UNIVERSITY PARK -- Gated communities are known for gates and guard houses. Tactics to ward off the riffraff, keep outsiders out.
But how effective are they? An attendant takes your name, casually waves you through.
Some don't have a guard at all. Drive on the heels of the person in front of you and you're through the gate.
At University Place, a community off of Cooper Creek Boulevard, you don't get in without good reason.
"What is your name and the address of the person you're visiting?" a woman asks over a speaker.
Before you can respond, several photos are snapped of your car, your license plate, your face.
The resident is called and, upon approval, you're buzzed through.
A plastic arm whips down so the car behind can't pass.
No piggybacking. Not here.
"We get everything that we would need to know if somebody suspicious was coming into the neighborhood," said property manager Stephanie Curtis.
University Place, which operates as a community development district (or CDD), saves over $60,000 each year after it switched from a live guard to the security system called Envera.
And it works.
The worst crime committed in the neighborhood, according to Curtis?
Teenagers doused a car with silly string.
University Place is a sprawling, noticeably clean community full of families and dog-walkers.
"People recognize you by your dog," Curtis said. "They say 'There's Sadie's
mom' or 'Butch's mom' or 'Cocoa's mom.' It's really funny."
It's quiet and peaceful except for the laughter of young children coming off the school bus in the afternoon. Moms chat at the gate while waiting for their kids.
"It's one of the few family friendly neighborhoods," said resident Becky Levar, 40. "There's tons of young families with kids and there's a really good school nearby, Willis Elementary."
The neighborhood is especially social. You know your neighbors. You invite them over for a barbecue on the weekend. Your kids play with their kids after school.
"Our whole block went trick-or-treating together and we did pizza and subs in a neighbor's driveway," said Levar, who moved to University Place from Pennsylvania with her husband and kids in February.
Most residents don't have pools, but there are two large community pools on property: One for the kids with a mini water park; one for the adults -- no floats or toys allowed.
The pools are a reason to get together. There's a happy hour every month and several big events throughout the year. At the moment, the social committee is putting the finishing touches on Winterfest, a neighborhood Christmas party by the pool with a pot luck lunch and live music. Nearly 200 people are expected to attend.
There's a fitness center and a nature trail that recently underwent a $20,000 renovation. The subtle whirring of cars cruising down the interstate can be heard from the winding trail made of crushed shell and sand.
The neighborhood's birth was fast and forthcoming. Neal Communities partnered with Benderson Development to build University Place. Construction started in 2001 on 150 acres of land west of Interstate 75.
With I-75 less than three miles away, developers knew the land was prime real estate. Today it's an attractive location, with the massive Mall at University Town Center being built just around the corner and numerous shopping plazas that have made University Park this area's unofficial shopping district and a true destination.
"We felt that the area had a lot of projected growth," said Leisa Weintraub, vice president of marketing for Neal Communities. "It was a very convenient location."
Three other builders joined the project: Bruce Williams Homes, Inland Homes and Lee Wetherington Homes.
By April 2006, all 403 homes were built. The community sold its last home site in 2005, Weintraub said.
Developers had Charleston, S.C., in mind when designing the plans for the community.
"We just felt that look and feel was appropriate for the area," Weintraub said. "That's where the look of the black iron fences and the brick work stemmed from."
Glo Reber, a Realtor specializing in Lakewood Ranch and the surrounding area with Premier Sotheby's International Realty, said there are five homes for sale in University Place. Despite the area's popularity, sales in the neighborhood have been slow, said Reber, who is also a resident of University Place.
"The market will get better because of location. The restaurants are moving in ... it's easy to get the airport, the beach," she said.
One of the homes on the market is a 2,073-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath home with an office and two-car garage for $312,000 at 8008 Indigo Ridge.
"You could put in a pool, but the pool is right across the street," Reber said. "It's a very nice place to live."
Every community has its issues. But Michael Wackerbauer, president of the Homeowners Association, said there aren't many in University Place.
"During my time on the board, we had to issue one (resident) violation," said Wackerbauer, who's been involved with the HOA since 2009.
There's still money in the operating budget for the year and the reserves are exactly where they should be, he said.
This year, the HOA fees were raised from $100 to $105 per month. Residents who live in the non-maintenence section of the neighborhood pay $219 per month for lawn and landscape care.
Wackerbauer, orginally from Germany, moved to the neighborhood in 2007 from Cape Coral. He, his wife, Anne, and their two young daughters rented a home before buying a 2,835-square-foot house in 2008. They bought the four-bedroom, three-bathroom home for $400,000.
"Turns out it was the best decision we ever made," Wackerbauer said.
Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.