CLEARWATER — It’s more than a year away, but the March 2022 Clearwater election will likely determine the fate of a landmark city project.
At that faraway date, city residents could vote on the redevelopment plans for three city-owned parcels surrounding the soon-to-be transformed downtown waterfront.
The Clearwater City Council will decide on that timeline Thursday, when it will vote on issuing a request for proposals by the end of this month to develop the land and pick a finalist by April 30.
During a discussion Monday, only Council Member Kathleen Beckman worried about the “tough election” that could result from a ballot with a city referendum on top of two council races. She also said she was concerned the March 2020 date didn’t provide enough time to gather input from residents.
But her colleagues showed support for the timeline on a project that has been considered for more than five years.
Council Member Hoyt Hamilton said it would be difficult for the campaign to derail the project if the request for proposal got unanimous support from the board.
“We’ve been kicking this can too damn long,” Hamilton said.
The city charter requires voter approval on the sale or lease of the site of the now-demolished Harborview Center on Osceola Avenue and Cleveland Street as well as the parcel with the vacant City Hall on Osceola Avenue. A referendum is not required on the third redevelopment site, an empty lot on Pierce Street across the street from City Hall.
The city is seeking a combination of residential, retail and parking on the sites, with the possibility of a hotel. The projects would border the roughly 22-acre park with a concert venue, a garden, playground, greenspace, trail and gateway plaza.
The city expects to break ground on the $64 million park in March or April with a target completion date of Fall 2023.
The draft request for proposal for the three mixed use developments suggests the city would entertain one developer to build on all three sites or multiple firms.
Assistant City Manager Michael Delk said the city is in the process of obtaining new appraisals on the properties. But the most recent figures presented last year put the three sites’ values at a combined $23.5 million.
The city could offer incentives such as additional density, up to $5 million of funding for rental housing from the community redevelopment agency, up to $2.5 million from the parking fund and other city support for permit and impact fees, Delk said.
Bonus points will be added to developers’ bids that include cultural amenities, more than 200 rental units across all three sites and additional build-outs that are not currently included in the park plan. Beckman said one bonus criteria, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for green construction, should be a requirement, which will be discussed more Thursday.
The city will face a challenging landscape for attracting investors to a downtown that has struggled for decades. In May, the city invited 50 local and national developers to submit conceptual ideas for the three redevelopment sites in advance of this formal bidding process.
Only two responded. Mercury Advisors founder Ken Stoltenberg, who has built multiple projects in Tampa’s Channel district, said he declined Clearwater’s invitation because the number of downtown properties that the Church of Scientology controls around the park creates “a huge unknown and that’s no place I want to go.”
On top of that, the development industry is in midst of navigating the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction employment in the Tampa/St. Petersburg/Clearwater metro area declined by 5 percent, or 3,900 jobs, across all forms of construction between October 2019 and October 2020.
Private residential construction, however, has been steadier than commercial nationwide. Spending on residential construction rose 7.5 percent from February to October this year, according to the Census Bureau.
When it comes to residential development with first-floor retail, Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, said “to the extent that the economics depend on renting out that first floor space, it’s become more difficult to do.”
“The pandemic has made life much more difficult for not just retailers but for developers who’ve seen a loss of rental income and a lot of uncertainty about whether they’ll be able to fill up new space,” Simonson said.
But Delk stressed the tremendous opportunity any developer will find in Clearwater’s downtown waterfront, which sits on an elevated bluff along the Intracoastal waterway.
“I think this is an opportunity of national scope,” Delk said. “To have three bluff properties along the harbor in Florida available at one time is a pretty extraordinary opportunity.”