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Five developers want to build around Clearwater’s downtown waterfront. Scientology is one.

The city called for residential, hotel and retail projects to surround the city’s 22-acre waterfront park, which is about to undergo a $64 million makeover.
Five developers responded to the city's request for proposals to build residential, retail and hotel projects on three city-owned sites on the downtown waterfront. [ City of Clearwater ]
Five developers responded to the city's request for proposals to build residential, retail and hotel projects on three city-owned sites on the downtown waterfront. [ City of Clearwater ] [ City of Clearwater ]
Published Apr. 13
Updated Apr. 14

CLEARWATER — Five developers submitted proposals for the chance to build mixed use projects on up to three city-owned parcels surrounding the soon-to-be transformed downtown waterfront park, according to a bidding document released on Tuesday.

The city revealed only the names of organizations that responded to its request for proposals after the close of a three-month bidding period. Procurement manager Lori Vogel said details of the developers’ plans are exempt from public disclosure until May 12, or until city staff recommends a proposal, whichever comes first.

The soliciting of developers is a milestone in Clearwater’s decades-long attempt to rescue a downtown that has been plagued by empty storefronts and the Church of Scientology’s control of commercial real estate. But the exercise shows Scientology’s continued interest in controlling the area’s future.

The Church of Scientology Flag Service Organization was one of the five bidders to submit a proposal to build on the downtown bluff. However, until the city releases the plans, it is unclear whether the church is looking to build on one, two or all three of the city-owned parcels surrounding the waterfront park.

The other developers include: City Center Development of Jupiter led by Craig Govan; Elevate Clearwater led by Daniels Ikajevs; Office America Group of Coral Gables led by Ricardo Hernandez; and SROA Capital led by Benjamin MacFarland.

“We’ll have to review each of them on their own merits and see what proposal or combination of proposals is to the best benefit of the city of Clearwater,” assistant city manager Michael Delk said.

The city asked firms to submit plans to build a combination of residential, hotel and retail uses on three waterfront sites: a 1.4-acre lot at the corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue that housed the now-demolished Harborview Center; the 2.6-acre vacant City Hall on Pierce Street; and an adjacent 1.2-acre empty lot.

The three properties border the city-owned 22-acre waterfront, which is now made up of Coachman Park and a large asphalt parking lot overlooking the Clearwater Harbor Marina. But in May, the city expects to break ground on Imagine Clearwater, a $64 million plan to turn the waterfront into a park with an amphitheater with a canopy over 4,000 seats, a lawn, garden, trail, playground and gateway plaza.

The most recent rendering of the proposed Imagine Clearwater park. This image does not include the retail, residential and hotel projects proposed for three city-owned parcels that border the park.
The most recent rendering of the proposed Imagine Clearwater park. This image does not include the retail, residential and hotel projects proposed for three city-owned parcels that border the park. [ City of Clearwater ]

Because of City Charter restrictions, the sale or lease of the Harborview and City Hall sites requires a referendum, making any developer’s plans there subject to voter approval. The City Council has planned to place the referendum on the March 2022 ballot. The sale or lease of the 1.2-acre lot on Pierce Street across from City Hall does not require voter approval.

The blessing from voters is just one challenge developers will face in the effort to bring economic vitality to downtown.

While the city was developing its Imagine Clearwater plan between 2017 and 2019, limited liability companies tied to Scientology bought 100 commercial properties within walking distance of the downtown waterfront.

Today more than half of those 100 storefronts and lots remain empty, most on prime stretches of the business district where the city hopes to bring a revival in restaurants, shops and entertainment.

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

Scientology also had intense interest in the 1.2-acre lot across from City Hall. In 2017, the church offered the then-owner Clearwater Marine Aquarium $15 million for the parcel, which sits adjacent to the church’s Oak Cove religious retreat.

The aquarium rejected the church’s offer, and sold the lot to the city for $4.25 million so it could be included in the waterfront redevelopment project.

Still, Mayor Frank Hibbard on Tuesday said it was surprising to see Scientology respond because “we were looking for private investors that want to partner with the city, so it’s unusual to have a (nonprofit).”

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

City officials have touted its one of a kind waterfront real estate ripe for transformation. The bluff properties overlook the Intracoastal waterway and sit a couple of miles across a bridge from one of the nation’s top ranked beaches. Amid the reality of climate change and rising seas, they are perched well above the federal flood zone.

According to the timeline in the request for proposals, a staff committee will evaluate the proposals over the next two weeks. The city will hold private interviews in late April and will present a recommendation in May.