Revitalized Historic Ware's Creek Neighborhood in Bradenton shows it's ageless

vmannix@bradenton.comDecember 8, 2013 

BRADENTON

Ware's Creek's surface was placid, yet a vibrant tableau, too.

A heron glided across it.

Ducks floated on it.

An osprey soared over it, alighting on a tall tree.

Jim Windham took it all in near his family's Virginia Drive home, but saw so much more as he gazed at the mirrorlike creek.

The billowing afternoon clouds.

The palms and pines on the opposite bank.

The old yellow house by the Seventh Avenue Bridge.

"It's like it's painted into the reflection down there," said Windham, a resident of the Historic Ware's Creek Neighborhood since 1986. "You know, in other towns a waterway like this would be a showcase, big shots living all along it. I got a pretty good thing here. It's a great spot."

Such sentiment resonates along Virginia Drive and on the quiet streets west of it these days, after the completion of the northern portion of the $51.8 million dredging and flood control project along Ware's Creek.

Gone are 37,000 cubic yards of muck and overgrowth that choked the tributary, the front door to one of Bradenton's oldest neighborhoods.

It is bordered by Virginia Drive, Manatee Avenue West, 26th Street West and Ninth Avenue West.

"It was like this originally," Windham said. "Then it silted in, islands formed and sprouted with mangroves. I didn't complain

before because it was parklike, serene -- but this is pretty, too."

Amen, says Lynn Carlson, whose family has lived on Virginia Drive since 1937 and has a boat dock.

The dredging project's benefits weren't only aesthetic.

"Now we can just get in the boat and go when we want to, instead of waiting for the tides," she said.

A few blocks away, Anne Clough raved about another blessing from the dredging.

"We can see water and see wildlife, the kids can fish," she said. "I'm thrilled. Our kids are really thrilled."

So are other residents.

Like Bobbie Goss, a resident since 2000 and neighborhood volunteer coordinator.

"People are more enthused now because there's more wildlife and more boating," said the Manatee Rural Health nurse.

Schuyler Counihan, whose family has lived in a Seventh Avenue West cottage since 1983, agrees.

"We've seen more manatees, even dolphins," said the Tropicana finance department employee. "There are more people in canoes and kayaks we didn't see before. There's a vitality to the neighborhood."

Kim Haberkorn, a Neighborhood Watch member, is one of those kayakers.

"A clean flowing creek that's been cleaned up, it's great," said the senior living executive director. "I can see a real difference."

Rich in history

What would Elbridge Ware think?

Ware's Creek is named after that settler who came from Tallahassee with Col. William Wyatt between 1842 and 1844 after the Second Seminole War.

Ware was one of a number of pioneers, whose surnames resonate in Manatee County history: Judge Simon Turner, Ezekiel Glazier, Joseph Atzeroth, Dr. Joseph Braden, Major Robert Gamble and Wyatt, to name but a few.

Ware built a house near the mouth of the waterway -- then known as Crab Creek, according to an 1857 U.S. Army map -- before returning to Tallahassee in 1846. He eventually joined General Zachary Taylor and went off to the Mexican War, where he died of a fever.

His widow, Louisa, remarried in 1853 to Capt. Fredrick Tresca, who would assist years later in the escape of Judah P. Benjamin, secretary of State of the Confederacy, from the Gamble Mansion after the Civil War.

"The land where the Ware's Creek neighborhood is now was mostly vacant, a wilderness that was isolated from the Village of Manatee," said Cathy Slusser, director of Historical Resources for the Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court & Comptroller.

The original Manatee Avenue bridge was built in 1886 and it wasn't until the early 1900s the land that would become the Ware's Creek neighborhood began to populate.

"It was symbolic of Bradenton's growth, spreading out from the downtown core," Slusser said.

When the waterway became known officially as Ware's Creek is uncertain, she said. The first public reference using the name is in 1900 in the old Manatee River Journal.

Homes with personality

According to old subdivision plat maps, the first homes and buildings were built between 1910 and 1930, including the iconic Bradenton Woman's Club.

Many still exist, comprising more than half of Ware's Creek's estimated 280 homes. They are integral to the charm of the Old Florida neighborhood.

One of those originals belongs to Anne Clough and husband David, graphic designers who work out of their beige cottage with a metal roof and an inviting front porch on 19th Street West.

It is close to a century old.

"We've had to put a lot of work into it,'" she said. "Since we're artists, we appreciate how well built it was and we respect the history of the place. It was the worst house on the block when we bought it, so we felt compelled to upgrade it to make it look pretty. It's worth it when people have stopped by and said, 'We love this neighborhood!'"

It is definitely design diverse.

There's regal Spanish Mediterranean.

There's colorful Key West style.

There are funky cottages and handsome ranch homes right out of the 1950s.

"It's not cookie cutter," Schuyler Counihan said. "Every home has its own unique personality. I loved it when I first moved here. It's convenient to everywhere. You can be at the beach in minutes and it's close to downtown. We walk down there for everything these days."

Challenging turnaround

Pat Roff has loved Ware's Creek, too, since he bought his home on Virginia Drive in 1988.

His passion for the neighborhood eventually became a mission.

Before he was first elected to the Bradenton City Council in 2005, Roff was active in trying to change the fortunes of a neighborhood that, due to rezoning in the 1970s, had been allowed to convert from single family homes into overcrowded multiple-unit rental properties and apartments.

"It was not a desirable neighborhood," Roff said. "Nobody wanted to live here. People wanted to run a slum property, but we got that turned around."

That began to gradually change after he and others formed the Historic Ware's Creek Neighborhood Association about 15 years ago, and convinced the city to create an Historic Overlay District and reinstate single-family zoning in 2004.

The association became a catalyst in the transformation, whether it was helping residents paint, cleaning up the creek, or sprucing up the women's club.

"I'd say we're doing well here," Roff said. "The repair is coming along good, not great. We took a big hit in the recession. Values went up so high, a lot of speculative buying went on here and they got stuck. Consequently, we've been sitting on foreclosures."

There are 14 properties in the neighborhood going through the foreclosure process in court, according to Maryann Lawler, a Realtor for a decade and now with Keller Williams Realty.

"That's half of what it was 2-3 years ago," she said. "We are improving, but it's not there yet."

That means something to her.

Lawler lived in Ware's Creek once, has sold numerous homes there and cares about the old neighborhood.

"I drive through it daily and saw two foreclosure postings today alone," she said. "A foreclosure on a home can take one to three or four years on average and meanwhile it goes in distress and that hurts us. It sits and it sits and it sits and every month goes by you've got plumbing issues, rotting issues, vandalism issues. Houses aren't meant to sit. They're meant to be maintained."

Roff is upbeat about what's been an arduous process.

"People are not just buying them and flipping them," he said. "They're coming in and fixing them up after the banks unload them, doing needed repairs, selling them or moving in themselves."

According to the Multiple Listing System, 19 home sales were closed on within the past 12 months, and there are eight active listings with one pending contract.

The sale prices ranged from $178,500 for a three-bedroom, two-bath with a pool, to $34,000 for a short sale on a 2-1 distressed property.

The median price was $86,422.

A soon-to-be neighbor is Ozark Bank, which is building its Southern corporate headquarters off 19th Street West and Manatee Avenue West, on the site of a demolished apartment complex that was "nothing but trouble," Roff said. "The bank is one of the coolest things to happen to this neighborhood. We're moving along nicely."

Kim Haberkorn agrees.

"The real estate crash was a major stall, but it is heading back in the right direction," she said. "There's been a really huge difference this past year. People are fixing up their places, painting, landscaping. It's contagious. When one starts it, others follow suit. It's being revitalized. That's what we were hoping for."

Roff, too.

"The creek is fixed and we survived the crash," he said. "We've got a whole new image in this part of town."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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