UNIVERSITY PARK -- In an area where shopping malls, houses, apartments and big-box retail stores seem to have been built over every square inch of available land, at least one small residential neighborhood retains some of the quietude of a Florida forest.
Conservatory Estates, a 90-home subdivision carved out of the greater Palm-Aire development in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is a place where residents move in and stay for years or decades. Though modest, with most homes measuring no more than 2,000 square feet, the neighborhood still lives up the "estates" part of its name. Shaded, quarter-acre lots on broad streets can, in some places, have across-the-street neighbors nearly 100 feet apart, front stoop to front stoop.
It's that space that drew Carolynn Garcia to the place 14 years ago.
"We moved here in 2000 because we fell in love with
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the large lots, the mature trees and landscaping and quiet streets," she said.
Incorporated under the Conservatory Estates Homeowners Association in 1980, the neighborhood has long drawn mature couples who are near retirement or retired. In the center of more than a half dozen golf courses and flanked by shopping plazas and the nearby Mall at University Town Center, Conservatory Estates is attractive to people who like to have their favorite grocery store within a five-minute drive, but who also want quiet when they get home.
Continued nearby development and the arrival of more young buyers is giving the neighborhood some growing pains, but it remains a close-knit community where neighbors get to know one another.
The neighborhood is bounded by Palm Aire Drive to the north, Conservatory Drive to the east, Cypress Lake Drive to the west and Manatee County's new Conservatory Park to the south. It is just blocks north of University Parkway.
Conservatory Estates is slowly becoming a place where even people from outside the neighborhood want to be. Last year, the county opened its 55-acre nature park in the southeast corner of Conservatory Estates. Once planned as a Ryland Homes subdivision, the land has belonged to the county since 2004. Now, Conservatory Park's 10-acre lake, walking and fitness trails and picnic areas bring wilderness and nature to a place that has seen only development for decades.
Younger families moving in
Conservatory Estates has benefitted from the exposure. With its 30- to 35-year-old homes still selling for as little as $200,000, the neighborhood is seeing some younger residents move in. Thirty-nine-year-old Michael Donahue bought a home in the neighborhood in 2011 for $150,000, shortly after he and his wife, Christina, moved from Germany to Florida. The couple's 2-year-old son is one of a few children in the neighborhood.
"I do see it trending toward younger families," Donahue said. "I see younger couples moving in since the housing prices have gone down."
This is a slight departure from the original idea for the neighborhood. Pennsylvania real estate developer Marvin Orleans started the Florida Palm-Aire Corporation in 1959 with the intention to buy all the land in the Palm-Aire area and build homes for adults looking to enjoy a golf and country club culture in what was then a semi-rural area. He bought the land and did some home building, but died before he could put homes on many of the lots.
The company ran in to financial trouble in the 1970s and began liquidating its Palm-Aire assets.
Bob Taplinger, a real estate agent hired by Orleans' construction and development company to sell off much of the Palm-Aire property at that time, said University Parkway looked like "a cow path" back then. Neighborhoods under construction lacked the appeal Conservatory Estates has now.
"It didn't look like a country club being converted to a housing development," said the part-time Siesta Key resident. "It looked like a development."
Today, Conservatory Estates looks like it's always been there. Its mix of uniquely designed, one- and two-story homes give the neighborhood the feel of an older city neighborhood, rather than a quickly built development. Joan Goldstein, president of the Conservatory Estates HOA, said that while the community operates under deed restrictions, the association tries to accommodate the individual styles and needs of residents.
Landscaping throughout the neighborhood is tidy, but homeowners have installed a variety of fences, plants and trees in their yards. The annual $85 HOA fee pays for some common landscaping and sign maintenance.
"I don't think anything has ever really been turned down," Goldstein said.
Some annoyances crop up
Growth in the University Park area has gotten under the skin of some Conservatory Estates residents. George Schwartz, the neighborhood's representative to the 30-member Palm-Aire Community Council, said speeding vehicles on Palm Aire Drive between Whitfield Avenue and Lockwood Ridge Road has Conservatory Estates researching speed bumps and other traffic calming devices. Schwartz, a retired banker who moved to the neighborhood from Minnesota with wife, Donna, in 1998, has had more than one car come over the curb into his yard at high speed.
"They're just racing through our neighborhoods," he said.
Activities for children may also be scarce. Donahue said he was disappointed when the county didn't install playground equipment beyond a couple of swings at Conservatory Park.
The few annoyances aside, Conservatory Estates residents are enthusiastic about being each others' neighbors. The community holds at least two neighborhood get-togethers each year hosted by homeowners willing to volunteer their homes and yards for the events. This year, one of those events may take place in the new park.
Halfway into her second decade in Conservatory Estates, Garcia gives one of the clearest assessments of why she and her neighbors love their neighborhood.
"We have the best of both worlds; lots of shopping, entertainment and restaurants less than two miles away, but a peaceful, serene setting right in our backyard," she said.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter@MattAtBradenton.