CLEARWATER — The city’s Community Development Board on Tuesday unanimously approved a 60-unit townhome and condo project on 2 acres of mostly vacant lots and empty buildings in an area just north of downtown.
The project is one of the first major developments to occur in the 13-block North Marina Area since July 2019, when limited liability companies tied to the Church of Scientology began buying land within the district.
In that time, the companies have bought at least 51 parcels using $14.2 million in cash.
The project approved on Tuesday will include a four-story and a five-story building on nearly the entire block at the southwest corner of Palm Bluff Street and Blanche B. Littlejohn Trail near the Pinellas Trail. The 10 parcels are owned by a limited liability company managed by Norm Novitsky, a businessman and Scientology parishioner who has donated at least $5 million to the church.
Robert Pergolizzi, the project’s planning and engineering consultant, said one building will have 5,000 square feet of ground floor retail on the east side facing the Pinellas Trail. He said it will contain mostly professional office space and possibly a shop that would serve people using the trail.
“We think it will be a great catalyst for the area,” said Pergolizzi, principal of Gulf Coast Consulting.
Anchored by the city’s Seminole Boat Ramp, the North Marina Area is a district of mostly undeveloped lots and 100-year-old bungalows overlooking Clearwater Harbor. City officials have long hoped for private investment to transform the area.
It is unclear what is planned for the other 41 mostly vacant parcels that have been purchased in North Marina since July 2019. Steven Hayes, an attorney who has done legal work on behalf of church-related organizations for more than two decades, manages the companies that own the remaining parcels and has previously not responded to multiple requests for comment.
The acquisitions mirror the pattern that unfolded downtown between 2017 and 2019, when companies tied to Scientology bought 100 properties within walking distance of the waterfront and the church’s international spiritual headquarters, then left many of those buildings vacant and lots undeveloped.
A year before the string of purchases took off in North Marina in July 2019, Brian Andrus, a developer and longtime member of Scientology, bought the private marina next to the city’s Seminole Boat Ramp. In September, Andrus completed construction there on Marina Bay 880, two towers that hug the marina with 87 luxury condos and amenities like an Olympic-sized pool and sauna.
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Construction on eight townhomes on the south end of the marina began Oct. 1, according to county records.
Last fall, the city-owned North Ward Elementary School building on North Fort Harrison Avenue in the district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. City officials have discussed partnering with a developer on ways to adapt the red brick schoolhouse, like turning it into a hub for restaurants, retail or apartments.
On Tuesday, the Community Development Board approved the project on Palm Bluff with little discussion. It does not require City Council approval because it does not involve land use or zoning changes.
The board granted flexibility for height increases that were requested for “increased unit size and improved views of Clearwater Harbor,” according to the application. The footprint falls within two separate zoning districts. One building will be 55 feet tall, 30 feet above the maximum limit for the Commercial District. The other will be 45 feet tall, 10 feet above the limit for the Old Bay Character District.
Because Blanche B. Littlejohn Trail on the east side of the property is a one-lane road, the developer will also be required to widen the road to meet fire standards, said Pergolizzi, the consultant.
The board also granted the project three units from the public amenities incentive pool, which gives developers extra density in exchange for improvements related to downtown revitalization.
“It’s a fabulous project,” said Community Development Board member Mike Flanery.