CLEARWATER — The City Council on Thursday voted unanimously to buy a vacant but high-profile downtown lot from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, intercepting a crucial piece of land the Church of Scientology said it needed for its campus.
A packed auditorium at City Hall greeted the 5-0 decision with applause.
Scientology leader David Miscavige had offered to bankroll a multi-million dollar revitalization of downtown if the city stepped aside and allowed the church to buy the lot, which borders its 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat. He pitched the idea last week to a select group of downtown stakeholders with help from Scientology celebrities like John Travolta, and was willing to pay more than three times what the city was offering.
But council members said the 1.4-acre property at the corner of Pierce Street and Osceola Avenue is needed for the city's 10-year, $55 million overhaul of the waterfront and Coachman Park. City staff said it could be coupled with the City Hall site across the street and redeveloped into a hotel, condos and apartments, retail or other uses.
"Will the city be able to guide the use of that property for the good of all of Clearwater? To me that's the most critical question, to which my answer would be yes," City Council member Bob Cundiff said.
About 200 people gathered in City Hall for the discussion. While roughly 25 people lined up to speak in favor of the city buying the land, only four spoke against the purchase.
"I feel the city is slowly losing control of the city's destiny, and it's going to the Church of Scientology," resident Bob Holsinger said. "I feel this issue tonight is also a symbolic issue."
The city will pay $4.25 million for the property and allow the aquarium to continue using the space for parking while it renovates its facility across the Intracoastal on Island Estates. That project could take two years.
The church wanted the land to build a pool, playground and other accommodations for parishioners staying at the Oak Cove.
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw has made clear that Miscavige's proposed retail development hinged on the church's ability to buy the aquarium land. In private meetings with City Council members last month, Miscavige described funding a facade overhaul for Cleveland Street, recruiting high-end retailers to empty storefronts, and building an entertainment complex on Myrtle Avenue with actor Tom Cruise.
Shaw declined to comment Thursday on the church's next steps. The council's vote raises a number of questions, including: What will Scientology do with the $26 million in downtown real estate, including the landmark Atrium office tower, it has purchased since January in anticipation of its retail plan? And will its retail proposal go away entirely or evolve?
In a letter to the Tampa Bay Times on Monday, Shaw blasted the city as "arrogant" for wanting to keep the aquarium land out of the church's hands, calling it "manifest obstruction" and a statement by City Hall that Scientologists are second-class citizens.
At the time, the city's position was becoming clear even before the official vote, with three of the five council members saying they supported buying the land.
"Whose votes do not count? Whose money does not count?" Shaw asked. "The bigotry against Scientologists is barefaced."
In denying the church the land it wanted, the council "apparently believes (Scientologists) are not deserving of a swimming pool and other amenities for their children," Shaw wrote.
City residents who attended Thursday night's meeting spoke about the overwhelming presence Scientology has downtown and its effect on economic development since the church arrived in 1975.
"I recognize that the Scientologists are a part of this community," said resident April Robinson. "The difference is that we have no issue with them being a part of our community, using and enjoying our mutually beneficial amenities. They are the ones that want us out."
Resident Martin Hughes, however, said it was a mistake to throw away the church's offer to revitalize downtown and questioned the motives of the city in buying the land.
"We have an economic entity whose willingness to be a partner in and with our great city is being questioned, I suspect, in part due to a difference in their world view and perceived dearth of development disclosure," Hughes said.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates has said the nonprofit has always been committed to selling to the city because the two are partners in the community.
"I think everybody's hope and desire is the city can move ahead with a strong master plan to really revitalize downtown," Yates said. "It's an amazing area, beautiful area, so I think this is a good first step."
Council member Bill Jonson described the fierce opinions that have come in over the last several weeks on this issue, and held up a thick binder of comments he's received from both sides.
Mayor George Cretekos said the purchase of the land ties into the future of the waterfront and the fate of the city's 10-year waterfront redevelopment plan. Referencing the city's upbeat motto, he said religion doesn't play a factor — and shouldn't going forward.
"All of us, whether we are Scientologists, whether we are Presbyterian, Methodist, Jewish, Muslim, or in my case, Greek Orthodox, we will be able to celebrate a Clearwater that truly is 'Bright and Beautiful Bay to the Beach.'"
Times Staff Writer Laura C. Morel contributed to this report. Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.