Only Big Cat Rescue Hasn’t Been Changed by Mall

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Ten years ago this month, the curtain lifted on a 1.1 million-square-foot showpiece — Citrus Park Town Center. Nearly 100,000 people swarmed the new, flashy mall that rainy March day. They were treated to an appearance by Tampa Bay Buccaneer Mike Alstott, a fireworks show, a concert featuring disco stars KC & the Sunshine Band. • But the mall, renamed Westfield Citrus Park in 2005, would have far more implications for neighborhoods north of Tampa than some new stores. • For good or bad, it elevated the profile of this sleepy community and jump-started a commercial, housing and transportation boom. Swaths of orange groves, mobile home parks and dairy farms were transformed into the essence of suburbia. • This week, North of Tampa takes an in-depth look at how a mall changed where we live.— Rodney Thrash, Times Staff Writer

Changes in retail

People used to buy milk from Hogan's Corner.

"Right there where the McDonald's is at Gunn Highway and Citrus Park Drive," said Terry Schoenborn, president of the Keystone, Odessa, Citrus Park Historical Society. "Just an old country store. There were no grocery stores anywhere."

Westfield Citrus Park changed that, paving the way for chains and big box retailers in an area accustomed to "little neighborhood stores owned by families," said Cheryl Pulley, president of the Citrus Park Civic Association.

Less than a year after the mall's debut, Citrus Park Plaza opened across the street. National stores Bed Bath & Beyond, Ross and LongHorn Steakhouse set up shop in the 380,000-square-foot plaza, which has since added Best Buy, Sports Authority, Olive Garden and other brands.

"The mall was certainly a very large development, which created the demand," said Joe Incorvia, a participant in the Citrus Park planning process and manager of the county's community-based planning program.

Since January 2000, the county has issued 91 permits to businesses in the Citrus Park area, said Suzi Dieringer, an economic research manager with the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission. Permits have gone out to supermarkets, gas stations, banks, professional offices and a Wal-Mart Supercenter — all of them close to the mall.

"Retailers want to be near that major drawing power," said David Conn, executive vice president of retailer services at CB Richard Ellis, a real estate services firm in Tampa.

Circuit City, which sits on the site of the former Gunn Highway Nursery and was one of the early beneficiaries of the mall's traffic, recently closed.

Still, in the decade since the mall's birth, total land value in the Citrus Park community has grown 68 percent, from $525 million in 1999 to $882.9 million today, according to county records.

In addition to more businesses, Citrus Park has gained a Hillsborough County sheriff's substation and new schools.

"The only thing that hasn't changed is that Big Cat Rescue" animal sanctuary on Easy Street, said Virgie Schoenborn, who has lived in northwest Hillsborough all her life. "They kept that sort of the same."

Changes in housing

When Charles Pulley moved to Citrus Park in July 1979, he could count the number of homes around him on one hand.

"One here, one down at the end and one on the other side," said Pulley, who lives just north of the mall on Alvina Street. "There were no other houses here. All woods."

The mall created 4,000 new jobs, and developers constructed at least three apartment complexes nearby, fully aware of the potential tenant base.

The 176-unit Cypress Grand opened behind the mall in 1999.

That same year, the 200-unit Cedar Forest and 264-unit Berkshires at Citrus Park apartment communities opened on Gunn Highway, just east of the mall.

"It wasn't people in houses and then they needed a mall," said Terry Schoenborn, who also helped record the area's story in History of Keystone Odessa and Citrus Park Volumes I and II. "They built the mall in the woods, and people moved to it."

Since then, additional apartments, subdivisions, townhomes and condominiums have been built.

By April 2008, the most recent date for which the planning commission has data, there were 3,950 homes in Citrus Park, up from 2,922 in April 2000.

Despite the economy, homes are still going up. Across from Pulley's place, new housing is under construction.

"People want to live close to where they work," said Patrick Berman, senior director of retail brokerage at Cushman & Wakefield of Florida Inc. "No question about it: The mall increased the number of residential units."

Changes in traffic

Tens of thousands of cars fly past James Muncey's Ehrlich Road home daily.

"Used to be three or four," said Muncey, who has lived and worked in Citrus Park for more than 50 years.

County planners estimate Westfield Citrus Park increased traffic in Citrus Park by more than 63,000 trips per day. More than 7.2 million customers visit the mall annually, records show.

To accommodate the crush of cars, parts of nearby roads were widened: Sheldon Road, from Linebaugh Avenue to Sickles High, stretched to four lanes; Gunn Highway became four lanes from the Veterans Expressway to Anderson Road; and Citrus Park Drive grew to six lanes from Sheldon to the Veterans.

Although those road projects expanded access points to the mall, longtime homeowners say the cars — and additional development — created a new headache: congestion.

"Go on any given road," Charles Pulley said. "You'll find lines. Gunn is an absolute nightmare."

"Bottlenecks," added his wife, Cheryl Pulley.

Statistics seem to back the couple's observation. The capacity of Gunn at the mall (15,400 cars) is almost identical to the road usage (15,359), according to Berman, the local retail director.

The county also recently widened part of Gunn from Old Hixon Road to S Mobley Road, and there are plans to connect the two segments of Citrus Park Drive.

Currently, Citrus Park Drive runs south of the mall and stops at Sheldon Road. It picks back up just east of Deer Park Elementary, then ends at Countryway Boulevard.

An extension would dump folks from Westchase and Upper Tampa Bay right in front of the mall.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at or (813) 269-5303.

For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL  33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457

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