CLEARWATER — A downtown waterfront transformed into a greener space with a garden, marsh pond and picnic areas. Trails for biking or strolling with views of the Intracoastal Waterway. A gathering space surrounded by cafes, retail and a splash pad to replace the Harborview Center eyesore currently taking up prime space in the heart of downtown.
That's the vision a team of consultants have designed to revitalize Clearwater's struggling downtown after more than six months of meetings and study. They unveiled the plan publicly at a work session Tuesday, but City Council members were reluctant to give their final verdicts until they hear from residents at two more workshops this week.
Mayor George Cretekos did say the draft plan is a solid framework for what the city has been trying for decades to achieve.
"This has been a struggle for us over the last several years, but I think once we can get a buy-in from the community, once we can get people living in the downtown area … I think everything else will fall into place," Cretekos said.
The revitalization plan, labeled Imagine Clearwater, is the latest in a series of attempts over the past two decades to bring the city's retail, restaurant and event space on par with those of St. Petersburg and Tampa. HR & A Advisors partner Cary Hirschstein said that with the national trend toward urban core revitalizations, the timing and public buy-in could make this proposal different from the rest.
"In the past, the plans have been about a vision but less about how it's going to get accomplished in the economics and the politics," Hirschstein said. "What we're trying to offer is not just a plan but a larger strategy that sort of lays out groundwork for a lot of different actions both public and private."
When asked if the Church of Scientology's significant property ownership downtown posed any challenges to development, Hirschstein said: "It's our sincere hope the plan we're presenting is something everybody can embrace."
The first phase of Imagine Clearwater calls for removal of much of the surface parking along the waterfront to create a greener, more walkable space.
Coachman Park, which hosts concerts throughout the year, would be transformed into more of a "natural strolling garden" with a playground, said Sasaki Associates urban designer Martin Zogran.
Large activities would be moved adjacent to Coachman Park to a new area called "The Green," which would also have a picnic grove and a promenade for events like the Pierce Street Market.
A cove under the Memorial Causeway would have a marsh garden and link paths for biking and walking to the slope of the bluff and the Cleveland Street district.
A central feature of the plan is to put a water pad and pavilion in the space where the city-owned Harborview Center now sits. This gateway linking downtown to the bluff and waterfront should be surrounded by cafes, restaurants and retail, even a hotel or housing, consultants said.
The Main Library would accommodate more public uses, like a cafe and rooftop event space. And following the city's plan to relocate City Hall, which now sits on a prime water-view lot on Osceola Avenue, consultants recommend the city lure rental or condo housing.
"A lot of the future of what you wish to do with your downtown is dictated by the use of these sites," Hirschstein said. "The desire of the community to see more activity downtown, to have more restaurants and more vital business, is really dependent on having more people living downtown."
The city could seek proposals for developers to build on city-owned land, but encouraging vibrant uses of space the city does not control, in underutilized parcels along Osceola and north of Cleveland Street, will be more challenging.
For privately owned areas, the consultants recommend building incentives and advertising the plan to raise excitement in the business community.
City Council member Doreen Caudell said working with businesses and investors will be essential in bringing this plan to life.
"You're not going to be able to get what you're looking at even close to being a product without having a public/private partnership," she said.
Cretekos said that once a final plan is approved in December, the city will look at financing options.
Although the consultants did not provide a cost estimate, Hirschstein said more details about financing will be included in the final plan.
The final proposal will also include suggested locations to accommodate aerial transit infrastructure. Consultants were provided with data on a gondola cable car pitched this year by St. Petersburg developer Darryl LeClair and a magnetic levitation system proposed by Tom Nocera, a local advocate for SkyTran.
In the meantime, City Council members said they want the final proposal to include input from the community. Some waterfront redevelopment will require a referendum because of city charter restrictions, but Vice Mayor Bill Jonson said that just reinforces the importance of public buy-in.
"Everybody needs to start wrapping their arms around it,'' Caudell said. "It's time."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.