New CRA director has high hopes for downtown Clearwater

Seth Taylor brings years of experience revitalizing neighborhoods in New York.
Published June 2 2016
Updated June 2 2016

CLEARWATER — The question dogging the city for decades has been how such a pristine downtown within eyeshot of one of the nation's best beaches could still be struggling behind St. Petersburg or Tampa. Consultants and government staff are still trying to crack it.

But the Community Redevelopment Agency, a special downtown taxing district focused on revitalization, has helped narrow the focus. In July, Seth Taylor will start as the CRA's new director, replacing Assistant City Manager Rod Irwin, who retired last year. Taylor, 37, has spent more than a decade revitalizing neighborhoods and commercial corridors in New York City. Can he make an impact here?

You've spent your career revitalizing neighborhoods in the urban sprawl of New York City. What can you do for a beachy, suburban area like Clearwater?

I have a lot of experience working at the hyper local level, at the neighborhood level, and working with diverse stakeholders like property owners, small business owners, residents, community activists and government officials. So I would be looking to apply that same thinking in my approach to working in Clearwater, which is working with a broad group of stakeholders to develop a creative vision and get folks behind that vision to implement it and realize it. So really it's about being able to work with diverse individuals with different viewpoints and trying to get everybody on the same page. And then there are also some place-making ideas and techniques that we can apply to a place like Clearwater. When I was down there on my visit, I saw many potential opportunities for smaller pilot projects that we can implement that we can test out in hopes of revitalizing certain spaces.

What are your first impressions of Clearwater and what are the first initiatives you plan to tackle?

My first impression was that it's a truly gorgeous place. The climate is wonderful, it's inviting, the people are welcoming and friendly. Everybody on the city government staff is extremely professional and there's high morale within city government. It's a team I want to be part of. Some of the first things I would do would really be to get the lay of the land and better understand what the local needs are and what the challenges are. And I would want to get to meet as many individuals as possible and hear their thoughts and ideas as to what can be done to revitalize the downtown area. There's been quite a bit of planning and research and studies that have been done over the last few years, and it's an excellent blueprint and foundation for us to work off of.

In your observations so far, what are the biggest barriers preventing Clearwater's downtown from being successful?

I've noticed there are many entities that are working to help revitalize the downtown. There's the Community Downtown Partnership, there's the Chamber of Commerce, there are other neighborhood groups, and that's a wonderful thing, and of course there's the Church of Scientology, which has a major stake in the downtown. We have all these different entities, and I think it's really important for us to bring all of them together as best as possible so we can begin working more as a cohesive entity to attract new businesses, to attract investment and to attract more people.

I think what's really promising is seeing new residential buildings going up; for example, the Nolen development. A project like that is going to bring in young professionals, families, retirees and everyone else in between. With those new people living in the downtown area, that's going to spur new amenities, new retail, and it's going to create demand for exciting new entertainment, food, etc. Things are looking really positive from my conversations with lots of the downtown leaders. There's a real sense the city is starting to really turn a corner.

You mentioned the Church of Scientology's stake in downtown. Their international headquarters and ownership of so much property makes Clearwater unique. Do you see that as a challenge or a benefit, and how will Scientology be incorporated into your approach?

As a major stakeholder, I look forward to engaging and working with the Church of Scientology as we continue downtown Clearwater's revitalization. In my role as CRA director, I am very interested to learn more about their vision for downtown, and how that vision aligns with that of the larger Clearwater community

What are your greatest accomplishments in New York as it relates to revitalizing communities and neighborhoods?

I started my career at the Bryant Park Corp. Bryant Park is a really fascinating story because back in the '80s and early '90s it was a really desolate, empty park that no one wanted to go to. After capital investment and extensive programing, it's now become what some might say is the most densely populated park in the world. Working at Bryant Park gave me some great experience in terms of how to manage a public space, how to make it inviting for people.

I'd also point to my work in downtown Brooklyn where I worked very closely with small business owners, mom-and-pop shops, working with them to improve storefronts though facade and improvement grants. We also did extensive streetscaping where we planted over 100 street trees and really added the important amenities like free public Wi-Fi, movies in the plaza, daily events and activities that make people want to come to a downtown.

I did some work in Union Square, where our focus was more on the branding, and we were thinking about how we can attract more creative tech companies into the district.

Then moving forward to Queens where I worked in a ZIP code that some say is the most diverse ZIP code in America. It was really a great learning experience in engaging diverse constituents and stakeholders and getting them behind the idea of revitalizing a neighborhood. Out here in NoHo, I've been working with property owners, with the real estate community, with office tenants and with arts organizations to further promote and deliver a brand of the neighborhood as a 24-hour, mixed-use historic neighborhood that is attractive to families and young professionals.

Clearwater boosters would like to see downtown compete with places like St. Petersburg and Tampa. Is that realistic, and how long will it take?

Yes, absolutely we can compete with neighboring cities. We have amazing assets in our downtown. We need to promote those assets. In terms of how long it takes, this is a process and it doesn't happen overnight. But what we will do is take incremental steps to realize our vision, and we will look back in a few years and say 'Wow, look at all the progress we've made.' And we're going to find ways to measure our progress. We're going to be very focused on measuring the impact of our work, how many new residents are moving into the downtown, how many businesses are opening up, what is the foot traffic looking like. We'll get anecdotal information from people who live and work in the downtown. It takes time, and there's a process involved.

With that said, I can tell you there's a lot of momentum right now, and there are many entities and individuals very focused on revitalizing the area. So we have the key ingredients in place. We have the infrastructure. Now it's about moving it all forward and getting the work done.

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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