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(Carl Cronan is editor of Real Estate Florida.)

The landscapes of Florida’s largest cities are dotted with vacant lots, some of which were cleared in recent years for developments deemed a better use of the land. Many were marked for ambitious residential condominium buildings; yet others had office, retail or mixed-use plans drawn out for the sites by developers.

Those proposed projects aren’t likely to get started anytime soon, at least until there is some indication of a turnaround with the current commercial real estate slump. Empty urban spaces make the Sunshine State appear unfinished in some respects.

Decades of land constraints drove builders beyond the suburbs, to the point where city limits spilled over county lines. Now urban sprawl has turned back inward as end users demand to be closer to central business districts, though the recession is halting the majority of development lately.

Most of the vacant lots feature signs showing architects’ depictions of gleaming condo towers designed to enhance city skylines and attract a new wave of downtown residents. A harsh crash of the state’s housing market halted urban condo development as well, leaving behind weathered signs bearing phone numbers or Web addresses that are no longer active.

“Residential was always impacted by the economy, not the other way around,” observes Lewis Goodkin, a Miami-based real estate consultant who tracks South Florida’s condo market. He tells Real Estate Florida that previously announced developments are being delayed indefinitely pending economic recovery, adding: “I don’t think any of this is going to be built in anticipation of when it happens.”

One of numerous examples of commercial projects stuck in the ground is Prime Meridian Center, a planned 20-story, 450,000-square-foot office tower that aims to be Downtown Tampa’s first since 1992. CB Richard Ellis and Trammell Crow Co. had intended to open the doors early next year, but now the target has been moved to late 2010 or early 2011.

“We continue to believe this is an important project, not just for the city but the entire region,” says Bob Abberger, TCC’s senior vice president of Florida development services in Tampa. He maintains that Downtown Tampa has a strong need for suburban-type office, with larger floor plates and higher parking ratios to accommodate corporate tenants, as well as LEED-certified space that will attract tenants from nearby buildings.

Abberger is in regular contact with other TCC development chiefs across the country and says each region shares information about market conditions in determining the best time to proceed with projects. “Our goal is to be the first ones out of the ground in each of our markets as the cycle returns,” he says.

Goodkin believes planned projects that can demonstrate an exact need in their respective markets will have greater success coming out of the ground at the appropriate time, as opposed to building speculative space for the sake of catching the next up cycle. The good news in this recession, he says, is that “there isn’t that big overhang of product” seen in the early 1990s, when many spec commercial buildings ended up in receivership.

Retail appears to be the only commercial sector in current danger of being overbuilt in Florida, the result of too many projects being constructed to serve newly developed neighborhoods before the state’s housing market crash. He believes other development types will emerge from the current downturn over the next three years as credit unfreezes, though equity requirements will be greater.

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