CLEARWATER — Behold U.S. 19, all sprawl and strip malls: Is any road so ugly, so notorious, so hair-pullingly frustrating?
The stop-and-go roadway is getting a $200 million makeover through Clearwater that will transform it by 2015 into a six-lane, limited-access freeway with new overpasses. But what about the muss of strip malls on both sides?
The answer, city planners say, is to create a plan to encourage redevelopment along the highway.
"This is not a time for the city to sit around and wait," said Michael Delk, the city's planning director. The current road construction, he said, "is the painful part of it. We're planning for the other side. What can we do to get that pain in the rearview mirror?"
The City Council will discuss Monday whether to approve a $130,000 study by HDR Engineering that could guide the urban design along about eight miles of U.S. 19, from Belleair to Curlew roads.
The goal would be to eventually replace much of that roadway's strip-center fringe, which Delk called underused and "functionally obsolete."
Shops and restaurants would be centered at retail hubs, like the Westfield Countryside Mall on Countryside Boulevard and the Clearwater Mall on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.
Between those hubs, flexible zoning regulations would allow for construction of mid-rise office buildings, residential complexes and multilevel hotels.
Where once there were miles of strip centers, planners envision the development of dense "destination points." Delk said, "People are going to go there to get there."
The long-term plan won't happen overnight, and only those watching city code books will see the plan take shape. The plan is an exercise in optimism: Private developers would have to buy in to complete the transformation.
The plan also could see resistance from some of the current denizens of U.S. 19, who have watched as ongoing construction confused customers and disrupted business.
City officials this week launched a website (www.myus19plan.com) to receive residents' suggestions for change along U.S. 19.
And the city will host focus groups next week for neighborhood and retail groups along U.S. 19, including car dealerships (at Grimaldi's Pizzeria) and hotels and entertainment venues (at Celebration Station).
Pitched since 1990, the reinvention of U.S. 19 was mostly stalled until 2009, when nearly $45 million in federal stimulus funds kicked work into gear.
U.S. 19 had long drawn laments for its chaotic traffic, incessant stoplights and crash-heavy crossroads, which made it one of the most dangerous roads in the country. Drivers riffed off its notoriety with bumper stickers: "Pray for Me — I drive U.S. 19."
But with roadwork under way now in Clearwater, city officials see the highway has potential to attract redevelopment. Over the last decade, Delk said, the U.S. 19 corridor was one of the only areas in this built-out city to increase in population.
The next few years, Delk said, will be "pretty painful, pretty difficult." But he added that the transition will give business leaders and landowners more flexibility, not less. "This is all about options, not restrictions," Delk said. "We're going to go out now and try to figure out what the future looks like."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected]