Tampa Bay Times

CLEARWATER’S CHANCE

- 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.
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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