CLEARWATER — The City Council is once again asking developers to submit ideas for what to build on city-owned parcels surrounding the soon-to-be transformed Coachman Park, advancing a key economic element of the Imagine Clearwater downtown redevelopment project.
The city on Wednesday will advertise a 30-day request for concepts for the 2.6-acre vacant City Hall site and the 1.43-acre former Harborview Center site, both of which border the 22-acre waterfront park that is undergoing an $84 million facelift.
Because both properties are protected by the City Charter, any plan selected by the council must be approved by voters in November. After the 30-day solicitation window, the council will have to hold two hearings and approve a development agreement by the end of July in order to get the referendum on the ballot in time.
“I don’t think any of us are happy with the short, compressed time span, but this is the first time that I’ve been excited about the real prospects of turning around the downtown,” council member Mark Bunker said during the discussion at a meeting on Thursday.
“So I’m hoping that we get some really amazing ideas from developers and that the folks of Clearwater will be excited to see that this can and will work.”
City officials made their first call to developers for the bluff sites in January 2021. From the five bids received, the council voted to enter negotiations with Jupiter-based developer Craig Govan, who proposed a food hall, apartments with retail and a hotel. But Govan withdrew his application in August when city staff said his requirement for a 400-space parking garage on prime waterfront property was a deal breaker.
In that round of solicitations, the city included a third property: the 1.4-acre vacant lot on Pierce Street on the south side of the park’s footprint.
However, the Pierce Street lot will not be included in the upcoming call to developers.
That’s because City Manager Jon Jennings and Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige are negotiating a potential land swap, where the church would get the Pierce Street lot it has long coveted, and the city would get still-undisclosed church properties that could be strategic for downtown redevelopment. Jennings said those negotiations are ongoing and could not estimate when a proposed land swap with Scientology may be presented to the council for a vote.
Jennings said he brought the idea to reintroduce development of the bluff properties after seeing significant interest in the sites in the six months he’s been working as city manager.
He confirmed at least three developers have discussed the land with city officials in recent months, including Gotham of New York, Echelon of St. Petersburg and Daniels Ikajevs of Clearwater.
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“I believe the time is now,” Jennings said in an interview Thursday. “Imagine Clearwater construction has started so there’s no debate whether it will move forward.”
When the city made its first call to developers in January 2021, construction had not yet begun on the park renovations. But when this second solicitation goes out, construction will have been underway for nearly a year on the park, which will include a 4,000-seat covered amphitheater, a garden, a playground, a bluff trail and a plaza.
The city’s call to developers will have the same minimum requirements as last time: a condo and apartment component with at least 150 rental units, ground-floor elements with retail, civic and cultural uses for the public, and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards.
The developer must also specify an offer to buy or lease the land from the city, according to the draft request.
Mayor Frank Hibbard said while the plans should have elements that are accessible for the public, he underscored the importance that the development be financially sustainable and an economic driver for the surrounding downtown.
“We want downtown to stand on its own and to carry its weight,” Hibbard said. “We’ve made this public investment of $84 million in Imagine Clearwater. The next step is starting to utilize the bluff … this is a lynchpin in downtown’s redevelopment.”