CLEARWATER — There's just one thing blocking city officials and a new developer from giving downtown's Prospect Lake a long overdue facelift: the previous developer.
Although Bruce Balk never followed through with his plan to build apartments and shops on the land, he's refusing to sign a termination agreement that would allow Atlanta-based Miles Development Partners to continue the project, said City Attorney Pam Akin.
Now city officials say they're forced to sue.
"We just want a clear title and to eliminate any potential claim to those properties, although we don't think he has any," Akin said.
She said Balk "just won't talk to us about it and he won't (sign) it."
Balk, of Sarasota, didn't return a call from the St. Petersburg Times for this story.
The City Council is expected on Monday to give city attorneys permission to sue Balk in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court in the next few weeks. If Balk doesn't appear in court, "the title will be cleared by default," Akin said.
"He needs to be sued," said council member Paul Gibson. "The problem is, he's so hard to find."
Developers typically don't move forward on projects until the land is free and clear so they don't have to worry about the issue of ownership. The Prospect Lake project is not in jeopardy right now because Miles is about a year away from beginning work.
The suit will cost the city about $355 to file and process.
"It's one of those things … where it would be nice if we didn't have to do it, but given the circumstances this won't be done voluntarily," said Vice Mayor John Doran.
The initial plan to build Mediterranean Village first surfaced in 1999. A few years later, the city struck a deal with Balk to build 100 townhomes on the old Dimmitt Chevrolet property. Under that plan, Balk would pay the city about $1.3-million for the land.
After a number of setbacks, he pulled out early last year after completing only a 15-townhome community on nearby land.
He never started work on the 4 acres he was supposed to buy from the city across the street on S Prospect Avenue, which surrounds the land's pond, Prospect Lake.
The city last year terminated Balk's contract, then in the fall selected Miles to build up to 249 rental units — 10 percent of which will be affordable housing — and 16,000 square feet of shops that will front Cleveland Street. The $44.5-million project will also include a parking garage, fitness center and pool.
Jason Perry, vice president of development for Miles, said he wasn't concerned about any possibly delays, adding that the builder will meet in the next few months with the city's Community Development Board to present more drawings of the project.
He said if everything moves smoothly, then construction could start by next spring and would take about 18 months to complete.
Under the new plan, Miles will pay the city about $3-million for the land and contribute $570,000 for streetscape improvements along Cleveland Street.
City officials say the plan is crucial to the downtown because it brings in three much-needed elements: modern retail, more residential units and affordable housing.
"It's the heart of the city," Doran said. "If we can get it healthy, the whole city stays healthy."
Mike Donila can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.