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Coronavirus shows how a street closure could open up downtown Clearwater

The city closed the 400 and 500 blocks of Cleveland Street in May for expanded outdoor dining. Merchants branded it “The District" and want the closure to be permanent.

CLEARWATER — Since the city closed two blocks of Cleveland Street in May, so businesses could expand outdoor seating amid the coronavirus pandemic, Scott Sousa has felt a tangible shift downtown.

Lunch and dinner crowds at Clear Sky on Cleveland, where Sousa is general manager, are bigger and staying later. Business owners are more collaborative, like coordinating outdoor live music every day instead of each hiring their own entertainment.

It has fostered a sense of identity in a downtown otherwise overshadowed by persistent empty storefronts and the dominating footprint of the Church of Scientology.

On Wednesday, the Downtown Clearwater Merchants Association put a name to its growing momentum by announcing a branding campaign for the four blocks of Cleveland Street east of the waterfront as “The District.” The merchants association is also advocating for the city to make the temporary closure of the 400 and 500 blocks of Cleveland Street to vehicles a permanent change into a pedestrian mall.

“I truly believe we have something that’s going to compete with the St. Pete Pier, Armature Works or Sparkman Wharf in Tampa,” Sousa, co-chair of the merchants association, said during a ribbon cutting for The District.

This week, the City Council agreed to launch a pilot program to assess the feasibility of a permanent closure. But Amanda Thompson, the Community Redevelopment Agency director, said that two-month study must be conducted outside of a pandemic environment, to gather more realistic data when more employees return to work downtown and roads reflect more typical commutes.

Onlookers watch as local dignitaries cut a ribbon for the recently designated area along Cleveland Street dubbed "The District" Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020 in Clearwater. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

With the uncertainty surrounding development of a coronavirus vaccine, it’s impossible to say when a pilot study could be done, Thompson said. But the closure of the two blocks will continue through at least Jan. 17 and could be extended if the city’s declared state of emergency continues into next year.

Before making the change permanent, Thompson said she also wants to see how the two-block closure impacts Imagine Clearwater, the roughly $64 million redevelopment of the adjacent downtown waterfront, a project not expected to be completed earlier than 2022.

“What they are doing now is coming together and rallying around for their businesses,” Thompson said. "The city is going to be responsive to what people say they’d like ... but we have to do it correctly.'

A permanent closure could also require major infrastructure changes, including leveling sidewalks with the roadway, installing more fire hydrants and reconfiguring turnaround areas for emergency vehicles.

An area of Cleveland Street at the intersection of Ft. Harrison Avenue is seen Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020 in Clearwater. The city has used cones to block vehicles from the 400 and 500 blocks of Cleveland Street since May. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Carolyn Bradham, who has owned Kara Lynn’s Kitchen on Cleveland Street’s 400 block for six years, said blocking vehicles from the two blocks has given downtown “a real identity.” The expanded outdoor seating not only allowed her to stay in business during the state’s indoor capacity restrictions, it has also given visitors a sense of having an area to explore.

“Before, we were a bunch of individual restaurants,” Bradham said. "Now at the end of the night, we are giving each other our glasses and plates back.”

But not all businesses have been saved by the street closure. Last week, Vera’s Kitchen on the 500 block announced it was closing in its first year as a result of the impacts of coronavirus. And beside the approximately 20 bars, restaurants and businesses along the 400 and 500 blocks are about a dozen vacant storefronts, most of which had been empty long before the pandemic.

With the Imagine Clearwater project slated to bring housing, retail and parkspace to the city-owned waterfront, city officials are in the midst of their most aggressive effort in decades to revitalize the surrounding downtown blocks.

But other variables are at play. Between 2017 and 2019, limited liability companies tied to the Church of Scientology bought nearly 100 commercial properties within walking distance of the waterfront, giving Scientology leverage over what businesses do or do not fill the properties.

Pedestrian malls, defined as short areas that had once been open to vehicle traffic, became popular in the 1960s and 1970s as cities were trying to survive the era of white flight, suburbanization and the emergence of shopping malls, said Stephan Schmidt, associate professor at Cornell University’s department of city and regional planning.

As of 2019, 82 of the 125 that had been built nationwide had been removed or reopened to traffic, according to data compiled by Schmidt. But the surviving pedestrian malls were most successful in areas that had nearby beaches, sunny weather and thriving tourism industries, all variables “Clearwater has going for it,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said the changing lifestyles due to coronavirus could prompt more cities to experiment with closing streets for pedestrians and businesses. But he said pedestrian malls are never a panacea on their own for revitalizing a downtown.

“Pedestrian malls are one of the tools in the broader tool set, along with affordable housing, urban design and economic development,” he said.

Mayor Frank Hibbard told the crowd at Wednesday’s ribbon cutting for The District that the merchants association’s vision could complement the city’s plan to transform the waterfront through Imagine Clearwater.

But he asked the public to do their part in bringing life back to downtown by spending more time there, eating at the restaurants and supporting the business owners who have taken a chance.

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard speaks during a ceremony Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020 in Clearwater. The city of Clearwater closed the 400 and 500 blocks of Cleveland Street to vehicle traffic in April to allow for more social distance dining. Now the city is making a major leap by closing these blocks to cars permanently and re-branding the area as "The District". [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

“We will finally realize the dream that many of us have had for literally decades of making Coachman Park an incredible gem in this city,” Hibbard said. “We all know the beach is a wonderful asset to the city but there’s so much more potential that we have not yet reached in downtown Clearwater. So I challenge all of you to be a part of it.”