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Clearwater to host forums on bluff referendum as residents push for passage

A political committee is raising money to advocate for a yes vote on Nov. 8, and Mayor Frank Hibbard will lead four town halls.
On Nov. 8, voters will decide whether the city should sell its vacant City Hall to build two apartment towers, shaded at right, and the former Harborview site to build a 13-story hotel, shaded at left. The project also would include a two-story building with commercial space. The parcels border the city's $84 million ongoing renovation of Coachman Park, shown in the rendering's foreground.
On Nov. 8, voters will decide whether the city should sell its vacant City Hall to build two apartment towers, shaded at right, and the former Harborview site to build a 13-story hotel, shaded at left. The project also would include a two-story building with commercial space. The parcels border the city's $84 million ongoing renovation of Coachman Park, shown in the rendering's foreground. [ City of Clearwater ]
Published Sep. 25|Updated Sep. 25

Over the past 20 years, John Doran has watched most storefronts and streets stay empty in downtown Clearwater while nearby St. Petersburg, Dunedin and Safety Harbor turned their downtowns into success stories.

People have blamed decisions by city government, the location of downtown, and the 47-year presence of the Church of Scientology, with its expanding control of commercial real estate. The debate has been endless.

“Regardless of how we got to where we are, the question is: Do we stay where we are, the status quo, forever or do we try to make a difference?” said Doran, an attorney who served on the council from 2005 to 2011.

Doran said a Nov. 8 referendum is the community’s best shot in decades to bring life downtown. Voters will decide whether the city should sell two parcels on the downtown bluff so a development team can build a $400 million project with apartments, a hotel and commercial space on the waterfront.

Related: Developers’ $400 million bluff plan officially heads to Clearwater voters

Dozens of residents, business owners and elected officials have mobilized to support the referendum, including a “Yes for Clearwater” political committee chaired by Doran that will get their message in voters’ ears and mailboxes. The city will host four town halls on the referendum this week, and Mayor Frank Hibbard will explain the deal and answer residents’ questions.

The bluff parcels border the 22-acre city-owned waterfront, which is undergoing an $84 million renovation to bring an amphitheater, playground, green space and a gateway plaza to Coachman Park.

Construction of the city's $84 million renovation of Coachman Park and the waterfront is shown earlier this month. On Nov. 8, voters will decide whether the city should sell the vacant City Hall, far right, and the former Harborview site, center.
Construction of the city's $84 million renovation of Coachman Park and the waterfront is shown earlier this month. On Nov. 8, voters will decide whether the city should sell the vacant City Hall, far right, and the former Harborview site, center. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Together, the bluff projects and park redevelopment could create a hub of restaurants, things to do and amenities to spark more people visiting and living in downtown, Hibbard said.

“I think it can change things and I am concerned about what the future brings if we don’t get this passed,” Hibbard told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board on Thursday.

No formal opposition group has organized, unlike in 2000, when a campaign helped defeat a referendum that would have allowed the city to lease a portion of the bluff to a developer to build a movie theater, retail, a hotel and residences.

This time, the city is seeking to sell the former City Hall on Osceola Avenue to the developers for $15.4 million in order to build 500 to 600 apartments across two 27-story towers. The plan proposes selling the site of the former Harborview Center at the corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue for $9.3 million for the team to build a 13-story, 158-room hotel and a two-story building with 12,000 square feet of commercial space.

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A rendering of the 158-room hotel and two-story commercial building planned for the Harborview site at the corner of Osceola Avenue and Cleveland Street.
A rendering of the 158-room hotel and two-story commercial building planned for the Harborview site at the corner of Osceola Avenue and Cleveland Street. [ Behar Peteranecz Architecture ]

The Harborview site will include a conference center, a rooftop bar and beer garden, according to plans by the development team, The DeNunzio Group of Palm Harbor and the New York-based Gotham Organization. Between the two sites, the commercial space could accommodate five to six restaurants and some smaller retail, according to The DeNunzio Group president Dustin DeNunzio.

So far, Yes for Clearwater has raised $71,650 for its advocacy campaign, according to the most recent treasurer’s report, with $50,000 of that coming from the development team.

Brian Aungst Jr., a Clearwater attorney and volunteer for Yes for Clearwater, said the campaign will be sending mailers to homes, passing out palm cards, blasting digital and print ads, and talking face to face with residents.

• • •

If you go

During a series of town hall events this week, Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard will present details of the bluff plan on the Nov. 8 ballot and answer residents’ questions. The schedule:

  • 6:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Morningside Recreation Complex, 2400 Harn Blvd.
  • 7 p.m. Sept. 27 at the North Greenwood Recreation Center, 900 N Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.
  • 6:30 p.m. Sept. 28 at the Countryside Library, 2642 Sabal Springs Drive.
  • 6:30 p.m. (or after the conclusion of the 6 p.m. City Council special budget meeting) Sept. 29 at the Clearwater Main Library, 100 N Osceola Ave.
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