By Jeff Ostrowski - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer *credited
PORT ST. LUCIE --
Longtime Delray Beach resident Donna Levy wanted a new home, but she was frustrated by Palm Beach County’s soaring prices. Levy and her husband turned their search to Port St. Lucie, the sprawling bedroom community that long has served as an affordable alternative to Palm Beach County.
“We drove up one day to see what this place is all about,” Levy said. “We were flabbergasted.”
The couple paid $164,300 for a two-bedroom villa at Kolter Homes’ PGA Village Verano. The home includes a two-car garage and granite counters, and Levy figures a similar place in Delray Beach would have cost at least $100,000 more.
“I did a double-take,” said Levy, a real estate agent at Keyes Co. Realtors. “It’s really a phenomenal deal.”
With Palm Beach County home prices rising again, Port St. Lucie is “back on the radar” for bargain hunters, said Lesley Deutch, senior vice president at John Burns Real Estate Consulting. The median price of a newly built home in St. Lucie County is $182,000, compared to $526,100 for a new home in Palm Beach County, Deutch said.
In Palm Beach County, soaring land prices have created what Deutch calls “a race to the top” as builders cater to wealthy buyers. St. Lucie County prices have jumped, too, but they remain far below Palm Beach County’s lofty levels.
The price gap creates opportunities for Palm Beach County workers who don’t mind driving. Median household income in Palm Beach County is $66,000, well above the $53,300 median for the Port St. Lucie metro area, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
A city of 170,000, Port St. Lucie lies 30 miles north of the Palm Beach County line. As the crowded southbound commute on Interstate 95 attests, thousands of workers take advantage of higher wages in Palm Beach County and lower home prices in Port St. Lucie. According to a report this year by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, 11,615 workers commute from homes in St. Lucie County to jobs in Palm Beach County.
That number seems likely to grow. An additional 100,000 people are expected to move to Port St. Lucie in the coming years, said Port St. Lucie Mayor Greg Oravec.
“There are three variables: the cost of homes, the cost of gasoline and time,” Oravec said. “Prices are up in Palm Beach County, gas is cheap and the commute isn’t that bad. From my house, I can be in Jupiter in 35 minutes. So it’s pretty compelling right now.”
One big chunk of Port St. Lucie’s undeveloped land is held by GL Homes, which owns 2,800 acres along Interstate 95. The Sunrise-based builder plans 10,000 to 12,000 houses.
GL Homes has yet to set prices for the homes it plans in Port St. Lucie, but it’s a safe be they’ll be cheaper than the builder’s product in Palm Beach County.
“We do see that market as a real answer for affordability issues, because it’s very accessible to Palm Beach County,” said Jill DiDonna, GL Homes’ vice president of sales and marketing. “But people have to be willing to make that drive.”
Some are skeptical that commuting to Port St. Lucie is a sustainable solution to Palm Beach County’s burgeoning affordability squeeze. The commute is tolerable for some workers, said Kelly Smallridge, head of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County. But the millennial workers who will staff innovative new companies aren’t keen on long commutes.
“It’s too far away,” Smallridge said. “Today’s students aren’t willing to drive 20 miles, let alone 40 or 50 miles.”
Port St. Lucie, for its part, long has hoped to transform itself from a bedroom community into an employment hub. In the past decade, the city invested tens of millions of dollars in ill-fated economic development projects.
Digital Domain Media Group, a movie animation company headquartered in Port St. Lucie, failed in 2012 despite $135 million in state and city subsidies. Medical research lab VGTI Florida received $120 million from the state and city but closed in August. The Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies, lured with $96 million in state and city money, has shrunk its work force.
What Port St. Lucie lacks in high-quality jobs it makes up in a laid-back lifestyle, said Armond Ferri, an agent at Lang Realty in Port St. Lucie who moved from Boca Raton.
“It’s a different world,” Ferri said. “You walk into the supermarket and you look like you’re looking for something and someone asks if they can help you. It’s shocking.”
Levy notices the difference, too.
“It is so crowded and Delray and Boca,” she said. “The traffic is unbearable.”
For now, Levy said, Port St. Lucie offers a more relaxed pace. How long that might last is an open question.
“I’d love to see more people coming up here,” Levy said. “I just don’t want them coming in droves.”