CLEARWATER — Business owners along U.S. 19 in Clearwater are frustrated because customers are having a harder time finding them and getting to them.
That's because the state is transforming the road into a limited-access highway with some elevated segments to funnel traffic north and south through mid-Pinellas County. And frontage roads that run along the sides of U.S. 19 stop and start and don't always connect with each other.
On Tuesday, Clearwater officials met with a crowd of businesspeople to discuss the city's upcoming plans to encourage redevelopment along the highway, which is lined by strip malls.
Business owners made it clear that they will want help navigating the new reality of U.S. 19. They want to be allowed to put up bigger signs for their businesses. They'd like to see wayfinding signs installed along the road, like the ones at interstate highway exits that point the way to the nearest restaurants and gas stations.
"One thing we've lost is visibility, in addition to easy access to businesses," said Harriet Zazzaro of Suncoast Total Healthcare, located on U.S. 19 north of Sunset Point Road. With so much of the highway elevated, the clinic's sign is less visible to drivers, she said. "I think it's even a bigger problem than access. If people don't know where you are, they don't know where to get off."
This was one of three public meetings Clearwater held Tuesday for various interest groups along U.S. 19. It will hold two more today. The city hopes to foster redevelopment along U.S. 19, eventually leading to replacement of some of the strip malls, which are no longer a good fit for the road they're on.
The City Council is expected to vote Thursday night to approve a $130,000 study by HDR Engineering that could guide the urban design along about eight miles of the highway, from Belleair to Curlew roads.
Under contemplated changes to development rules, shops and restaurants would be centered at retail hubs like Westfield Countryside Mall and Clearwater Mall in the future. Between those hubs, flexible zoning laws would allow the construction of mid-rise office buildings, residential complexes and multilevel hotels.
The city has launched a website, myus19plan.com, to collect suggestions.
At Tuesday's meeting, businesspeople had plenty of suggestions.
"You need to think very seriously about changing the sign code," said developer and contractor Randy Mears. "The city needs to start thinking of this as an elevated limited-access highway. This is not like a local road."
Alan Feldshue, managing director of Colliers International, which leases office buildings, took note of all the vacant commercial space along U.S. 19.
"Once the highway's done, we need to repopulate those areas with businesses," he said, suggesting that the city's zoning should give landowners more leeway to put different things on their property.
"It could be light industrial, it could be multifamily," he said. "It all doesn't have to be restaurants and office buildings and shopping centers."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.