. The Thomases also saw the example of other large ranchers in the area, who found that the next generation was being forced to sell the land to pay inheritance taxes. With the acreage increasing in value because of its possible use for housing, the decision was reached to sell the property to developers in the late 1980’s. Dora says that it was a relief to sell the ranch, but sad at the same time. The land was full of memories of her family and their lives on the ranch.
Kingery, however, is pleased with how the Westchase development was completed.
Westchase Before Development
If you would like to know what Westchase looked like before it was Westchase – or even before it was Thomas Ranch, the University of Florida has a useful Web site called Aerial Photography: Florida at http://ufdc.ufl.edu/aerials The W.eb site catalogs approximately 160,000 aerial photographs of Florida taken between 1937 and 1990.
Once you arrive at the site’s homepage, click “Map Search,” where you’ll find a link to search by address. Type in “10118 Montague St., Tampa, FL” and you’ll come up with a street map showing a big red thumbtack at the approximate location of the West Park Village Starbucks. Click “Search” and the Web site will give you a list of historic aerial photographs covering that address.
For our example address, four photographs are listed, dating 1938, 1957, 1968 and 1982. Clicking the blue title for a particular date takes you to another map with green rectangles. The photographs were taken in an airplane flying straight lines north and south as the photographer snapped a series of frames. Each frame, or photograph, is called a tile. The tiles from a particular flight overlap somewhat, so your search address may be on more than one picture from a given year. The green rectangles outline the tiles. By selecting a particular green rectangle and clicking on it, you will see the original black and white photograph from the date selected.
Try it out, and see if you can find the railroad, Sheldon Road, or Rocky Creek. It might be easiest to start with 1982 and work your way back in time. You won’t, however, see Linebaugh Avenue through Westchase – even on the 1982 photo – because it didn’t exist yet!
October 2011: A History of Westchase: The Developer Breaks Ground in a Challenging Economy
With the purchase of 1,451 acres of the Thomas Ranch, Westchase’s developer made its pitch to Hillsborough County in 1987 for Tampa’s latest housing development.
Large-scale residential development in northwest Hillsborough County began with Town ‘N Country, where more than 6,000 homes were built between 1959 and 1983. Suburban growth shifted to Carrollwood in the 1980s, and to developments like Tampa Palms and Hunters Green in the northeastern part of the county by the end of that decade. Yet by the late 1980s northwest Hillsborough County was growing again, as both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties expanded to meet in the middle.
On June 15, 1987, Hillsborough County approved a development order for the Thomas Ranch Development of Regional Impact on property owned by Metro Development Corporation. A Development of Regional Impact, or DRI, is a large-scale development affecting a broad area, typically impacting more than one county. Metro’s plan was to create a multi-use development on 1,451 acres formerly owned by the Thomas family, with a mixture of residential, retail and office space, including apartments, town houses, condominiums and a golf course. The original DRI application called for 8,000 residential units capable of housing 20,000 people on 1,452 acres, potentially making Westchase the most densely populated area of Hillsborough County. Major concerns about the development included the additional load on an already overtaxed sewer plant and whether water would run off into Tampa Bay. When the original plan was conceived in the mid-1980s, housing starts were very high and Florida’s population was rapidly growing. While Florida did continue to grow, the housing marked changed toward the end of the decade, as did the proposed development called Westchase.
North of Hillsborough Avenue, the Countryway development was already under construction in February 1988 with 1,742 proposed residences. An additional 900 homes were also in the works for the Fawn Ridge subdivision on Sheldon Road. Meanwhile, light-industrial and commercial developments were springing up near the Pinellas County line on Race Track Road. In the fall of 1988, Chelsea Square Corporation of Tampa, American General Insurance Company of Houston, and Newland Group of San Diego created Westchase Associates to buy the Thomas Ranch DRI. They subsequently added an adjacent 578-acre parcel. Despite increasing the total acreage, Westchase Associates decreased the proposed density for the development, putting more emphasis on single family residences. The county required an agreement that the new community would hook up to a new wastewater treatment plant on Sheldon Road. Westchase was to be a master-planned community, large scale and developed over several years with multiple builders and homes organized into clusters called villages.
As the project’s manager, Bill Bishop put the parcels together and worked with the attorneys to create the Westchase Community Development District (CDD). Tampa Palms was the first development in Hillsborough County to have a CDD, which are typically created by developers and attorneys before residents move in, allowing the district to sell bonds and raise money to pay for needed roads, parks, sewers and other infrastructure. A CDD is a quasi-governmental group with a locally elected board empowered to assess property owners. In the early years of Westchase, the developer owned most of the land and therefore largely controlled the board, but that control was gradually handed over to buyers as development progressed. (The creation of a second CDD, the CDD East, allowed the developer to extend its control over the portion of Westchase constructed last.)
Under the concurrency requirements of Florida’s 1985 Growth Management Act, infrastructure had to be in place before houses were built. The Westchase CDD, established twenty years ago in 1991, also used money to pay for unique reclaimed water and natural gas systems that became major selling points for the development.
Curiously, Houston, Texas influenced this new development in northwest Hillsborough County. The Westchase name was chosen by Bishop; it came from a large, mixed-use development under way in Houston at that time. Many of the development managers for the new Westchase project had worked together in Houston, and they chose other familiar faces for their team. The developer had to assemble a multidisciplinary group to put the project together, as it was a large and complex undertaking and somewhat new territory for Tampa Bay. Tom Sandridge worked with the CDD, homeowners association, builders and local government. Brenda Kunkel was hired away from Hunters Green to market Westchase. Kathy Shelling (also from Houston) was the financial director, joining the project in 1990.
According to Shelling, Westchase sales were slow at first, in part because the housing market was down during the recession of 1990-91 as the first houses in Westchase went on the market. In November 1991 Don and Susan Nikolas bought the first house in Westchase, in Bennington. As reported in a WOW article by Radcliffe’s Carrie Geist, “[Susan] and Don weren’t moving into a community, they were moving into an ‘idea’ of community.”
When the Nikolases arrived, there were no street lights and no neighbors. Linebaugh Avenue didn’t reach Sheldon Road. Only a few model homes were sprinkled along Countrway Boulevard and the Welcome Center existed off Linebaugh Avenue. But there was no Westchase Swim and Tennis Center. There were also no stores or schools, no fire station or library, and the post office refused to deliver to the Nikolases’ house because they couldn’t figure out where they were. In August 1992, the St. Petersburg Times reported that only 50 homes had been or were being built in Westchase, giving the community a total population of 60 despite $40 million already invested by the developers.
Despite the slow start, Westchase received the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council’s Herman Goldner Award in 1992, recognizing that the developers had gone beyond county and state environmental regulations, especially regarding tree conservation (Westchase required builders to plant or preserve a certain number of trees based on lot size). A nationwide survey in 1993 showed that natural space was the most important consideration for people shopping for homes in planned developments, and in Westchase, more than 550 acres out of the total 2,029 acres were set aside for conservation areas, lakes and wetlands. Being both environmentally sound and economical, the use of reclaimed water for irrigation in common areas and for lawns became a major Westchase selling point.
Another big selling point for Westchase was the availability of natural gas in homes. This was, according to Kunkel, particularly appealing to people coming from northern states, where they were accustomed to cooking dinner or drying clothes with natural gas. In Tampa, gas was only available in older homes; the newer homes featured only electric power. The availability of natural gas was part of the effort to make Westchase seem like the towns where people had grown up, a traditional ideal of comfort, security and good schools.
Along the same lines, a trend in Hillsborough County new home sales in the early 1990s was to offer two-story houses rather than one-story ranch plans. In addition to using less land and saving building material costs, the two-story homes were more familiar to families relocating from northern states. Such an emphasis on making transplanted northerners feel at home was important for Westchase, where one-third of the residents were from out of state.
As they were created, Westchase’s villages became “communities within a community” with block parties, dinners and Bunco games. In February 1993 residents began to take over activities and events originally scheduled by the developers. They formed the Westchase Welcome Committee, a newsletter committee, a babysitting co-op, sports teams and holiday gatherings. Although they were active, the residents were still relatively few in number, with only 77 families in Westchase in April 1993, and another 80 houses under contract. Westchase purposefully offered a range of housing types, to appeal to people in all stages of life. The developer anticipated that families would move to new houses within Westchase as they grew or when the children went to college.
With time, the housing market adjusted, and sales took off, benefitting from generally strong housing markets in the 1990s. Kunkel recalled that when Westchase first started, the emphasis on local real estate was on northeastern Hillborough County, with Tampa Palms getting a lot of the attention as a master-planned community. Not much new was happening on Sheldon Road or in Town ’N Country, which proved a marketing challenge for Westchase. Kunkel observes, “We set out to make it the Westchase area [so that] everybody would want to be part of Westchase.” Westchase was to become a destination, and the developers tightly controlled the use of the Westchase name in its early years.
At first the destination was a challenge as there was no way to access Westchase other than through Countryway Boulevard. That meant potential buyers were driving through the Countryway subdivision, which was concurrently being developed and marketed by U.S. Homes in competition with Westchase. Kunkel called the lack of an entry point the “big elephant in the room” and said that it was a great day when Linebaugh Avenue opened in July 1992. Construction of Linebaugh from Sheldon to Race Track Road was part of the original DRI plan agreed to by Metro Development Corporation, and remained part of the development plan after it was taken over by subsequent developers.
Kunkel says the development took some time to take off, but it did “blossom” after the Veterans Expressway opened in October 1994; by November 1995, over 700 families were living in Westchase. A continuing selling point for the community was its proximity to the airport, downtown Tampa, and the West Shore Business District, all of which rely on the expressway.
Kunkel said that much of her time was spent working with and educating Realtors about what the CDD entailed since it was a fairly new idea in Tampa at the time. Her office was in the former Westchase Welcome Center on Radcliffe Drive, near the entrance to the Westchase Golf Course. There builders, Realtors, people off the street and even golfers came in to get information about Westchase. Sandridge set up the Westchase Community Association (WCA), Westchase’s homeowners association. Sandridge was part of the review board for both builders and owners until an outside management company was hired to look after residents’ interests, leaving the developer to work with the builders. Angelia Gordon Property Management was Westchase’s first property manager in 1996, followed by Greenacre Properties in 1998.
Kunkel says that the idea of a large, master-planned community on the outskirts of Tampa suburbs was not really new since Tampa Palms led the way. Westchase, however, was different in that it was designed for families and its marketing was aimed specifically at them. An innovative approach was to use actual Westchase families in advertisements, talking about why Westchase was a great place live. Ultimately, Kunkel says, “Our residents played a big part in the success of Westchase.”
As marketing events, Kunkel organized several hole-in-one golf events where the prize was a new home. No one ever got a hole-in-one to win a house, but Kunkel recalled that someone did win a house through a radio station contest to get the right key to open the door. Other distinctive marketing approaches were artistic and informative banners along Linebaugh Avenue. These drew attention because of their artistic merit, and served the function of camouflaging pastures and drawing people’s eyes away from the large overhead power lines as they entered the community.
After American General acquired Westchase from Newland, Jack Rowlett took over as general manager in early 1993. In 1994 Rowlett recruited Brian Sewell from American General’s corporate headquarters in Houston to come work on the Westchase project as manager of planning and development. When Sewell arrived, The Shires were almost complete and construction had begun in The Fords. This neighborhood was part of Westchase CDD East, the community’s second major phase of development. Like the original CDD, the CDD East was created to pay for infrastructure, maintenance and improvements to the common areas in the following years.
In August 1997 American General sold its Westchase assets to Westbrook Communities, owned by Westbrook Partners; as a result, Terrabrook, Westbrook’s land-development subsidiary, became the new developer of Westchase. In other ways, 1997 proved a big year for Westchase. That year it became the number one selling community in Hillsborough County, surpassing Tampa Palms, and number two in all of Florida, surpassed only by The Villages, a retirement community located an hour north of Orlando.
Rowlett left the position of Westchase project manager in 1998, transferring to a development project in Puerto Rico for Westbrook Communities, and Sewell took over as manager. Jack Rowlett is still well remembered by Westchase residents who lived here during his five years as manager. He was the face of the developer at neighborhood meetings while the community took shape, and he is credited as a driving force behind the creation of West Park Village. Unfortunately, soon after leaving Westchase, Rowlett was seriously injured in an automobile accident. A road in West Park Village, however, was named in his honor.
Developers maintain control of boards as long as possible to control projects in which they’ve heavily invested. As those projects near completion, control is turned over to the residents. Terrabrook thus relinquished its six seats on an 11-seat board of directors for the Westchase Community Association in October 2000, when the development was nearly built out. Serving as general manager of the development and one of the association’s board members at the time, Sewell likened this to handing over the keys. The first all-resident board of directors for the WCA was elected in December 2000. Bridges resident Chuck Schroeder was named president in a fairly contentious election as residents protested the board’s recent handling of the association’s tennis program.
In October 2003, Newland Communities bought all of Terrabrook’s residential communities and became the largest master-plan community developer in the nation. The purchase included the remaining parcels in Westchase still owned by the developer.
Despite their hard work and years of effort, the members of the Westchase development team recognize that the community was ultimately the residents’ creation. Shelling credits the developers for “laying the stage,” but credits Westchase residents with picking up on ideas and making them their own. For all of its unique features and carefully planned amenities, it was community spirit and resident involvement that made Westchase truly special. Those forces, which dramatically shaped Westchase’s early history, would repeat themselves in a plan forged in 1997 for the development of West Park Village, Hillsborough County’s first neo-traditional community.
November, 2011: The Community Embraces New Urbanism
Construction of Westchase took place in phases over a decade. The project began on Countryway Boulevard and moved northward prior to proceeding eastward down Linebaugh Avenue. By 1996, the majority of the development’s 2,000 acres were either built out or set aside for homes, schools and parks. There remained, however, 185-acre portion on the southern side of Linebaugh Avenue occupied solely by cows that occasionally wandered onto Westchase’s main road. In some ways, it was the least attractive area in Westchase. How could the developer convince people to buy homes under high voltage power lines and adjacent to railroad tracks?
Led by Jack Rowlett, the Westchase developers considered changing directions and going a new route with Westchase’s last parcel. Just as the initial Westchase plan in 1987 had been on the cutting edge of land development ideas, in 1996 they turned to a new idea that was just beginning to be tested: New Urbanism.
New Urbanism was proposed in the 1980 as a rejection of suburban sprawl and a return to more traditional forms of neighborhood design. New Urban communities have a mix of building functions and purposes that, unlike those in strictly suburban residential areas, are located adjacent to each other. These include apartments constructed over retail space and restaurants beside town houses. Community spaces, such as green areas and band shells, are an important part of New Urbanism, which encourages the construction of open plazas and parks where people can gather or relax.
New Urban neighborhoods are designed to be walkable, with wide sidewalks connecting all points. Moreover, they include a variety of housing types for people of different ages and income levels. Schools and stores are located nearby and can be reached without a car; the development instead encourages walking, biking or riding public transit. Unlike the suburb’s emphasis on cars, illustrated by houses with three-car garages fronted by driveways and facing cul-de-sacs, New Urban developments tout homes with garages moved to the rear of the properties and accessed by alleyways. A compact street grid with narrow streets that encourages street parking actually serves to slow traffic. Neighborhoods based on New Urbanism are also referred to as Traditional Neighborhood Design, or TND.
Florida’s first and best known example of New Urbanism is Seaside. This Florida panhandle community, featured in the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show, turned 30 this year. Along with Celebration, the Disney-developed community near Orlando, Seaside strongly influenced designs and plans for West Park Village in the late 1990s.
Reflecting the notion that New Urbanism represented a return to traditional neighborhoods, early West Park Village was frequently compared to Hyde Park in South Tampa, which had been developed 100 years earlier and which inspired its name. Following its development, Seaside, was proving tremendously successful, with its property values multiplying many times over. However, in the mid 1990s, New Urbanism was still a new idea. It was also still viewed by developers as risky because of higher construction costs and the uncertain reception from new home buyers.
Despite early indications that New Urbanism could succeed, the Westchase developers faced some unknowns. Many people questioned whether TND could be successfully implemented within a master planned community that had its own restrictions on property appearances and permitted uses. One of the challenges faced by Westchase’s developer came from West Park Village being the first such New Urban development in Hillsborough County. County codes did not include provisions for the types of land use proposed – a blend of commercial and residential spaces.
Planning and permitting for West Park Village therefore proved far more involved than if the developers had simply followed the already approved outline of the county’s DRI agreement. There were meetings with county zoning officials, meetings with county land use officials, and meetings with Westchase residents. There were talks with builders who would be asked to build houses differently than elsewhere in Westchase. Such architectural designs required more detailed work on porches, exterior siding and detached garages. There were focus groups with residents, Realtors, and developers all in the same room discussing what the project should look like.
According to Brian Sewell, who was working with project manager Jack Rowlett at the time, the greatest initial hurdles were getting approval for mixed use residential and transportation uses, which required changing West Park Village’s zoning to allow for higher density development.
Just when everything seemed to be falling into place in 1997, Westchase’s developer, Terrabrook, bought American General, and the Westchase planners found themselves having to convince their new bosses that the new idea would work.
As a real estate venture, Westchase had been successful, so why change with the end in sight? The development team in Tampa had to make a convincing argument that New Urbanism would make Westchase perform better as a whole and that the decision could be justified from a business perspective. Concerns for Terrabrook were that they would not be able to sell enough properties or sell at high enough prices to recoup the increased cost of the unique, high-density project. Since so few projects of this type had been attempted in Florida, and none in Florida, Terrabrook was unsure how many people would be interested.
West Park Village was planned to have approximately 500 single-family homes (including villas and townhomes), over 600 apartments, and initially over 40,000 square feet of commercial space. Homes featured front porches, sidewalks, street trees and detached garages on rear alleyways. Schools, stores, parks and recreational spaces were all within walking distance. Apartments would line a village green that functioned as a public meeting space. Original plans even included space for a commuter station on the county’s proposed light rail system. Even before the concept of West Park Village materialized, the light rail proposals included a rail line along the southern border of Westchase, along the CSX train tracks.
Terrabrook’s fears that homeowners wouldn’t embrace New Urbanism proved unfounded. A community meeting at the Westchase Swim and Tennis Center in February 1998, held to gauge existing homeowner support for the new design, actually prompted excitement and enthusiasm from the audience.
Brian Sewell took over as development of West Park Village began in 1999. Demand for West Park Village homes was high from the very start. Before lots were even ready to be built, a lengthy waiting list had grown. Potential buyers were charged $100 just to get on a waiting list for a chance to buy a house. The $100 was not a refundable deposit; it was a donation to spinal cord research in the name of Jack Rowlett. Shortly after leaving Westchase to work on a new project, Rowlett, the former project manager and early visionary of the West Park Village concept, was seriously injured in a car accident. During the February 1999 opening ceremony, names were drawn of lucky lottery winners who were then able to discuss plans with builders and choose a house lot.
In July 1999, the first model homes opened in West Park Village, giving potential buyers a look at the development’s neo-traditional bungalow styling. One of the options was a guest room over the detached garage, complete with kitchen and bathroom. Construction of West Park Village proceeded in three phases, proceeding west to east. It began with single family homes, followed by the mixed commercial and residential town center, and then the apartments. The developers added a second community recreation center with four lighted tennis courts and a Junior Olympic size swimming pool, now called the Village Swim and Tennis Club. A pedestrian tunnel under Linebaugh near the new swim and tennis center promoted pedestrian and cyclist interconnections between West Park Village and the other villages of Westchase.
Meanwhile Gables, Inc. started building apartments in West Park Village in the summer of 2000. Renters in these buildings had their own community center at the base of Montague Street and did not pay WCA fees or have use of WCA’s swim and tennis centers.
Shops started opening in West Park Village in late October 2001, drawing customers from both within and outside Westchase. The new businesses included restaurants, offices, a hair salon, a dry cleaner, an ice cream store, a stationery store, a children’s clothing store, a rug store, a tutoring service, and a fitness center. Several of the store owners were also Westchase residents, and some lived in West Park Village within walking distance of their shops. The very first store to open was West Park Galleria, a home furnishing store owned by Westchase residents Frank Lombardi and Jose Perez Valls. Following close behind were Anni McClellan’s Anni’s Paperchase and Keith Benedict’s The Garden Shed. Three other Westchase couples pooled resources to open One Scoop or Two. The corner coffee shop was a national chain, however: Starbucks. From the beginning, every storefront was occupied, despite the post 9-11 retail slump the rest of the nation was experiencing.
By the summer of 2004, West Park Village was looked upon as an example of a successful Traditional Neighborhood Design. Other proposed TNDs or New Urbanism projects in Florida began looking at West Park Village as an example of what could be accomplished. News and magazine stories gushed over the emphasis on family, neighbors, and community that the development promoted.
Despite the developer’s initial concern, West Park Village was an overnight success (not counting the two years of planning). Not only did people flock to buy houses in West Park Village, but the project – with higher per square foot values and new amenities that could be used by all residents – helped increase property values for all of Westchase. While the light rail station has not yet materialized, West Park Village fulfilled its promises and rounded out the completion of one of Tampa Bay’s premier communities, the place we call Westchase.
Acknowledgments: We thank Ray Chiaramonte (Executive Director of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization and current president of the Townhomes of West Park Village homeowner’s association), Brian Sewell (President of Southern Land Company), Kathy Shelling (Vice President of Financial Management at Southern Land Company), and Brenda Kunkel (New Home Builder Services, LLC) for agreeing to be interviewed for this series of articles.
The Cutting Room Floor
WOW’s Westchase History Series has looked at what has been built in Westchase. A true history of a community, however, is as much about what didn’t happen as what did. Westchase’s history wouldn’t be complete without mention of three projects that the Westchase Community Association (WCA) strongly advocated but which didn’t see the light of day. In two instances, opposition by Westchase homeowners actually killed the concepts. If you lived in Westchase prior to the late 1990’s, you likely recall them all.
As Westchase grew, so did its traffic problems. Although the county required Terrabrook to install a traffic light at the intersection of Linebaugh Avenue and Countryway Boulevard, it was delayed in 1999 as Westchase residents considered building a series of roundabouts. Based on traffic improvements recommended by a volunteer committee of residents, the Westchase Community Association hired a consultant to conduct a study of these roundabouts; proposed locations included the Countryway intersection, but also Radcliffe Drive, Gretna Green Drive, Montague Street, and the bus entrance at Westchase Elementary School, all on Linebaugh Avenue. Residents in favor of the roundabouts touted less speeding, less traffic delay, and increased road capacity. Residents opposed to the roundabouts focused on the likelihood of confused drivers. In the face of opposition, the county announced in 2000 that Terrabrook would be installing a traffic light at Linebaugh and Countryway as originally agreed.
Light Rail Station
Even before Westchase’s developers came up with the idea of West Park Village, Hillsborough County planners were proposing construction of a light-rail system throughout the county, including a line along the CSX train tracks on Westchase’s southern boundary. Since part of the concept of New Urbanism is to decrease dependence on automobiles and to increase connections with mass transportation, the inclusion of the West Park Village light-rail stop was a natural extension of its New Urbanism plan. Terrabrook set aside land to be used for a station in West Park Village at the southern end of Montague Street along the railroad track. Construction of the light-rail system has not progressed as quickly as West Park Village, however. Most recently, in November 2010, voters turned down a county tax that would have funded light rail. A stop in or near Westchase was still part of the overall plan at the time. Later, when the CDD considered purchasing the property from the developer for the development of a dog park, a Westchase resident swooped in and purchased the parcel before the CDD could finalize the deal.
As the Westchase developer, Terrabrook offered to donate a piece of land in West Park Village for a community center. The narrow piece of land, located at the southern end of Montague Street in West Park Village, was part of what had been set aside originally for the light rail station. Westchase residents volunteered for the planning process, and ended up spending 18 months creating a design and plan for a community center building. Known as Westchase Hall, it included a fitness room, a playground, crafting rooms, and meeting space. Opposition to the project centered on its projected $2.5 million construction cost and $161 annual homeowner assessment to maintain the building. In the summer of 2001, the final vote was 3 to 1 against construction and the proposed project was dropped.
January, 2012: Westchase: 20 Years in Review
WOW concludes its History of Westchase series with a timeline of important developments within the community. How many do you remember?
While putting together a timeline of key Westchase events, it became quite clear that most of what we have achieved as a community is the result of the efforts of our residents. As the number of houses increased, so did the services offered by dedicated members of our community. Even after Westchase became fully built out, the people who live here continued to find ways to grow and improve. Now that Westchase has reached the grand old age of 20 years, the challenge will be to keep that level of excellence and enthusiasm. If the past is any indicator, Westchase’s future is bright indeed.
With a traditional January nostalgic look back on the past, we present the key moments in Westchase history:
June 1987: Hillsborough County approves Metro Development’s Thomas Ranch DRI application for development on approximately 1,450 acres.
Fall 1988: Westchase Associates (Chelsea Square Corporation, American General Insurance Company, Newland Group) forms to buy Thomas Ranch DRI, later adding an adjacent 578-acre parcel.
1991: The Westchase Community Development District (CDD) and Westchase Community Association (WCA) are established.
Summer 1991: Pulte Homes begins construction of model homes in Bennington.
November 1991: Don and Susan Nikolas buy a house in Bennington, becoming Westchase’s first homeowners.
March 1992: Westchase Welcome Center opens.
April 1992: Model homes open in Woodbay.
July 1992: Linebaugh Avenue opens west of Sheldon Road.
Summer 1992: Construction begins in Radcliffe.
September 1992: First official rounds played at Westchase Golf Course.
November 1992: Hillsborough County agrees to supply reclaimed water to W