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Downtown Clearwater activists differ over Harborview's future

CLEARWATER — The co-founder of a downtown redevelopment group has resigned, claiming his vision for the Harborview Center and expanding Coachman Park was unfairly censored by downtown leaders.

Howard Warshauer's resignation from the Clearwater Downtown Partnership, which created the Cleveland Street block party Blast Friday, exposes a hint of tension over the Harborview's revitalization. It also could forecast a growing conflict over the future of downtown.

The Harborview, a defunct department store and convention center, closed in 2009, and city leaders began watching the clock on when they could tear it down.

But in August, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium successfully bid to move into the Harborview for at least a year. Their movie-set and prop tour, Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure, opened this month.

Aquarium supporters said the exhibit would help give downtown a fresh start, and city leaders who were once so ready for the wrecking ball seemed satisfied to wait and see.

But for critics who say the big, boxy Harborview squanders downtown's waterfront bluff, the aquarium exhibit posed an unwanted delay and stood to grant the Harborview long-term life support.

Warshauer, a former West Palm Beach city commissioner who helped launch the downtown partnership in 2005, began promoting his prodemolition Coachman Park Enhancement Committee earlier this year.

But in September, Warshauer said, he was told by partnership chairman Bill Sturtevant that expanding the park wasn't supported by city leaders like Mayor Frank Hibbard. In effect, he said, the idea was dead.

That new position, Warshauer said, suggested a breach of the group's independence. The partnership "basically gave me a choice of leaving or shutting up," Warshauer said. "I saw the writing on the wall and resigned the next day."

Warshauer said his suspicions were confirmed when David Allbritton, chairman of the city-run Downtown Development Board, asked to take a presentation from Warshauer's committee off its next agenda, claiming "it was not the right time for this project."

Sturtevant said the group remains independent, and that he and Warshauer just had a "difference of opinion." Like Allbritton, Sturtevant said pushing for demolition now could shortchange the aquarium, which has promised for renewal.

"To bring this forward right now is just not the right timing," Allbritton said. "We want to at least give (the aquarium) a chance to do what they do."

The Harborview's demolition is far from a done deal. The aquarium's exhibit has a 30-month lease, and Largo's Armed Forces Military Museum has considered moving in.

Officials like City Manager Bill Horne also say replacing the center with a park would not bring the kind of private investment needed to fix up downtown.

Critics like Warshauer counter that there's plenty of vacant real estate for businesses already, and that widening the park on Clearwater Harbor could help draw in visitors to downtown shops and restaurants.

In an online video, Warshauer's committee lays out its vision for Coachman Park: tree-canopied paths, water attractions, an outdoor concert arena and "areas that will stretch both the body and the mind."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com.

Downtown Clearwater activists differ over Harborview's future 12/29/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 29, 2011 6:47pm]
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