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For bluff, Clearwater asks developers to show hands

The city is advertising nationally, hoping to draw bids for development of land overlooking the harbor.

Year after year, city officials gazed out at the waterfront knowing the unique property could somehow play a key role in revitalizing downtown by entrancing visitors with the harbor view.

But they never figured out how to do that. Actually, they never really tried.

Now, for the first time, the city has started marketing the property _ about 30 acres of a hilly stretch overlooking Clearwater Harbor known as the bluff.

It includes city-owned land comprising Coachman Park, City Hall, Harborview Center and the main library. That's not all.

Calvary Baptist Church, the Church of Scientology and Colliers Arnold real estate services have agreed to throw some of their property into the mix, creating a huge chunk of land open to all sorts of possibilities.

"It's a massive development proposal _ starting from scratch," said Mark Klein of Klein & Heuchan Realtors in Clearwater. "It's a very big deal. There is potentially a lot of value."

The land stretches from the water to Fort Harrison Avenue between Pierce and Drew streets. A developer interested in it would purchase pieces from the city, the two churches and Colliers Arnold, all of which have expressed interest in selling.

The city bought a full-page advertisement in the June issue of Urban Land, a national magazine for developers. It contacted developers about the property. And it will start asking developers to submit qualifications to develop the site.

"I think it's a fairly bold move by the city," said Charlie Siemon, the Boca Raton planner hired by the city to help develop downtown.

The City Commission will decide whether to hire a developer, but a referendum would have to be held to do anything that would affect the lower part of the bluff, which is protected by the city's charter and has been known as the home of one of Clearwater's last pieces of undeveloped land.

Commissioners said last week that they want a mixture of retail, entertainment and housing on the bluff. But none was locked into any one idea. And no one knows how much the land would cost.

"I certainly don't want to close any doors," Commissioner Bob Clark said.

Commissioner Ed Hart agreed.

"It's all up for grabs," he said. "I just want something that will bring people downtown."

There is no consensus yet, but so far commissioners have considered using the bluff for a movie theater, a museum or an entertainment complex, perhaps with a festival marketplace, a plaza or small shops. They have talked about tearing down and replacing the main library, bringing in luxury condos, apartments or even office space.

The waterfront property would be extremely expensive and could be bought only by a serious developer who had investors lines up, developer Al Justice said.

"I don't see any speculative development that could occur there," he said. "To expect someone to come and pay those kind of prices (for speculative development) would be unrealistic."

But the city could help developers by assemblying pieces of land, possibly through eminent domain, or providing incentives. "That should open doors for various developers," said Mike Cheezem of JMC Communities.

Most commissioners agree that Coachman Park, the 14 acres donated to the city and used for various activities and concerts, should either remain the same or be expanded. But they want to add an amphitheater and a marina.

Commissioner Ed Hooper and Mayor Brian Aungst said they do not want to see a hotel, condo or apartment east of Osceola Avenue. That space, they said, should be reserved for public use.

Aungst said he has heard developers are interested in the property, and he would be "shocked" if the city did not receive quality responses. "The time is right in a lot of ways," he said.

Already, the city has received some nibbles. At least eight developers have contacted the city, some after seeing the magazine ad announcing "great waterfront redevelopment opportunities."

Developers requested copies of the city's request for qualifications, a 20-page document that explains how to submit a proposal and why Clearwater is an excellent investment.

A draft copy given to commissioners last week touts the city's golf courses, dining and nightlife and that downtown is home to the county government. In a rare acknowledgment, the document also mentions downtown is the home of the Church of Scientology's world education center.

The city expects to start sending out the documents in a couple of weeks, after commissioners make a final decision next week on the request for proposals. City officials will give developers three months to respond, rank them and interview the top three finalists.

The entire process could take more than a year, especially if the city holds a referendum in November 2000 or March 2001.

If commissioners decide to do more than just advertise for a developer, they will be asked to extend the contract of Boca Raton lawyers and planners Siemon Larsen & Marsh, hired in 1998 to be the city's master designer for redevelopment.

They would decide whether to pay Siemon Larsen between $50,000 and $60,000 more to interview and negotiate with developers. The city is already paying Siemon Larsen about $775,000.

But even if the city does not receive any proposals or chooses not to hire a developer, Hooper said, the city will make its own plans, although they probably will be smaller. "Something has to happen," he said, "I just don't know what magnitude."

But one commissioner, J.B. Johnson, said he thinks the bluff should stay the way it is _ at least for the time being. "I'm against the whole thing," he said.

Johnson said the city is juggling enough redevelopment projects now, and it would be better to wait a few years until those are complete. He also said he was opposed to commercializing the bluff. "I'm against anything on the bluff," he said.

What Clearwater

is looking for:

Public/private use

Mixed-use development

Residential, retail and restaurants

Connection with the rest of downtown

Destination place

Serve as a landmark

Enhance the city's image

Accessible to pedestrians

Minor effect on local traffic

Developed in stages

Include new main library

Include new or existing City Hall

Source: City of Clearwater