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Differing visions for waterfront converge in Imagine Clearwater

Now that engineers are at the point of designing the specific buildout, there is wide disagreement about what the spirit of Imagine Clearwater really calls for, primarily on a key element of the concert bandshell. Ruth Eckerd Hall CEO Zev Buffman is calling for the Council to adopt his proposal for a large scale amphitheater (left) with a cover over 4,000 seats. Residents and activists have organized an effort against that idea, pushing instead for consultants' proposal (right) smaller scale venue like what exists today in Coachman Park.
Published Sep. 28, 2018

CLEARWATER — When residents gave input during seven workshops in 2016 on what they wanted in a revamped downtown waterfront, there were broad requests like greenspace and walkability down to specifics of bike trails and splash pads.

The City Council adopted consultants' 146-page master plan in February 2017 that sketched out the general concept based on the community feedback. Imagine Clearwater was a go after last November, when voters passed a referendum "to allow construction and maintenance" of structures on the Charter-protected waterfront.

Now that engineers are at the point of designing the buildout, there is wide disagreement about what the spirit of Imagine Clearwater really calls for in specifics, primarily on a key element of the concert band shell.

Assistant City Manager Micah Maxwell said he will ask the council on Thursday to give direction because "we don't want to spend a lot of time creating a work order based on something we just think is consistent. We want it confirmed."

In individual meetings this month with council members, Ruth Eckerd Hall CEO Zev Buffman pushed his proposal for an amphitheatre with covering over 4,000 seats to be a regional destination for concerts, graduations and conventions — a concept he revealed in July 2016.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Ruth Eckerd CEO: Clearwater is blowing an opportunity with band shell

Residents and activists have organized an effort against Buffman's proposal, with the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition and Downtown Clearwater Neighborhood Association in favor of a smaller-scale band shell like what exists today in Coachman Park.

"His proposal is as bad as putting Yankee Stadium in the middle of Central Park," said David Lillesand, vice president of the downtown neighborhood association. "Individually both those facilities work great but not put together in the same place. It's not what the voters approved."

But what voters really approved is tricky to interpret. The successful November 2017 referendum simply allowed the city to build on the waterfront.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Clearwater voters easily pass referendum allowing waterfront redevelopment

A referendum voters passed in 2016 allowed the city to relocate and reorient "a city-owned band shell and associated facilities including removable seating."

The 2017 Imagine Clearwater master plan calls for the band shell to be moved from Coachman Park, just south to a larger green to accommodate 18,000 people, about 5,000 more than Coachman can currently hold. The plan did not propose a particular design for the band shell but stated "the green and waterfront should first and foremost function as an open space."

Planning and Development Director Michael Delk said while the plan left design flexibility to the city, the essence of Imagine Clearwater is to be "park driven with a venue component versus a venue-driven site with a park component."

For that, he said Buffman's proposal is "antithetical to the public vision the public has for the waterfront."

The primary goal, he said, is to build a park with "an active edge" and a sense of place. That will come from the enhanced Coachman Garden, bike trails, interactive features like a splash pad, the redesigned green, and the gateway plaza with retail, residential and gathering space that will be built at the corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue, where the Harborview Center sits now as an eyesore.

"I think that mission differs from the idea that we are just setting out to create the most successful music venue that we can create," Delk said. "I certainly feel that we are much better served at this stage trying to ensure we meet the expectations of the public at large."

The city's latest version of early design plans that Maxwell is asking for confirmation on calls for a roughly $3 million band shell with no overhang to cover patrons, similar to the existing structure in Coachman Park.

Buffman, in a previous interview, said because the Tampa Bay market does not have a covered, outdoor concert venue for intimate shows, the city is blowing a chance to allow Clearwater to fill that void.

In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, Jana L. Jones, chair of the Ruth Eckerd Hall board and former CFO of the Times, said Buffman's proposal, which he estimated at $8 to $12 million, could be programmed 30 to 40 nights per year.

The appetite for Buffman's proposal is mixed on the council. Council members Doreen Caudell, Bob Cundiff and David Allbritton said they are open to the concept. Mayor George Cretekos and Council member Hoyt Hamilton said it could be too much for the site.

"This is about growing the community," Caudell said. "We cannot afford for this to be a meandering park."

Lina Teixeira, president of Downtown Clearwater Merchants Association and owner of Pour Yours wine bar, said she fears differing views could prevent Imagine Clearwater from becoming something that defines the city. The goal after all, she said, is to help awaken the potential of downtown and the waterfront.

"This Saturday I was outside my bar and there was absolutely no one," Teixeira said. "I want anything that can change that. The downtown is the heart of the city, and if the heart's sick, all we are is a bunch of neighborhoods. There's no identity. There's no pride like Dunedin. There's no center like St. Petersburg. There's no commerce like Tampa. If Dunedin is thinking bigger than we are, that's sad."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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