CLEARWATER — The city is now closer to breaking ground on a $6.5 million overhaul of its Seminole Boat Ramp than it has been since the concept was put on paper three years ago.
But some key parcels in the North Marina district — 13 mostly residential blocks just north of the downtown waterfront anchored by the public boat ramp — have changed since the beautification plan to bring retail and vibrancy to the area was designed.
Brian Andrus, a $1 million donor to the Church of Scientology who worked in the church's former intelligence gathering unit in the 1970s, bought $12.3 million worth of property within the North Marina footprint this year alone.
The 2016 North Marina Master Plan called for the privately owned Clearwater Basin Marina property, which borders the city's Seminole Boat Ramp's north side, be redeveloped into a waterfront hotel with two restaurants. But in May, Andrus bought the private marina for $8.1 million with plans to develop the site into 87 condos and eight townhomes, he confirmed.
He also bought two vacant blocks directly east of the marina for $2.13 million, a footprint where the master plan calls for multifamily housing. Andrus, who also co-owns the 12-story Clearwater Tower on Garden Avenue downtown, said Wednesday that he did not have plans yet for the vacant property.
In May he also bought a cluster of 12 apartments just south of the city's Seminole Boat Ramp for $2.08 million to develop a 52-unit complex and parking garage, according to his city planning application.
Planning and Development Director Michael Delk said he is encouraged by the private investment as long as the properties are developed to help uplift the area. Although a waterfront hotel and restaurants were central components of the plan, Delk said Andrus' condo project is still compatible with the larger goal of trying to deindustrialize the district.
He points to the Clearwater Brewing Co. under construction four blocks north of the North Marina district on Fort Harrison as a sign of incremental change that could encourage restaurants nearby.
"To me the plan is working," Delk said. "The market for whatever reason is responding sooner than what the plan envisioned ... The question now is about financing for construction to get these out of the ground."
The city has spent about $400,000 on engineering work over the past two years for the design of the Seminole Boat Ramp, a centerpiece of the larger plan to revitalize North Marina's 55 acres. Delk said he hopes to hire a firm in January to construct the $6.5 million project by fall of 2019.
The boat ramp calls for improved lighting, floating day docks, a trail to connect the boat ramp with the Fort Harrison Avenue corridor to the east, a kayak launch, a waterfront park, improved parking, and permanent restrooms.
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Michelle Fritz has lived in the Old Clearwater Bay Neighborhood just north of the North Marina district for 27 years and said the landscape has not changed much over the decades. Much of the district's Fort Harrison Avenue corridor is still slumped, even though it's ripe for restaurants and shops. The residential streets are filled with historic homes with views of Clearwater Harbor, but the neighborhood lacks a vibrant core to tie it together.
She's hopeful the city's investment will attract shops she and her neighbors can walk to, including a waterfront seafood restaurant that's missing from the marina community.
"We have such beauty here that is untapped," Fritz said. "The city is investing and I'm hoping that will let people know it's safe to come and invest too."
In the three years since adopting the North Marina plan, which consultants designed for $105,624, the city has overhauled zoning codes to facilitate development and written new setback requirements to make the North Marina section of Fort Harrison more walkable.
The city is still negotiating with Pinellas County Schools to repurpose its historic North Ward School in the heart of the district, which has been vacant for 10 years and is surrounded by a chain link fence.
And the city is applying for a $50,000 Complete Streets grant to improve 3 miles of Fort Harrison from Belleair Road to the merger with Alternate 19 with wider sidewalks, narrower travel lanes, and enhanced lighting and bike lanes.
The North Marina plan is pitched as a way to connect the district with the nearby downtown, which has its own slew of ongoing revitalization efforts. Similarly, the downtown core also saw a major purchase by a single investor last month. A company run by Moises Agami, developer of the Skyview condo tower and part of a family that is one of the Church of Scientology's largest donors, purchased $16.4 million of property on and around Cleveland Street, putting him in control of a major swath of downtown.
Agami's purchase included most of Cleveland Street's southern 600 block, which surrounds the nine-story, all glass Atrium office tower at 601 Cleveland St., one of a half-dozen downtown properties Scientology leader David Miscavige bought last year for a retail project he later rescinded.
Delk said the next several years will be critical to the evolution of the North Marina district, with upgrades to the bordering Pinellas Trail and other streetscape improvements proposed.
The city's plan, Delk told about a dozen residents who came to the North Marina's Clearwater Garden Club to view the boat ramp plans Tuesday, is "not to change the neighborhood but to complement the neighborhood."
"We want the general public, the residents, we want visitors from our community all across the world to come down to this area and walk the waterfront," he said.
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.