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2 companies drop bids to develop bluff

Clearwater city commissioners have two left to choose from to develop downtown waterfront property.

Two companies dropped out of the city's search for a master developer for 39 acres of downtown waterfront property on Wednesday, including a major contender.

But city officials said they can still choose a developer to work with from the narrowed field of two.

"I think the firms that are remaining are two outstanding firms, and it's going to give the commission a nice choice to pick from," City Manager Mike Roberto said.

The first casualty announced Wednesday was a long-shot: national real estate giant Trammell Crow Co., which is finishing the towering Tampa Marriott Waterside hotel near Tampa's convention center. The company had an impressive resume, but lacked experience with smaller, downtown projects.

City officials were much more disappointed to hear that Steiner + Associates, a young company that is building the Centro Ybor entertainment complex in Tampa and urban complexes nationwide, was pulling out of the competition as well.

"That changes the game," said Bob Keller, assistant city manager for economic development, who was at home sick when he heard.

A city planning consultant had researched and ranked all the firms, with Steiner coming in at the top of the list in terms of its "experience and demonstrated expertise" in building creatively designed anchor attractions in urban areas, according to the draft report by the Boca Raton-based Charles Siemon.

"I'm a little bit disappointed, because I think that they're one of the stronger candidates," said Commissioner Ed Hart, who found out about Steiner's withdrawal hours before he was to board a plane to visit the company's headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. "But I'm not dissatisfied with either of them that are left."

City commissioners plan to decide between two remaining companies on Feb. 17 to negotiate to develop the mostly city-owned property on Clearwater Harbor.

One of the remaining contenders, a West Palm Beach group, has focused its proposal on a total downtown redevelopment plan and building an improved civic amphitheater on the city's bluff.

A group from New Orleans has pitched a wide array of projects, ranging from apartments to a convention hotel, surrounding a movie theater on the city's waterfront bluff.

Final presentations from the two groups are scheduled for Tuesday from noon until early evening.

City officials said the announcements from Steiner and Trammell Crow should not be taken as an indication that Clearwater's downtown might be a difficult project. It is far from easily traveled thoroughfares like U.S. 19, and some associate downtown with the Church of Scientology, city officials have noted.

But city officials speculated that both companies that dropped out were being stretched too thin by other projects.

Neither Steiner nor Trammell gave city officials specific reasons why they withdrew from consideration, and neither returned calls for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Steiner released a statement that said, "Our internal business priorities have undergone a change that conflicts with further participation at this time."

Steiner's preliminary proposal for Clearwater had been a 150,000- to 200,000-square-foot, open-air complex with some branded restaurants and shops, all centered around a 10- to 16-screen, stadium-seating theater on the city's bluff.

But the company has been concentrating on finishing a project with a similar concept, Centro Ybor, this year in Tampa's Ybor City. It also has been working on a complex with an aquarium called Newport on the Levee just outside Cincinnati, a project in Des Moines, Iowa, that has sufferred some delays, and an expansion of Easton Town Center, a $135-million project in Ohio.

Yaromir Steiner, the head of Steiner + Associates, has also dangled the idea that he would like to gain control or partner with the companies planning the redevelopment of Clearwater Mall, a larger and more accessible site for commercial development at Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and U.S. 19.

Ed Kobel, a principal with Wilton Partners of Scottsdale, Ariz., which owns the mall with New Plan Excel Realty Trust of New York, said he had no time to talk about such an idea on Wednesday before hanging up on a reporter.

Trammell Crow officials called the city to say that they are concerned the city does not control all the land contemplated for the development, said city spokesman Frank Klim. To control the full 39 acres possible for a project, the developer would need to negotiate with several landowners, including the Church of Scientology.

Trammell Crow officials also commented that their timing was a little off, as they are finishing the Tampa Marriott and also planning a sleek, modern entertainment complex next door, Klim said.