CLEARWATER — Before the Clearwater Marine Aquarium tries to get Clearwater voters to support its proposal to build a new aquarium on the current City Hall property downtown, it's seeking to convince the neighbors.
Aquarium officials have started meeting with residents of the high-rise condominiums that surround City Hall, looking to address their concerns about the potential for crowds and heavier traffic.
There also is talk of moving a trolley stop where visitors are dropped off at the aquarium's movie-prop exhibit in downtown's Harborview Center.
All of this is coming up as the aquarium is proposing a new 200,000-square-foot facility on the City Hall property on Osceola Avenue. Aquarium officials are asking for a no-cost lease of the property. In return, the aquarium says its new home would draw millions of visitors downtown, benefiting the city.
The deal requires Clearwater voters' approval. The city will likely hold a referendum on Nov. 5, with the aquarium paying for the $70,000 cost.
In the meantime, aquarium officials are talking to community groups, starting downtown in what they hope will become their new neighborhood.
Meet the neighbors
Aquarium leaders recently met with condo owners in the Water's Edge tower on the corner of Osceola Avenue and Cleveland Street, and the Pierce 100 condominium, which juts out into the harbor just west of City Hall.
Pierce 100 residents previously fought long and unsuccessful legal and regulatory battles against the Memorial Causeway Bridge and the construction of the Clearwater Harbor Marina next to their building.
Now they're eyeing potential aquarium traffic, especially since officials are talking about building a five-story parking garage on Pierce Street, the approach to the 114-unit building.
"My take on it is that people here aren't opposed to the aquarium's concept in general, but they're very much concerned about the impact on our quality of life," said Veronica Briand, president of the Pierce 100 Condominium Association.
The aquarium is commissioning a traffic study to learn more about the effect its proposed new location could have on the surrounding streets, said Frank Dame, the aquarium's executive vice president.
It is also considering the possibility of moving its proposed parking garage to another location — perhaps across the street from the Clearwater Main Library, at the corner of Osceola and Drew Street, or at the downtown bus station lot on Garden Avenue east of City Hall.
Aquarium officials are also considering enclosing or eliminating a planned outdoor aviary at the new facility to reduce noise, said former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who's on the aquarium's board of directors.
A trolley stop
The aquarium operates a second attraction, Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure, in leased space in the city's Harborview Center a half-block from City Hall. The movie-prop exhibit was created in 2011 to relieve pressure from hordes of Dolphin Tale movie fans descending on the current small aquarium on Island Estates.
The aquarium has hired the services of the Jolley Trolley to ferry visitors between Island Estates and the Harborview Center. At the Harborview, a trolley drops off and picks up guests at a side entrance on Osceola Avenue. It's convenient, but visitors don't get much of a look at the rest of downtown.
Water's Edge resident Jack Mortimer, president of the recently created Downtown Clearwater Neighborhood Association, is suggesting that the trolleys run down Cleveland Street, downtown's main drag, to show aquarium visitors that there are restaurants there.
He further suggests that a pair of parking spaces be converted to a trolley stop in front of the old AmSouth Bank building on the northeast corner of Cleveland and Osceola, across the street from the Harborview. Visitors to Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure could be dropped off there and get a glimpse of the downtown core.
The Downtown Development Board endorsed this idea at its meeting Wednesday. City officials are studying whether it's feasible or advisable.
Aquarium officials say they're open to the idea, as long as it's understood that in rainy weather, visitors would still be dropped off right at the exhibit's door.
"Our first concern is our visitors and their convenience," Dame said. "In inclement weather, we would expect that our trolleys would be rerouted so that our guests would not be walking through the rain."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.