CLEARWATER — The city’s decision to close two blocks of Cleveland Street to vehicles began as a temporary accommodation so businesses could host customers outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic.
Over the last 14 months, the walkable cluster of bars, restaurants and shops has ended up becoming an attraction that has brought new energy to the struggling downtown.
Now the City Council has agreed to close the 400 and 500 blocks of Cleveland Street to vehicles indefinitely, creating a mini-pedestrian mall that merchants have already rebranded as The District.
“Sometimes events have silver linings to them that you don’t really realize and this is one of them,” council member David Allbritton said at Thursday’s meeting where the council voted unanimously for the closure. “It’s really turned our downtown around in ways we would have never imagined before.”
The District has hosted 600 live music and entertainment events in the 400 and 500 blocks and brought 2,500 people to the monthly “Sip and Stroll” events this year, according to Scott Sousa, general manager at the Clear Sky on Cleveland restaurant and co-president of the Downtown Clearwater Merchants Association.
Sousa said businesses on the two blocks have hired 50 new employees in response to the growth.
“We’ve changed the dialogue of what downtown is all about,” Sousa said. “From its empty storefronts and nothing going on to it’s lively and fun and great entertainment.”
The street closure, however, has not been a blanket solution. Along with the roughly 20 businesses on the 400 and 500 blocks there are still about a dozen vacant storefronts.
Vera’s Kitchen closed in September, within it’s first year. In April, Barbara Cleveland opened 530 Pub & Grill in its place.
Cleveland said she looked at multiple areas around Tampa Bay to open her first restaurant after 25 years in the industry. She said she was encouraged by the city’s investment in Imagine Clearwater, an $84 million renovation of the downtown waterfront that will soon break ground, and the activities headed by The District and the Downtown Clearwater Merchants Association.
“It’s been a slow and steady climb,” Cleveland said of her first three months.
Downtowns across Tampa Bay took advantage of the statewide and local emergency orders during the pandemic, which allowed businesses to expand tables and chairs onto sidewalks and streets without going through typical permitting.
Dunedin ended its street-dining arrangements earlier this month. Tampa is also preparing to end its expanded seating arrangements on Sept. 7.
Clearwater has flexibility with Cleveland Street since the road is city-owned, according to Michael Lavery, assistant to the city manger. He said staff is also reviewing an existing Cleveland Street Café District ordinance to ensure the indefinite expansion of outdoor seating is covered.
Lavery said the city will now investigate a variety of infrastructure options, which will replace the less aesthetically pleasing temporary traffic barriers there now. The long-term infrastructure could include fixed, vertical posts or pillars that retract underground.
The city will also consider whether to remove parking meters. Final designs will be presented to the City Council for approval, he said.
“What happens next is really a matter of design decisions,” Lavery said.