OUR NEIGHBORHOODS | University Pines at the epicenter of change

jajones1@bradenton.comDecember 15, 2013 

UNIVERSITY PARK -- Anyone trying to imagine what University Pines looked like before all the development came to University Parkway can visit the nearby 55-acre Conservatory Park.

The park -- Manatee County's newest -- is dense with moss-draped oaks, tall pines and palmettos.

The country atmosphere is what attracted William Hanson in 1987 to University Pines, located just to the west of Palm-Aire and east of Lockwood Ridge Road.

"Palm-Aire was already here, and developers were building University Pines and Country Oaks, but there wasn't much else out here," Hanson said.

The site of the Wal-Mart SuperCenter on nearby University Parkway and Lockwood Ridge Road was still an orange grove. For shopping, the Hanson family would go south to the Winn Dixie on 17th Street in Sarasota.

Things began to change in 1994 when ground was broken for Lakewood Ranch.

"We knew then that everything would start growing. I'd like to see it in 20 years," he said. "It sure has changed."

With the anticipated 2014 opening of the Mall at University Town Center along Interstate 75, University Parkway will only grow busier.

Yet, for all the growth

around it, University Pines remains a quiet, middle-class neighborhood -- some would call it working class -- of 78 homes.

The streets have decidedly highbrow, if un-Florida-like names, such as Vassar, Brandeis and Ithaca. But University Pines is ungated, and residents manage their own affairs quite nicely, thank you, without benefit of a management company or even a website or Facebook page.

Mark Skukoski, who was president of the University Pines Homeowners Association for several years, says the neighborhood is like one big family.

"If I need a cup of sugar, I can go across the street or next door. We have a lot of friends in other communities who don't know their neighbors," Skukoski said.

When Skukoski's business, Fusion LED Lighting, which sells lighting systems that illuminate motorcycles, began taking off, he yielded leadership of the neighborhood association to Jim Fewell, another long-time resident.

"Mark did a great job for us. He has built his business and that's one reason I got back into it," Fewell said from his favorite spot in the neighborhood, a rocking chair on his front porch.

The neighborhood is virtually crime-free, residents say, and there are only two foreclosed on houses that sit vacant. One recently was sold to a new owner.

The peacefulness is not deceptive. It really is that quiet most of the time.

But when necessary, University Pines residents have not hesitated to tackle a variety of issues, including the need for a speed table bump on Country Park Way, to slow traffic zooming to and from University Parkway.

"We knew that if we didn't do something, someone would end up getting killed or injured," Sukowski said.

Another big issue was the lack of a traffic light at the entrance of University Parkway. University Pines was the only neighborhood fronting onto the six-lane street that lacked a traffic light.

"It was a life-threatening situation," said Debi Brabson, who describes herself as a doer rather than a leader.

With the backing of the University Pines Homeowners Association, Brabson went to the Manatee County Commission and successfully lobbied for a traffic light at the intersection. The light was installed about eight years ago.

A hot topic in the neighborhood today is University Town Center, being built down the street. If anything, community response to the new mall has been more anticipation than apprehension.

"We invited Benderson leasing agent Mark Chait to speak to us about the mall," Fewell said. "It's amazing what they have done and what they are going to do."

An indicator of how much Fewell likes his neighborhood is that since moving to University Pines in 1990, he has lived in three different houses there, including one that he built.

"On one end of the street we have the Benderson mall, and on the other we have Wal-Mart. Lakewood Ranch Medical Center and Manatee Memorial Hospital are both so easy to get to," Fewell said.

While the feel of the community remains much the same, some things do change.

Hanson notes that many of the folks who lived in University Pines when he moved there in 1987 have moved on.

And there is something else that's different. You have to look long and hard to find a pine tree in University Pines.

"There used to be big pines in here, but everyone took them out," Fewell said.

Brabson's family bought in University Pines 23 years ago, and she couldn't be happier that they put down roots there.

"We like the hometown feel of the community. There is one entrance in and one entrance out. Our kids go to 'A' schools. You can't beat the location," she said.

University Pines sends its kids to Kinnan Elementary School, Braden River Middle School and Braden River High School.

Larry Schumaker paused in his yard work to talk about why he chose to live in University Pines since 1988.

"We love it here. Everyone looks out for everyone else. The homeowners association has done a good job. We're all in it together," Schumaker said.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or at Twitter: @jajones1

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