Clearwater's long-awaited $30-million Beach Walk opened officially Saturday, and if you haven't taken a sunset stroll along that new Clearwater Beach boulevard, you have missed a treat.
A waterfront once blocked by rows of parked cars is now in full view.
The surf looks closer than ever, and the sand is just one step off the walkway rather than across an asphalt parking lot.
Narrow, cracked sidewalks where two people could scarcely walk abreast much less share the space with bicyclists or skaters, have been replaced by two broad, paved promenades for all kinds of users — one along the sand and the other in front of the stores, restaurants and hotels on the east side of S Gulfview Boulevard.
New palm trees, grass, flowers and sea oats — imagine that! — have brought a sea of green to an area where in recent years, greenery amounted to a weed struggling through a cracked sidewalk or an undernourished palm.
For years, the tourist areas of Clearwater Beach lay dormant, their slow decline obvious to all who looked. Beach Walk has changed that direction. Critics had feared the project would make the beach off limits to average people. One visit to Beach Walk proves that fear unfounded, because the beachfront is more accessible than ever, and will be even more so when — if — the city is able to build a public parking garage nearby.
As special as Beach Walk is now, no one who visits it should assume they are seeing it in full flower. Part of the eastern promenade is necessarily blocked because a new resort hotel is under construction there. Sometime in late 2009, the Hyatt Hotel will open, creating its own special interaction with Beach Walk and bringing 400 public parking spaces. Passers-by will be welcomed into the hotel to enjoy its restaurants and shops.
Other hotels, stores and restaurants — no doubt attracted by the Beach Walk project — eventually are expected to open on the east side, where the promenade is 35 feet wide to permit sidewalk cafes and public seating. So while the west side of Beach Walk is unlikely to see many changes other than maintenance and minor tweaking, the east side is still a work in progress in some sections.
An improved Coronado Drive was an important part of the Beach Walk project and it, too, will be new to those who haven't visited Clearwater Beach lately. Coronado, which is one block east of S Gulfview, is now the street expected to handle most of the south beach traffic. Motorists who want to travel quickly will take Coronado. Those interested in meandering, and enjoying a better-than-ever view of Clearwater Beach and the Gulf of Mexico, will take S Gulfview.
Beach Walk was designed to be a beautiful attractor — to attract new hotels and restaurants and to attract visitors who wanted an experience off the sand. Already, it is doing both.
Clearwater officials have good reason to be proud of the result.