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South island’s cachet grows for brokers, buyers

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of February 15, 2024)

The St. Lucie stretch of the barrier island south of Round Island Park continues to lure Vero buyers, brokers and developers with lower land and home prices and sheer natural beauty.

The area was looked down on by 32963 residents as remote and déclassé for decades.  But over the past 10 or 12 years, its stock has steadily risen as sophisticated developers launched successful luxury projects along the 6-mile stretch of A1A between the Indian River County line and the Fort Pierce Inlet.

Cristelle Cay, an architecturally impressive 21-unit contemporary condo where residents are moving in this month, is a prime example of the quality of island homes that are being created across the county line and their appeal to Vero buyers.

The project was developed and sold by refugees from South Florida who came to the barrier island looking for more relaxed personal lifestyles and better development opportunities than they had in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

The two-building condominium at 4810 Ocean Palms Dr. sits on a 3.3-acre site with 426 feet of beachfront. It is the handiwork of Vero Beach residents David Gilman and his wife and designer Gail Gilman who started their development careers during the 1960s in Pompano Beach.

“Our first project was an 8-story condo on the Intracoastal in Pompano,” Gilman told Vero Beach 32963 last week. “It was the first building in that area with balconies large enough to put furniture out and have a livable area. My wife Gail contributes to the design of all our projects, and she designed it with double glass doors opening from the balcony into the living room,” an early example of Florida indoor/outdoor living, which has since become common.

The couple went on to develop high-rises in Pompano, Lauderdale by the Sea, Boca Raton and Singer Island.

“Chalfonte was probably our biggest project,” Gilman said. The two-tower, 22-floor, 378-unit condominium completed in 1974 is a dominant landmark in Boca Raton where units currently sell for an average of about $1,500 per square foot.

Another marquee project was Cristelle, a 21-story high-rise in Lauderdale by the Sea with huge 3,400-to-4,000-square foot apartments with big, livable terraces “smack on the ocean,” in Gilman’s words.

The Gilmans moved to Vero Beach in 2017 for personal and professional reasons. “From our point of view, it was getting too busy and crowded and harder to get around down there,” Gilman said.

“We wanted to continue doing our business, but from about 2014 on waterfront land prices were rising astronomically in Broward County and the projects we could do were getting to be too expensive for our clientele.

“We decided we could find better development opportunities in St. Lucie and Indian River counties.”

Gilman was inspired when he found the Cristelle Cay site, which is surrounded on three sides by state-owned preserve land that will never be developed.

“It was that tranquil, serene, natural setting that made us want to do the project,” said Gilman, who purchased the property for $4 million in 2018.

“We were ready to go in 2019 but then Covid hit and stopped everything. We lost all of 2020 because commercial lenders weren’t closing, and we couldn’t get a construction loan. It wasn’t until 2021 that the sun began to shine again.”

The Gilmans tapped Dale Sorensen agent Aggie Szymanska to lead the sales effort. Another émigré fleeing the ever-intensifying hustle and bustle in South Florida, Szymanska arrived in Vero Beach with her husband and children after a journey that began in “a little town outside of Warsaw, Poland, so small there was not a single stoplight.”

From that village, Szymanska went at age 10 to a dance school dormitory where she grew up in an atmosphere of rigorous training that paid off when she was hired by the Polish National Ballet as a teenager.

She came to America when she was recruited by Miami City Ballet.

“I arrived in Miami in 2002 at age 19 with $200 my parents gave me and two suitcases, not speaking any English,” Szymanska said. After four years with the ballet company, she left to pursue other interests, going to college, meeting her husband, Eduardo Leal, and having two sons. She got her real estate license when she was pregnant with her first son to help with Leal’s development business.

The couple moved to Vero Beach in 2012.

“We felt like Miami was getting too congested and was not conducive to raising children,” Szymanska said. “Eduardo already had land in St. Lucie and Vero, and we decided to come here. Matilde Sorensen took us around and showed us houses and I ended up going to work for Sorensen Real Estate.”

Szymanska was involved with the Cristelle Cay project early on, emphasizing the quality and luxury of construction and the exceptional setting on a wide, accreting beach surrounded by preserve land.

“The building is super solid,” she said. “It sits on 220-some pilings and has all impact glass exceeding codes. The finishes are high quality, and every unit is direct oceanfront with a huge balcony. This is what people want when they come to Florida. They want to see that ocean.

“There is a raised, infinity-style pool between the two buildings, an exercise room and a tiki-style gazebo steps from the sand. Everyone has a garage space beneath the building and air-conditioned storage space.”

With a superb contemporary design, high-quality construction and preconstruction prices for 2-bedroom units starting below $1 million, Gilman and Szymanska quickly sold the project out while it was still being built.

Construction dragged on a bit because of covid and post-covid material and labor shortages, but Gilman recently got a temporary certificate of occupancy so residents could move in while finishing touches are completed.

Szymanska said eight buyers have moved in and others are having work done, such as custom closet installation, in preparation for occupancy.

She said 30 percent of the buyers came from South Florida – other refugees from congestion and high prices – with another 20 percent coming from Vero Beach.

For people who missed out on pre-construction sales, Szymanska has three resale units available, ranging in price from $1,575,000 to $2,250,000 for a furnished designer unit with lots of upgrades.

Both Gilman and Szymanska and her husband love Vero Beach – “I am not leaving!” Gilman said – but they are high on St. Lucie County, too.

“Fort Pierce is really doing well,” said Gilman, who is looking for additional development opportunities in both Vero and St. Lucie. “The city is going places.”

A potential Brightline train station, a new bridge being built at the southern end of our island, the lavish King’s Landing mixed-use development and the arrival several years ago of Derecktor, a busy mega yacht repair and refit facility “designed and built with the 200-foot, 900-ton and up luxury fleet in mind,” all are part of Fort Pierce’s renaissance and will likely help push property values higher in coming years.

Besides bringing $100-million yachts to town, the shipyard brings the uber-wealthy people who own them, or their agents, who are known to investigate the local real estate scene.

“You would never know it if you saw them on the street, but we have multi-billionaires living down here on this stretch of island in St. Lucie,” Szymanska said.

Szymanska and her husband have done some development on the south island themselves, building a contemporary oceanfront home that they lived in for a while and then sold, and selling lots adjacent to that house, including one to a Vero buyer who is building a major home on the property.

Leal and Szymanska are also developing a 300-acre residential parcel off Shinn Road west of Fort Pierce.

“Eduardo is in the middle of splitting the property into 5-acre lots,” Szymanska said. “We love St. Lucie County, and there is a lot of potential for development here. Lots of people are buying in St. Lucie.”

“There are more development opportunities and better land values in St. Lucie County than in Vero,” said builder/developer Joe Foglia, who’s built several of the largest oceanfront homes in 32963 and also developed a waterfront townhouse subdivision in Fort Pierce, where one of his buyers came from Vero Beach.”

“She got a lot more for her money down there than she would’ve gotten in Vero,” Foglia said of the buyer. “When you start running out of land or prices get too high, you have to look elsewhere.”

“I have felt for a while that this whole area would blow up like Vero,” said Sven Frisell, an agent with the Reynolds Team at Compass, who is in charge of sales at the Diamond Shores subdivision on South Hutchinson Island where new homes illustrate St. Lucie’s value proposition.

“We have 4,000-square-foot direct oceanfront luxury homes with pools and elevators for less than $4 million,” Frisell said. “We have sold 10 out of 17 in the first phase so far, mostly to buyers from Miami.”