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Two firms say project had problems

The groups that withdrew from Clearwater's bluff development effort say there was too much uncertainty surrounding the plan.

Planning a redevelopment project that would reinvent the city's downtown was too risky and complicated, representatives of two companies that withdrew their proposals to do so said Thursday.

Before the companies pulled out, Clearwater officials had been trying to decide among four groups that pitched ideas to redevelop 39 acres of public and private land at the edge of downtown, overlooking Clearwater Harbor.

But executives at Steiner + Associates, which was considered a top candidate, and Trammell Crow Co., which was a longshot, say that the city's project posed some significant problems.

Among their concerns:

+ The approval of a voter referendum is required for projects on the public portion of the land. A negative vote could nix a deal after months of negotiations to put it together.

Steiner officials said they were confident they would win, despite an already organized opposition to commercial projects on city land. But, they said, the fight could take a lot of energy.

+ About 12 acres of key parcels are not city-owned. The landowners may try to get top dollar from developers, making it a less attractive proposition. Even with the city's help, negotiations could take time and be tricky.

The project would be more feasible if the city owned all the land it has marketed, the developers said.

"We believe that the general public consensus is not to develop the public lands in the project," said Robert Abberger, the head of Trammell Crow's Tampa office.

"Well, when you see that the key parcels are not controlled by the city and you have to risk a referendum to develop the public lands, you've got a very lengthy process ahead of you," he said. "We decided that it does not fit our business plans."

Representatives of both Steiner and Trammell Crow said they believe in the vision of a vibrant downtown Clearwater. But being partners with governments, they said, always is more complicated than other business opportunities.

"The process of building a community consensus requires multiple meetings with all sorts of interested parties, from property owners to downtown merchants and interested citizens," said Steiner + Associates vice president Jay Miller. "And the process of negotiating land agreements with a city is a time-consuming process. This partnership would have had all the ingredients to be as complicated as any. We just determined this project could be too consuming."

Miller said his company also had qualms about moving the city library, which now sits in the designated redevelopment area.

Steiner officials weren't sure where to rebuild the library, along with a complex of shops and restaurants and a movie theater. The city didn't have money in its budget to acquire more land as a library site, as Miller had hoped.

Steiner officials also suggested knocking down the city's Harborview Center _ a boxy conference center that would sit in the middle of their project. City officials weren't enthusiastic.

City officials said none of the concerns raised by the developers who dropped out are new. They have always advertised that this was going to be a complex project with referendum approval required.

"There is a commitment from both groups that are left that this is going to take a lot of time and energy to get it done," Commissioner Ed Hooper said.

The city now has two groups to choose from: a partnership from New Orleans and a trio of West Palm Beach developers.

The New Orleans group is scaling back its plentitude of ideas for the city's redevelopment area, which ranged from a convention hotel to a waterfront fish market, in preparation for final presentations to the City Commission Tuesday.

Lead developer David Waltemath had a bad experience with a similar redevelopment project in Punta Gorda that started 10 years ago. Most of the original proposal _ such as festival retail shops and a city marina expansion _ still haven't been completed. Officials say the initial proposal was too grandiose for what the town could support.

The project also was stalled by community strife over the preservation of park land and numerous government errors. But Clearwater officials, some of whom went to Punta Gorda last week, aren't concerned.

"If anything, he's been very patient with that process," said Mayor Brian Aungst. "He'll stick it out and not just run away when things get tough."

The other group, from West Palm Beach, has proposed a plan for redeveloping all of Cleveland Street as well as a bigger civic amphitheater on the waterfront. Their ideas of creating permanent, community spaces have been highly praised by Clearwater's redevelopment consultant, Charles Siemon.

But the group's project doesn't include anchor elements _ such as a movie theater _ that some city officials envision. Developer George de Guardiola was at a retreat with movie theater executives in California Friday to network and possibly change that.

Are two companies enough to choose from? That depends on whom you ask.

"In my opinion it's two too many," said Commissioner J.B. Johnson, who disapproves of allowing any commercial development on public downtown property.

Largo officials stopped the process of finding a developer for eight acres of city land on West Bay Drive last year because one of only two interested developers dropped out. Also, a public dispute arose over whether park land should be preserved at the site.

The second time around, the city is encouraging more public debate up front _ before seeking new development proposals.

Two was enough for St. Petersburg. A few years ago, only two groups presented proposals for the Baywalk entertainment center in downtown St. Petersburg. They then merged into one business entity and worked out a deal with the city to acquire land.