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What a series of community meetings tells us about Imagine Clearwater

Here’s one thing: People are worried about parking.

CLEARWATER ― It was time for residents to see, for the first time, exactly where their $64 million was going.

At a series of community meetings held over the past two weeks all over the city, officials brought glossy posterboards, 3D videos and even virtual reality headsets with detailed images of the plans for the Imagine Clearwater downtown redevelopment project.

Residents showed up in droves to see renderings of practically every city-controlled aspect of the project: The $41 million downtown park decked out with a shaded bluff walk, a scenic lake and other amenities. The $14 million covered concert venue in the heart of the park. The newly-redone Clearwater Main Library with its swanky new $3.6 million rooftop event space.

Although some at the meetings were dazzled by the designs, others struggled to get past the issue that always seems to dominate local discussions about downtown Clearwater.

And no, not Scientology.

Parking.

Residents crowded into the City Council chambers at the Clearwater Main Library earlier this month to see early design renderings of the $64 million Imagine Clearwater downtown redevelopment project. [ KIRBY WILSON | Times ]

Much of the area that will become the centerpiece of Imagine Clearwater is today a giant parking lot near Coachman Park. When the redevelopment is done, the city will lose hundreds of parking spots downtown.

Related story: ‘This is not a new complaint’: How Clearwater is working to address its downtown parking challenge

The issue was raised by residents at each of the public gatherings, which were held at the Main Library, the Countryside Library and the North Greenwood Recreation Center. Staff also put up an Imagine Clearwater display at the Countryside Mall over the weekend.

Assistant City Manager Michael Delk, who conducted question and answer sessions at all three community meetings, acknowledged that parking is an issue the city will need to address ― particularly for events held at the park’s new 4,000 seat covered amphitheater.

But Delk said the Imagine Clearwater plans included enough spots for everyday users of the new waterfront park.

Related story: Imagine Clearwater is taking shape. Here’s the latest on the $60 million-plus downtown waterfront.

Related story: Clearwater wants residents downtown. This study shows why that’s not happening.

“Right now, there’s more of a demand problem than there is an accommodation problem,” Delk said about downtown parking in an interview. “We need people to want to come downtown to Clearwater.”

A perceived lack of parking isn’t a new issue for Clearwater. Downtown business owners have complained for years that the city’s core doesn’t offer potential customers enough places to park. In recent months, the City Council has talked about building a multilevel garage downtown.

Several of the other issues raised by residents at the community meetings were also hardly unique to Imagine Clearwater.

At the meeting in the historically black North Greenwood neighborhood, some were concerned the new park would give off a vibe of exclusion to the city’s minority residents.

LeeDrilla Jenkins, a longtime Clearwater resident, said city officials needed to make sure the park and its surrounding developments are economically accessible to people on fixed incomes. She would also like to see an artistic design element added to the park that pays tribute to Clearwater’s diversity.

“I can remember the downtown courthouse where they had the black and white water fountains right outside,” Jenkins said in an interview at the meeting. “They need to include us now.”

And the Church of Scientology’s growing downtown real estate footprint did come up. At the Main Library meeting, city council candidate Mark Bunker said the city should wait to see what the church plans to do with its newly acquired properties before officials spend millions downtown.

Related story: How Scientology doubled its downtown Clearwater footprint in 3 years

Imagine Clearwater also poses new problems for some. Residents living at the Water’s Edge condominiums, which border the proposed development, worried at the downtown gathering that the amphitheater’s concerts would be too loud.

Next week, the city plans to release data from a citizen survey about the design drawings. Officials also plan to incorporate resident feedback into later public renderings.

If every response to the survey echoes the comments made by John Battle, city staff will be thrilled. Battle, who grew up in Clearwater but recently moved to Safety Harbor, said at the North Greenwood event that the new park looks “awesome.”

Clearwater Library Director Jen Obermaier looks on as John Battle views the improvements to the downtown Main Library through virtual reality glasses. The library upgrades are part of the $64 million Imagine Clearwater downtown redevelopment project. [ KIRBY WILSON | Kirby Wilson ]

“It looks beautiful,” Battle said after viewing the improvements to the downtown library through a virtual reality headset. “They’ve done an excellent job.”

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Tracey McManus contributed to this story.

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