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Vision for downtown Clearwater fledgling, even if just on paper

CLEARWATER — The latest proposal in a long history of attempts to revitalize the downtown waterfront was unveiled this week in what consultants are calling the first steps to an eventual gameplan.

And it appears to still be in that intangible theory stage. With a lot of consultant buzzwords.

"The downtown Clearwater waterfront will be an active, authentic and iconic civic and open space that celebrates Clearwater's natural beauty, culture and diversity and anchors an economically vibrant downtown," reads the draft vision statement, revealed five months after the city hired HR&A consultants for $438,000.

Cary Hirschstein, partner with HR&A, said that in November his team will deliver a more detailed plan that specifies what kind of uses — like restaurants or walkways or shady trees — should go where. But at this point, the goal is to rally the community behind a general vision.

"We sort of hope to emerge from (this week) with a clearer idea of what the community really wants," Hirschstein said. "We'll go back to our home offices and work over the next few months to try and take what we think we've heard from the community and try to put that into a plan that works as a whole and is economically viable."

No matter what the experts end up suggesting on paper, it will be up to city officials to make it a reality.

The master plan will suggest a combination of private investment and city backing to bring everything from a hotel to better lighting, and Mayor George Cretekos said it's going to take a buy-in from the community to create something that can finally compete with cities like St. Petersburg and Tampa.

"A lot of people were saying we want this and we want that and we want it free," Cretekos said. "It is going to be expensive no matter what we decide to do. While we have money set aside for some work in Coachman Park through the Penny for Pinellas process, and people will remind you we have money in the reserve fund and people will tell you we have BP money, all that is well and good, but you also have to keep in mind whatever you do is going to have recurring costs."

The build up and excitement have come and gone before. City officials are still working to implement a slew of recommendations they paid Urban Land Institute consultants $125,000 to make in 2014 on how to boost downtown.

Experts and economists were hired in 2000 to evaluate a plan to build apartments, shops, a restaurant, public garage, a movie theater and more on the Bluff. It never saw the light of day after being shot down by voters in a referendum.

But the public remains hopeful. Dozens of residents attended public forums in August and two more this week to pitch what they'd like to see for real this time.

Island Estates resident Ed Evans, retired from the construction industry, arrived with a plan all laid out.

He said City Hall is taking up one of the most prime waterfront views on its lot on Osceola Avenue, so government should be relocated to make way for townhomes or condos. The Harborview Center, he dreams, should be converted into boutique shops and restaurants where people can enjoy shopping and "the five o'clock draw."

He even has a name all figured out: The Shoppes at ClearCoach Junction.

"The first thing that has to happen is a vision and people talking about it like this," Evans said. "There's no sense in touching the grass unless you know what the overall vision is. If you don't do that, everything else is just pipe dreams."

Craig Rubright, the Waters Edge condominium president, even suggested making the Main Library a multiuse facility, because its waterfront location is almost a waste of real estate for inside activities like reading.

"If you put a bar up there and could go up there during the sunset, my God, it would be fabulous," he said.

Hirschstein said the ultimate plan will be one that connects the waterfront to green spaces and that uses the slope behind the Main Library, which is now nothing more than vegetation.

A key priority will be to bring in more residential uses to the downtown area to lure business and retail and boost overall vibrancy. He used St. Petersburg, Tampa, Miami and Scottsdale, Ariz., as models cities that succeeded in using a park as a centerpiece and that Clearwater could create something with year-round use of Coachman Park rather than the sporadic events there currently.

Keith Greminger, senior planning and urban design manager at Kimley-Horn and Associates, said that as important as the financial gameplan will be, the community must rally behind a common goal.

When the consultants offer up a draft master plan in November with more specific suggestions of what should go where downtown, the community must embrace it.

A referendum that passed in March lets the city make alterations to Coachman Park's bandshell and along the marina, but the city charter requires a public vote to approve more intense development on the Bluff. So if a real revitalization plan is going to come to life, it needs community backing.

"This will have to go to the larger public to vote on, and it behooves you to leave here and take it to your neighbors, to your friends and spread the word now," he said.

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

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