Location, location, location. That's what Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos and the City Council are focused on as they contemplate where to relocate City Hall from its prime waterfront site on the downtown bluff. But in the long run the location of a transit hub for bus and rail is more important to the city and the region. Clearwater officials should find other options for the seat of city government than a prime location for a transit center that could transform downtown.
The discussion is triggered by a measure on the November ballot that will ask voters if they want to turn the City Hall site over to Clearwater Marine Aquarium to build a new facility. City government long ago outgrew the outdated building, and city leaders have lamented for years that the real estate could be better utilized for reinvigorating downtown.
Five options have emerged so far for where to relocate City Hall, including using a floor of the downtown library, and four options for new construction: property the aquarium owns just south of City Hall; the soon-to-be-replaced fire headquarters at Franklin Street and Garden Avenue; and two adjacent city-owned properties on the west side of S. Myrtle Avenue — the Tampa Bay Times building the city purchased last year at 710 Court St. and the block just north of it.
The City Council appears to be leaning toward the last option. The two properties straddling Franklin Street are already in city hands and adjacent to police headquarters and the municipal services building, resulting in a city government campus. But the trade-off is too high. The city has long identified the same land as an ideal spot for a mass transit hub. The properties are situated along well-used thoroughfares and a rail corridor easily converted for light rail — which Pinellas County voters could approve as early as next year.
Cretekos said if that site is chosen he believes it would be possible to build a City Hall that could encompass a transit hub. But that will work only if transit — not the new edifice for government — is the priority for the design. The better plan is to move on to other options for City Hall altogether.
Like all Florida municipalities, Clearwater may be tempted to cast its options too narrowly due to financial realities. That seems to be fueling the idea that City Hall staff could just squeeze into a floor at the main city library. But this economic malaise will not last forever, and city leaders need to think about what Clearwater's needs will be decades from now, both in government facilities and transit.
Doing anything less is a short-term solution with potentially devastating long-term consequences. Clearwater needs a new city hall with or without the new aquarium — but it needs to hold on to the best site for a transportation hub even more.