Demolition of Clearwater's Harborview Center becoming a reality

The city will hold a pre-demolition celebration March 29. Construction crews will begin the 12-week demolition on April 8.
Published February 22

CLEARWATER — There will be no staged wrecking ball for a crowd to cheer on as it crashes into the most despised building on the downtown waterfront. No orchestrated countdown to the first crack at the walls.

But after years of talk about demolishing the Harborview Center on the corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue to open the waterfront view, the building's demise is officially in sight.

Biltmore Construction Company will begin a 12-week demolition on April 8, which will be the first visible progress in the city's roughly $50 million Imagine Clearwater waterfront redevelopment project. Although city officials previously discussed bringing the public to the site to watch the first wall crumble, Biltmore Construction Director of Operations Ronald Cupler said the process will be less dramatic.

"It's just not the way we're doing it," Cupler said of a choreographed explosion or wrecking ball. "People imagine all sorts of different things ... if you ever saw the video game Pac-Man, it's something more like that."

So instead, the city will host a pre-demolition party on March 29 during Blast Friday to celebrate the milestone with the public. Public Communications Director Joelle Castelli said City Council members will swing a symbolic sledgehammer of sorts, details of which staff is still planning.

For many residents, the demolition can't come soon enough.

"It's definitely an eyesore and it's such a shame for that to be on our waterfront," said Nathan Hightower, who lives in the nearby Waters Edge condominium and can see part of the bulky building from his 10th floor balcony. "Other cities in Florida have taken great advantage of their waterfront and Clearwater has really lagged in doing that."

The main portion of the three-story structure perched on prime waterfront overlooking Clearwater Bay was built around 1960. It operated as a Maas Brothers department store before the city bought the building in 1994 and turned it into a convention center for trade shows and events.

The awkward configuration of the Harborview Center kept it from ever being a success, and the city was unable to afford operations.

It closed in 2009 and earned its reputation as a useless eyesore blocking pristine views of the water. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium began using a portion of the first floor in 2011 to display props and exhibits from its Dolphin Tale films and moved out in July as the city planned the building's fate.

City Council member David Allbritton considers the demolition "the real beginning of Imagine Clearwater," eliminating a blockade between the waterfront and downtown core.

"It's going to open up that vista on the bay that we've been talking about for so long," Allbritton said. "When that comes down, everybody will be able to see how Imagine Clearwater will bring people into the downtown as well because it's not going to be blocked off by a huge building. It's signalling the actual start of that vision."

The city hired Biltmore Construction in December for the $1.8 million demolition. The company spent most of January on asbestos abatement and is slated to begin geotechnical remediation on Monday. Workers will spend the next five weeks preparing the structure for demolition with tie backs to stabilize the infrastructure, Cupler said.

The demolition itself will be methodical and more of a "deconstruction" to not disturb surrounding buildings and traffic, Cupler said. Once demolition is done by July 1, the site will be compacted and sodded, work which is slated to be completed by Aug. 7, according to the schedule presented to the City Council on Tuesday.

But exactly what is next for the site is up in the air.

The Imagine Clearwater conceptual plan calls for a civic gateway with space for outdoor dining and events to be built on and around the Harborview site to create a "seamless pedestrian path between the waterfront and Cleveland Street." The plan calls for a boutique hotel or multifamily housing to be built on the northern part of the site and the adjacent Main Library parking lot. The plan also outlines a garden, concert green, water features and a winding Bluff walk to overhaul the waterfront.

But the final design of Imagine Clearwater's 66 acres has been on hold since October, when the City Council directed Stantec consultants to rethink the concert pavilion element. Assistant City Manager Micah Maxwell said the results of a study to determine what kind of outdoor amphitheater the Tampa Bay market would support will be presented at a special meeting on Monday.

The Imagine Clearwater conceptual plan, completed in February 2017 with input from seven citizen townhalls in 2016, called for a simple band shell nearly identical to what exists today in Coachman Park. But after then-Ruth Eckerd Hall CEO Zev Buffman in August said the Council was blowing a chance to build a boutique, outdoor amphitheater with covering for at least 4,000 seats, the Council directed consultants to redesign the structure.

But the size and scope of that concert pavilion on the green has to be determined before the surrounding elements like the gateway plaza can be configured, Maxwell said.

"We have to determine what we want to put there," Maxwell said. "If the market study says one thing and what we talked about to date is another thing, that can have a lot of impacts on everything upstream."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.