CLEARWATER — It was supposed to be a jewel, and instead it's an eyesore. So now the city is trying again.
On the south side of downtown's Cleveland Street, across from a Walgreens, there's a cramped-looking row of townhomes that back up directly against the sidewalk. Two stories of windowless walls give the compound an unattractive, fortress-like appearance facing downtown's main drag.
Built a decade ago, these 15 townhomes are all that's left of Clearwater's first attempt to develop its large, vacant Prospect Lake site downtown.
Now officials are preparing to choose between four developers who are competing for the right to build a new apartment complex on the nearly seven-acre city-owned site. Current zoning regulations would allow at least 200 apartments there in buildings up to 75 feet high, and possibly more if a developer follows certain guidelines.
City leaders have long wanted to add more residents to the downtown to support its businesses and bring more life to the district.
"We need residential in downtown more than anything — way more than retail," said Bill Sturtevant, chairman of the Clearwater Downtown Partnership.
The city has been trying to get this particular site developed since 1999, but there have been a number of setbacks along the way. In recent years, the slow economy has stalled the project.
"This is a significant project for the city," Mayor George Cretekos said. "We want it to be a showplace."
Most of the vacant land used to be occupied by a Dimmitt Chevrolet dealership. The city bought that property 14 years ago for $1.2 million. Around that time, the city acquired land just south of that to expand and beautify a mucky retention pond, now called Prospect Lake.
In order to square off the development site's irregular shape, the city has purchased a few smaller adjoining parcels in recent years, including spending $587,000 on a 1-acre piece formerly occupied by the St. Vincent de Paul Society's thrift store.
The city recently issued a request for proposals from real estate developers. It got four proposals by the time the deadline arrived last week.
City officials would like the Prospect Lake development to include some retail storefronts facing Cleveland Street, but they recognize that developers may have a tough time getting financing for much retail space.
The city's request for proposals called for at least one mixed-use building fronting Cleveland Street, three to four stories high with commercial space on the first floor and residential units on the upper floors.
"We did not specify how much retail," said Geri Campos Lopez, the city's director of economic development.
A city selection committee will examine the four proposals this month, then hear presentations from finalists next month. In June, the City Council will be asked to approve a contract with one of the developers.
After previous attempts to develop the Prospect Lake site fell short, the city wants a developer with a sound track record and a financially feasible plan.
"In our mind," Sturtevant said, "the most important thing is a developer who can get the deal done."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.