CLEARWATER — It was a scorching 85 degrees on a recent morning in downtown, but Catherine Corcoran had goosebumps.
She stood where an asphalt parking lot once covered much of the waterfront, wasting a stunning view of Clearwater Harbor for more than half a century. Nearby was the site of Coachman Park’s old bandshell, which could bring in thousands for concerts but most days functioned only as a tragically empty lawn.
Today, a grand staircase with a cascading water feature takes visitors from downtown’s Osceola Avenue into the 19-acre transformation of Coachman Park — a public space that joins St. Petersburg’s Pier and Tampa’s Riverwalk as one of the region’s signature urban features.
Corcoran has managed the project for years, through the drudgery of planning, design, debate and construction. But to see it finally completed leaves her in awe.
Walkways wind around shaded gathering spots, a two-acre green and a playground with a splash pad.
Egrets circle a new lake landscaped with grasses and a viewing deck.
A promenade hugging the water’s edge is dotted with 15-foot-tall lamps that glow at night.
And an amphitheater called The Sound is set to accommodate up to 9,000 people for concerts and events, with sunsets as a backdrop.
“You cannot expect a municipality to financially and culturally support something like this maybe more than once a generation or two,” said Corcoran, a landscape architect for the city.
Clearwater launched the $84 million Imagine Clearwater project in 2016 in what many saw as a last-ditch effort to awaken the waterfront — and the adjoining downtown core — two decades after city voters rejected a similar endeavor.
On June 28, the park will reopen as the largest public investment in the city’s history.
When Tampa and St. Petersburg began developing their waterfronts years ago, booms in their downtowns followed. Clearwater’s task is much more complicated.
Most of the properties within walking distance of the park are empty, affected by factors beyond traditional market forces. Companies tied to the Church of Scientology began buying them in 2017, and most have been vacant since.
While the city has reclaimed its waterfront, it’s unclear whether that will be enough to change the rest of downtown.
“I don’t think this is going to be an overnight success, but this is a big first step,” said state Sen. Ed Hooper, a member of what then was the City Commission when Clearwater last attempted something this big in 2000.
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The next big step is largely up to the church, he said. “They own too much stuff, it has to be them.”
‘We have to try anything’
Mayor Brian Aungst Sr. likes to say he didn’t have anything to do with getting Imagine Clearwater completed. The City Council appointed him to office in April to complete the final year of the term of former Mayor Frank Hibbard, who had resigned.
But he will be cutting the ribbon on a vision that he and so many others tried to make happen 23 years ago.
In 2000, during Aungst’s first term as mayor, the council selected a team of West Palm Beach developers to build a $300 million expansion of Coachman Park and a multiscreen theater, 250-room hotel, 1,200 residential units and shops and restaurants.
The energy of downtown’s heyday had long faded. Malls opened in the 1970s, drawing stores and their shoppers elsewhere. The Church of Scientology arrived in 1975 and planted its headquarters at the Fort Harrison Hotel. Its downtown religious campus had grown with not much else around it.
But in a July referendum that year, voters rejected the plan to lease seven city parcels to the development team for $1 a year for 99 years.
Aungst recalled the watch party at the Capitol Theatre, where city leaders absorbed the disappointing election results. “I grabbed the microphone, and told everybody you lose sometimes but you keep going, you try again,” he said.
The long game was just beginning. Groundwork had to be laid over the next 20 years to help a project like Imagine Clearwater evolve.
A referendum to build boat slips, an amphitheater and parking garage along waterfront and bluff failed in 2004. But voters passed a scaled-down plan in 2007, which led to construction of the downtown marina.
In 2013, voters approved a plan for Clearwater Marine Aquarium to move from Island Estates to the old City Hall property on the downtown bluff. The aquarium ended up scrapping the move, but the referendum’s passage was a marked shift in the public’s appetite to build on the waterfront.
The following year, the city enlisted help from the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit that advises governments on land use and development problems. The group concluded that expanding Coachman Park was critical to transforming the area. Hope was waning and some people the institute surveyed “seriously proposed abandoning downtown altogether.”
There also were technical barriers. The city charter was protective of public land on the downtown bluff and didn’t allow the sale of tickets or construction of much of anything. A state law passed in 1925 prohibited “carnivals or shows of any character” on portions of the waterfront where the old bridge to Clearwater Beach was built.
It took voter approval of charter amendments in 2016 and 2018 — and an act of the Legislature — to cut the logistical red tape.
The City Council hired New York based HR&A Advisers in early 2016 to create a master plan to reshape the park and connect it with downtown. City officials started with community meetings, where hundreds of residents pitched ideas.
“The ‘why not’ almost became more important than the ‘why,’” said Brian Aungst Jr., son of the mayor and an attorney who worked to push the passage of the charter amendments.
The initial park design that consultants delivered in 2018 included a modest bandshell like the stage in the old park. The late Zev Buffman, then CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall, called that idea “a death warrant on what could be.”
Instead, Buffman proposed a boutique amphitheater to fill a void in Tampa Bay with a mid-sized waterfront venue. He swayed council members, and in early 2019 they voted to add a 4,000-seat canopy to the venue’s design.
The feature became a campaign issue in the next year’s election. Some candidates said the amphitheater overwhelmed the park and some residents feared the change was a bait-and-switch move after they had backed the concept with the smaller bandshell.
Karen Cunningham, past president of the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition, had her doubts early on about the amphitheater. She wanted the daily gathering space — not the concert venue — to be the focus.
Now, after her first peek at the finished park from the view on Osceola Avenue, she’s “hopeful more than anything.”
Cunningham said she wants the park to become a place “where there are surprises all the time,” with artists, musicians and families going down on a weekday evening just to see what’s going on.
“The waterfront is so important, we have to do something to capitalize on it and to share it with everybody,” she added. “We have to try anything. We can’t just give our downtown away.”
The Scientology factor
At the same time that the city was developing a concept for Imagine Clearwater, the Church of Scientology was acting on a plan of its own.
In January and February 2017, limited liability companies bought six prime properties, including an office tower, two vacant blocks of Myrtle Avenue and an old event venue on North Fort Harrison Avenue with $26 million in cash. In meetings with council members weeks later, Scientology leader David Miscavige confirmed the church was behind those six deals.
Miscavige explained the purchases were part of a redevelopment he was offering to bankroll if the city stepped aside and allowed him to buy a 1.4-acre waterfront lot on Pierce Street, which the Clearwater Marine Aquarium had bought years earlier for its scrapped move to the bluff.
Miscavige described building an entertainment complex and bowling alley on the Myrtle Avenue land with actor and Scientology parishioner Tom Cruise. He promised to bring businesses to refurbished Cleveland Street storefronts.
But after the city rejected his offer in April 2017 and bought the Pierce Street lot from the aquarium, companies tied to the church went on a buying spree.
Since 2017, companies controlled by Scientology parishioners have bought at least 176 parcels within walking distance of Coachman Park with $131 million in cash. Most remain vacant or undeveloped.
Last year, former City Manager Jon Jennings discussed a land swap with Miscavige, in which the church would receive the Pierce Street lot in exchange for giving some church-controlled properties to the city. If the swap goes through, Jennings said, Miscavige confirmed he would implement his 2017 retail plan.
But the deal has been at an impasse as council members last month said they weren’t interested in a swap unless Scientology shares its plans for all of the church-controlled properties.
Scientology spokesperson Ben Shaw did not answer a question from the Tampa Bay Times asking what the church will do with the dozens of vacant properties if a land swap does not go through.
He said what the church has offered to the city, in terms of a partnership, “is, far and away, the largest and most fantastic redevelopment plan the City of Clearwater has ever received from anybody. PERIOD.”
However he declined to share details of the plan with the Times, saying in a letter: “No, that would be impossible. The presentation was HUGE and cannot be reduced to a few sentences or even a few pages.”
He did not respond to a request for an interview with Miscavige.
“The Church and its parishioners are not ‘holding back’ on any planning and never have,” Shaw stated. “The Church and its parishioners have, are and will continue doing more than has been done in decades by any previous property owners.”
He added that Scientology congratulates the city on Imagine Clearwater’s completion “and looks forward to the park’s continuing success.”
‘A stake in the ground’
The city still is in negotiations with a development team to bring a hotel and apartments with shopping and restaurants to two city-owned bluff parcels bordering the park, a deal that voters blessed at the polls last year. Those buildings would rise on land once occupied by City Hall, which is being demolished, and the former Harborview Center.
City officials have described the projects as the catalysts needed to bring full-time residents and visitors to the waterfront and downtown.
But the waterfront stands on its own, too. The area is on a limestone bluff with varying elevations between 10 and 32 feet above sea level, giving the park its remarkable views of Clearwater Harbor.
It’s that potential that has always tugged at city leaders and residents who have tried to make changes.
From across the bay, former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn sees reasons for Clearwater to be hopeful. The development of Tampa’s 2.6-mile Riverwalk was a slow burn. It began in the 1970s and had the most significant section completed when Buckhorn was mayor in 2015: the promenade from MacDill Park under the Kennedy Boulevard bridge to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
Buckhorn calls Riverwalk the city’s “single most important infrastructure project,” responsible for attracting hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in and near Tampa’s downtown. He said it turned the waterfront into a focal point for residents to be proud of and offers investors a competitive edge for developments.
The dynamic in Clearwater — where Scientology, not private investors, controls much of the surrounding downtown — “is potentially problematic, and that’s unique to Clearwater,” Buckhorn said. But he said that shouldn’t stop city leaders “from taking advantage of this moment.”
With a waterfront park that has so many amenities, “I think you will see development unassociated with the church taking a much harder look,” Buckhorn said.
“Clearwater deserves it,” he added. “They’ve struggled for a long time not only in terms of dealing with the church and the presence of the church, but more importantly figuring out what their vision for Clearwater is or should be. I think they finally have decided to put a stake in the ground and do what they should have done 10 years ago.”
For Hooper, the state senator and former city commissioner, “optimism is tough when you’re talking about downtown Clearwater, but I sort of got my optimism hat back on.”
While Imagine Clearwater is a major step, he said, it’s clear that Scientology and its members will need to activate their vacant properties if downtown is to flourish.
“If this doesn’t work,” Hooper said, “I might say, ‘Quit trying.’”