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Clearwater bluff plan has officials' support

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

All but one of the city's commissioners say they will vote to proceed with the downtown plan and a July referendum.

Four of five city commissioners say they will vote tonight to endorse a proposed downtown redevelopment plan valued at $200-million to $300-million. They also will ask residents to approve the plan in a referendum July 11.

But commissioners concede that they still have questions about the plan _ and the deal it will take to make it happen. They are hoping that residents will vote in this summer's referendum to trust city officials to finalize all the details in thick legal documents.

"I think it's time. I really do," Mayor Brian Aungst said.

"I'm just terrified if we don't do this, downtown is going to die" or become associated mainly with the Church of Scientology, which is undergoing a major expansion of its headquarters there, Aungst said.

The downtown plan, created by West Palm Beach-based developers George de Guardiola and David Frisbie, lays out a dramatic vision:

Harborview Center, the city's conference hall, could be razed to make way for a multiplex movie theater. Among 1,200 new housing units downtown, high-end apartments would rise where City Hall is now.

A much larger Coachman Park would be built near Clearwater Harbor, and in its center would be a new city amphitheater for weekly concerts. At least four new downtown restaurants would be created, one at the end of a new city pier.

There would be new shops, new sidewalks, new fountains and a series of "grand steps" leading down the city's hilly bluff to the waterfront.

The city has negotiated the key terms of a deal with de Guardiola and Frisbie to make the plan reality. The city's major cash cost would be $16-million to finance a new library and an improved bayfront park.

The city would lease portions of its downtown waterfront land to the developers for $1 a year for up to 99 years to create a critical mass of new development that could rejuvenate downtown. Rent payments could be increased midway through the lease.

For their part, the developers would agree to build some city projects, like a bigger bayfront park. They also would maintain the city's public waterfront lands.

In addition, de Guardiola plans to acquire and develop several large parcels of privately owned land around the city's property, including key tracts owned by Calvary Baptist Church. He plans to transform the church's historic sanctuary into a 200-room hotel.

Some of the redevelopment projects could be financed with city-sponsored bonds. The bonds would be paid back with revenues from the developers' projects or with property taxes generated by the new developments.

That's an important point, Aungst said. New development creates new property taxes that are devoted to improving things like parks and streets downtown.

"The downtown, through this plan, will regenerate itself," Aungst said.

But questions remain. Commissioner Ed Hooper wants to know how the city could transfer the developer's interests to another party _ if de Guardiola wasn't able to complete the projects he proposes.

So far, the tentative downtown deal contains few deadlines for the projects. The number of parking spaces to be created is not yet set. The ultimate size of a proposed new main library hinges on the city locating more funds.

Commissioner Ed Hart says city residents will have to trust the commission to follow through on all the details. He said he's a little disappointed he doesn't know the answers to some questions.

"There will be a list of things that I need to know before I can support it wholeheartedly," Hart said. But he said he's prepared to ask voters their opinions in the July referendum.

Commissioner J.B. Johnson plans to break rank from the rest of the commission tonight. He doesn't like the idea of turning over the city's downtown land to developers for 99 years.

Johnson noted that city voters have rejected attempts by city officials twice before _ including in a referendum earlier this year _ to allow 99-year leases of city land.

"This will be the third time we've had a referendum trying to eliminate the number of years on leases," Johnson said. "I think that's a slap in my face as a voter. I'm against it."

The public is invited to today's 6 p.m. public hearing at City Hall, 112 S Osceola Ave.