Waterfront seniors' campus proposed for Clearwater faces slew of obstacles

CLEARWATER

The size of Tampa's Ikea superstore and up to seven stories tall, a proposed retirement community called Harbor Bluffs could become the biggest new development this city has seen in years.

Developed by the same company that built the Florida Aquarium, the waterfront campus would cost an estimated $40 million to build and would house hundreds of seniors in the quiet neighborhood called Old Clearwater Bay north of downtown.

But first, it would need to be built. And officials said that would be no small feat for a project seeking to demolish a long-standing community theater, close a road and redirect a decade of tax revenue from city and county coffers.

"It's just impossible at this point to say how we would address every obstacle," city planning and development director Michael Delk said. "There are a lot of assumptions, but no real details."

The initial plans for Harbor Bluffs call for a 350,000-square-foot seniors' campus stretching from Fort Harrison Avenue west to the Seminole Boat Docks. Seniors living in the campus' more than 350 units would be served meals and driven to doctor's appointments, with medical staff onsite for emergencies, said Paul Bouldin, a Marcus & Millichap senior broker who represents the project's unnamed group of local investors.

About 75 percent of the project's financing would come from federal grants and tax credits, and the remainder would come from a Canadian investment group.

The campus, Bouldin said, would create 200 full-time jobs, fund 300 construction jobs and benefit another 500 jobs indirectly.

The project's major-league developers, KUD International, built the Florida Aquarium as well as a $425 million resort in Orlando, a University of Central Florida student complex, and sports arenas for the Philadelphia Eagles, the San Francisco Giants and the Liverpool Football Club.

The area proposed for the development is a graveyard of aging buildings and defunct developments, with about 100 concrete pilings standing as tombstones for the Antigua Bay Yacht Club, a proposed duo of luxury condo towers. That project collapsed in the housing bust. The Harbor Bluffs campus, Bouldin said, could use those pillars for its foundation.

But to fit the campus there, developers would need to win approval to close a stretch of Osceola Avenue near the Clearwater Basin Marina. They would also seek to level the Francis Wilson Playhouse, a 77-year-old community theater with a 99-year lease on its city-owned site.

To compensate for the loss, Bouldin said developers would build a new multipurpose public building that could stage plays and other events. For locations, Bouldin suggested the nearby Clearwater Garden Club.

Use of the old North Ward Elementary School, another suggestion, has already been denied by the Pinellas County school district.

To fund the new facility, developers would seek city and county permission to withhold an estimated $1 million in taxes every year for 10 to 15 years. That funding would be "found money," Bouldin said: The neighborhood is sparse, with about half of its buildings vacant. "Without the incentives there," he said, "this may not get built."

But city and county leaders who would lose out on funding will likely need some strong convincing. Theater president Andy Rufo would not comment on the plans.

Rod Irwin, Clearwater's assistant city manager for economic development, said, "Our council would scrutinize very closely any kind of proposal that could put the city's credit to risk based on uncertain revenues."

City officials have also questioned whether the project would place seniors in a high-hazard coastal area. Bouldin said the campus would be built to withstand hurricane-force winds, and that housing would be 30 feet above sea level due to the use of low-level parking.

Developers have submitted to the city no plans for review, and many details on the campus' design remain shaky or open to change. Bouldin said it will be a long slog before the campus could open its doors.

"It remains a question as to how cooperative everyone wants to be," Bouldin said. "We think it's good for everybody. But if everybody doesn't agree, it won't get done."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.

Waterfront seniors' campus proposed for Clearwater faces slew of obstacles 07/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 7, 2012 3:40pm]

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