CLEAR­WA­TER’S CHANCE

Tampa Bay Times - - Front Page - BY TRACEY MCMANUS Times Staff Writer

While other down­towns have bloomed, Clear­wa­ter’s has not. Vot­ers are asked to imag­ine it with a re­vi­tal­ized wa­ter­front.

CLEAR­WA­TER — When vot­ers in 2000 hand­ily re­jected a ref­er­en­dum to build along the de­pressed wa­ter­front, de­vel­oper Al Jus­tice won­dered if dreams of a vi­brant down­town were gone for­ever.

He had spent decades bring­ing ma­jor pro­jects — the Bank of Amer­ica of­fice tower in 1974, the now FrankCrum head­quar­ters in 1998 — and won­dered why more pri­vate in­vest­ment wasn’t fol­low­ing.

“It’s al­ways been a mys­tery to me,” said Jus­tice, now a con­sul­tant in North Carolina. “You’ve got one of the most beau­ti­ful wa­ter­fronts any­body has ever looked at, you’ve got all the beach ac­tiv­i­ties just over the bridge. My God, what will it take to get some­body to wake up and take ad­van­tage of this?”

Re­tail stores in the once vi­brant core started a slow mi­gra­tion out with the open­ing of Coun­try­side Mall in 1975, the same year the Church of Scien­tol­ogy moved in, es­tab­lish­ing its in­ter­na­tional head­quar­ters here and buy­ing the land­mark Fort Har­ri­son Ho­tel.

Since then, St. Peters­burg, Dunedin and Tampa have all em­bod­ied the re­nais­sance of Amer­i­can down­towns.

But not Clear­wa­ter, Tampa Bay’s third-largest city.

Vot­ers on Nov. 7 will have a new chance to green light devel­op­ment on the pub­lic wa­ter­front, which would be trans­formed by the $55 mil­lion Imag­ine Clear­wa­ter plan.

The ques­tion is, can it trans­form down­town?

“Only by bring­ing new ac­tiv­ity, new op­por­tu­ni­ties to that glo­ri­ous wa­ter­front that Clear­wa­ter is blessed with are you go­ing to es­tab­lish that kind of mo­men­tum to cre­ate this city that it has the des­tiny to be­come,” Jus­tice said.

Clear­wa­ter has unique chal­lenges. The high­way to bring in vis­i­tors is a con­gested 5 miles away. The bridge con­nect­ing to the beach was redi­rected away from down­town’s Cleve­land Street artery in 2005.

And Scien­tol­ogy has ac­cu­mu­lated at least 68 parcels over 40 years, most en­cir­cling down­town and mostly all for its pri­vate mem­ber­ship.

An­chor in­sti­tu­tions with large foot­prints in a down­town, like hos­pi­tals or col­leges, can of­fer a de­pend­able in­flux of shop­pers, res­i­dents and vis­i­tors, said El­iz­a­beth Strom, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the Univer­sity of South Florida School of Pub­lic Af­fairs.

But if in­vestors don’t feel the mar­ket will sup­port their busi­nesses, they are un­likely to take achance.

“If there were any other in­sti­tu­tion that had this kind of pres­ence down­town, it would be a real plus, but be­cause of the na­ture of this in­sti­tu­tion’s se­cre­tive­ness, their in­su­la­tion, their rep­u­ta­tion — de­served or not — it is not draw­ing peo­ple in,” Strom said.

Scien­tol­ogy spokesman Ben Shaw did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Amer­i­can down­towns have un­der­gone a re­vival over the past 15 years as more fam­i­lies and young pro­fes­sion­als choose to live in ur­ban ar­eas, near where they work and play. Strom said down­towns are now cul­tural cen­ters for arts, food and en­ter­tain­ment rather than the cor­po­rate bas­tions they were be­fore the sub­ur­ban flight of the 1980s.

That should play in Clear­wa­ter’s fa­vor, said Wil­liam M. Rohe, direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Ur­ban and Re­gional Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of North Carolina.

“I think the boom in cen­tral city re­vi­tal­iza­tion will con­tinue for some time,” Rohe said. “I mean, Detroit is com­ing back in places. If Detroit can at­tract peo­ple to its down­town and Clear­wa­ter can’t, some­thing is go­ing on.”

•••

The city’s laser fo­cus on down­town re­vi­tal­iza­tion in­ten­si­fied a few years be­fore the 2008 re­ces­sion, said Geri Lopez, who spent 12 years as the city’s eco­nomic devel­op­ment direc­tor be­fore join­ing Mana­tee County govern­ment in 2016.

Down­town’s main drag un­der­went an $8.9-mil­lion streetscap­e and stormwa­ter im­prove­ment project in 2006 with the core trans­formed into a pedes­tri­an­friendly venue with land­scaped side­walks and me­di­ans, pub­lic art, benches, bike racks and street­lights.

The ar­chi­tec­turally im­pres­sive Main Li­brary with views of the In­tra­coastal Wa­ter­way was built in 2004, a project ap­proved in the same 2000 ref­er­en­dum in which vot­ers shut down larger pri­vate devel­op­ment. Then came a down­town ma­rina.

“Down­town re­vi­tal­iza­tion is re­ally hard work and it takes a long time and there’s no se­cret to it,” Lopez said.

Down­town landed the Wa­ter’s Edge and Sta­tion Square condo tow­ers be­fore the econ­omy tanked, but the city still lacks a res­i­den­tial heart to bring foot traf­fic down­town, and in turn, busi­nesses.

In­fra­struc­ture im­prove­ments shook out dif­fer­ently in down­town Dunedin, three miles away, where streetscap­ing in the 1990s grad­u­ally ex­panded to ar­eas out­side of Main Street, trans­form­ing a bar­ren area into a walk­a­ble town cen­ter. Busi­nesses flocked down­town be­fore the re­ces­sion. So since the re­cov­ery be­gan in 2013, a half-dozen res­i­den­tial pro­jects have sprouted. The com­bi­na­tion of busi­ness and hous­ing has en­cour­aged a trendy brew pub in­dus­try, re­sult­ing today in seven brew­eries within walk­ing dis­tance, ac­cord­ing to Bob Iron­smith, direc­tor of eco­nomic devel­op­ment and hous­ing.

“If you cre­ate the right en­vi­ron­ment, the em­pha­sis on walk­a­bil­ity, streetscap­e con­nec­tiv­ity, you’ ll get the busi­nesses com­ing,” Iron­smith said. “It’s creat­ing an en­vi­ron­ment where peo­ple want to in­ter­act and walk. Th­ese culde-sacs with pools in the sub­urbs are still for some peo­ple, but for a lot of other peo­ple, they want to be in th­ese down­towns.”

•••

Even long­time skep­tics of wa­ter­front devel­op­ment are hope­ful Imag­ine Clear­wa­ter will be a turn­ing point.

Anne Gar­ris, former spokesper­son for the Save the Bayfront ac­tivist group cred­ited with de­feat­ing the 2000 ref­er­en­dum, said she’s em­brac­ing this plan. Imag­ine Clear­wa­ter will more than double the cur­rent green space, cre­ate ter­races and en­claves for peo­ple to gather, and a web of trails and paths to re­place a mas­sive park­ing lot and sprawl.

A key dif­fer­ence is the 2000 ref­er­en­dum would have put the wa­ter­front in the hands of pri­vate de­vel­op­ers with a 99-year­lease. Imag­ine Clear­wa­ter keeps the wa­ter­front pub­lic. Res­i­den­tial and re­tail devel­op­ment out­lined for the City Hall and Har­borview Cen­ter sites would have to be ap­proved by vot­ers in another ref­er­en­dum.

“This time, in­stead of the pow­ers-that-be hand­ing some­thing down to us and ask­ing us to ap­prove it, this one was done with the in­put of every cit­i­zen who wanted to have in­put,” Gar­ris said.

Af­ter decades of de­cline, count­less city ef­forts for re­vival, and an in­sti­tu­tional landowner con­tin­u­ing to buy down­town real es­tate, the suc­cess of Imag­ine Clear­wa­ter also has sym­bolic weight.

Brian Aungst Jr., Clear­wa­ter Re­gional Cham­ber of Com­merce vice chair of govern­ment af­fairs, said he sees the plan as key to over­com­ing the per­cep­tion that down­town is dead. That com­mit­ment, he said, is what’s needed to at­tract the res­i­den­tial pro­jects.

“I think there’s still hope for that to oc­cur, but it’s got to hap­pen now,” said Aungst, whose fa­ther was mayor from 1999 to 2005. “I hon­estly be­lieve this Imag­ine Clear­wa­ter plan is the best and last hope for a cit­i­zen, com­mu­nity-sup­ported re­vi­tal­iza­tion of down­town for ev­ery­one. If it doesn’t hap­pen … I know per­son­ally I’m go­ing to move on.”

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Imag­ine Clear­wa­ter would turn this park­ing lot next to Coach­man Park into green space, walk­ways and an es­tu­ary.

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