With companies tied to the Church of Scientology holding onto dozens of prominent downtown parcels and keeping them vacant, residents this week voted to do something drastic with land the public controls.
The approval on Tuesday of a referendum to sell two city-owned bluff parcels and launch a $400 million redevelopment project means the downtown waterfront is the closest it’s ever been to a dramatic rebirth.
The plan aims to bring up to 600 apartments, a 158-room hotel and a half dozen restaurants and retail spots along the city’s pristine bluff. All of that will border the 22-acre city-owned waterfront, where an $84 million renovation is underway to create a 4,000-seat covered amphitheater, a plaza, garden, bayfront promenade, playground and splash pad by June.
What will happen to about 160 parcels within walking distance that are tied to Scientology is unclear. But the waterfront park and bluff developments have the potential to serve as a regional destination on their own despite surrounding unknowns.
The Scientology parcels have been purchased in cash deals totaling $120 million over the last five years and are serving as leverage for the church as it works with the city on a land swap that has yet to materialize.
“I sort of see it like they were quietly trying to buy up downtown, and for the most part succeeding, but I think with an effort like what we voted on yesterday, this is a real opportunity for the city and the people to take back their waterfront area,” said resident John Griffin, 59.
Adrienne Archer, 65, normally meets with friends in Dunedin or visits one of many restaurants in downtown Safety Harbor. But she said she will spend time in downtown Clearwater when there is a waterfront park to enjoy. She can picture watching the Florida Orchestra in the amphitheater and visiting a fancy hotel with restaurants on the bluff.
”Even if we just act like Scientology isn’t there and just drive through and have that area down there on the waterfront, it can be nice,” Archer said.
Scientology spokesperson Ben Shaw did not immediately respond to a request for comment about plans for the surrounding properties.
Mayor Frank Hibbard acknowledged the “unusual dynamics” that make up downtown Clearwater but said he’s hopeful “the critical mass” created by the bluff and waterfront will compel broader changes.
Most of the roughly 160 parcels purchased in the last five years are owned by limited liability companies managed by Scientology parishioners, not the church itself. That means the companies are paying property taxes on the land but not receiving economic benefits with vacant buildings and lots.
“I’ve got to believe at some point the market works or the carrying costs become too much, not for the church, but for their parishioners,” Hibbard said. “Property values are probably going to continue to rise in downtown because this is going to be a catalyst, and I just can’t understand having underperforming assets.”
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In February, Scientology leader David Miscavige announced to City Manager Jon Jennings that renovations would go forward on three Cleveland Street buildings controlled by parishioners. Jennings described it as a show of “good faith” as the two discussed a potential land swap.
So far, a building permit has been applied for renovations on only one property. Negotiations for the swap have stalled as the two could not agree on terms.
Council member Mark Bunker said development expected from the bluff referendum’s passage could help dilute vacant properties outside the city’s control and provide more support to the existing business owners trying to make it work downtown. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is building a transit center on Myrtle Avenue. The city is completing an overhaul of the stretch of Cleveland Street near Gulf to Bay Boulevard.
“The important thing is people should come downtown and not worry about Scientology at all,” Bunker said. “Miscavige is far more worried about us than we should be of him. This will work itself out.”