Next door to the Westside Skate Shop on U.S. 19, there are a half-dozen vacant storefronts in a nameless strip mall. Business is down because of construction along the road, the shop's manager says.
"This is all going to be an overpass, right?" Brent Sowinski says, gesturing to the road outside. "We're not going to stay here. We're going to move."
The stretch of U.S. 19 that runs through Clearwater is steadily changing into an elevated, limited-access highway that funnels traffic along at high speeds without allowing left turns. The transition can be a little painful to watch. Businesses in some spots are moving away or dying out.
This week, Clearwater's elected officials will consider a new strategy to steer the future of U.S. 19. City Council members will weigh in on a plan to use flexible zoning regulations and possibly tax breaks to transform the suburban landscape along 8 miles of the highway, from Belleair to Curlew roads.
The goal would be to eventually replace strip centers that city officials say are functionally obsolete due to the changes in traffic patterns.
Elements of the plan
• Shops and restaurants would be centered around retail hubs like Westfield Countryside Mall at State Road 580, and Clearwater Mall at Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, as well as major crossroads such as Curlew, Sunset Point and Belleair roads.
• Between those hubs, in places that aren't as easily accessible, new zoning rules would allow for the construction of mid-rise office buildings, multistory apartment and condo complexes, and possibly light industrial sites.
• Developers who follow the city's blueprint would be allowed more density per acre, leading to taller buildings.
• Property owners could be granted incentives — like tax exemptions, and reduced permit and impact fees — if they reinvest in outdated properties, demolish vacant buildings, and upgrade facades and landscaping.
• New way-finding signs would guide people to destinations along the U.S. 19 corridor. The city might consider extending some side streets, or even adding new streets.
"If you get off on the wrong exit and try to circle your way around to your original destination, it can be quite a complex task," said Steve Schukraft, an urban planner with Tampa's HDR Engineering, which is helping Clearwater craft its master plan.
At a work session Tuesday, the City Council will get an update from HDR. The consultants are doing a $130,000 study of the U.S. 19 corridor for the city. They've been bouncing around ideas and collecting suggestions from the public at a series of workshops and on a website, myus19plan.com.
Once they get some guidance from the City Council, they're ready to start hammering out a more specific plan, which will likely be approved this fall.
At a recent public workshop, Schukraft showed a crowd of about 75 people a series of "before" and "after" images of various spots along U.S. 19 — what the locations look like now, and what could hypothetically be there. The images of the future showed significantly more multistory buildings.
"In order to do that, the zoning and land use regulations have to be changed," said Clearwater businessman Allan Stowell, who owns 15 acres near Clearwater Mall. "You need to change the density and height requirements."
The plan is an exercise in optimism: Private developers would have to buy in to complete the transformation.
U.S. 19 in Clearwater is a mixed bag.
Some of it's thriving, especially north of Countryside Mall where drivers can still make left turns through the road's median. The strip centers there are fuller, and the larger shopping centers are anchored by popular big-box stores.
Aside from retail, the roadside landscape mostly consists of car and truck dealerships and mobile home parks.
As you drive south, there's more blight. Some of it's hidden from view in the shadow of the elevated highway.
On a one-way frontage road near Sunset Point Road, there's a boarded-up McDonald's with overgrown planters, the remains of an outdoor play area, and logs blocking the entrances to the parking lot.
Down on the southern end of U.S. 19 in Clearwater, there's a strip mall near Belleair Road containing Westside Skate Shop, a pizza joint and six vacant storefronts. Across the street from that, there's a bustling Starbucks and a Subway that have a huge, empty, torn-up parking lot behind them.
Revitalizing the district will be a long-term challenge. Schukraft notes that the corridor doesn't have 50-acre properties that are ripe for large-scale redevelopment. Instead, it has many 2-acre, 5-acre and 10-acre parcels, all of them under individual ownership. That makes things more complicated.
But Clearwater officials say they see a lot of potential here. There's certainly a lot of activity: During the last decade, the U.S. corridor was one of the few parts of this built-out city to increase in population.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.