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Clearwater, Scientology land swap back on the table ... again

This rectangular piece of property between S Garden and Fort Harrison avenues on Court Street is one of three city-owned parcels officials hope to trade with the Church of Scientology in exchange for a vacant lot on Cleveland Street. City officials say they need the church's Cleveland Street lot to use for retail parking. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
This rectangular piece of property between S Garden and Fort Harrison avenues on Court Street is one of three city-owned parcels officials hope to trade with the Church of Scientology in exchange for a vacant lot on Cleveland Street. City officials say they need the church's Cleveland Street lot to use for retail parking. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Apr. 3, 2018

CLEARWATER — Almost a year after elected officials abruptly backed out of a deal with the Church of Scientology to trade a cluster of low-profile downtown properties, negotiations are now back on the table.

The City Council is scheduled on April 16 to discuss swapping three small city-owned properties for a vacant lot Scientology owns just east of downtown to be used for retail parking, City Attorney Pam Akin confirmed.

The deal is being revisited after a rocky history. The city staff began discussing the land swap with Scientology officials in late 2016 when it became clear the new Nolen apartment complex at 949 Cleveland St. would need the adjacent lot to attract retail tenants.

The city had inquired about purchasing the lot from developer Guy Bonneville's company but was unable to negotiate a reasonable price. Scientology then bought the lot from Bonneville in June for $625,000, roughly the appraised value, under terms it would then swap the property for the three city-owned parcels.

The church, in exchange, would acquire the former fire marshal building at 600 Franklin St. and seven parking spaces on the northwest corner of S Garden Avenue and Court Street. Both properties border the footprint of Scientology's proposed L. Ron Hubbard Hall auditorium around its international spiritual headquarters. It was also to receive nine parking spaces on Watterson Avenue that abut the Garden Avenue parking garage.

But when it came time for the city to close the deal June 14, the council voted 4-1 to table the issue indefinitely, with council member Bob Cundiff the lone vote against waiting.

At a meeting earlier that week, then-engineering director Michael Quillen expressed concern that the city may need the three properties in the future — two for parking and the Franklin Street property as a potential stormwater site for future development. It was the first sign of hesitation from the city after months of negotiating what appeared to be a done deal, attorney Katie Cole, who represents Scientology, said at the time. But as the highly anticipated Nolen apartments were completed, Peter Collins, managing principal for developer Forge Capital Partners, said he's been unable to recruit a retail business to the ground floor because of a lack of parking options.

Larry Debb, the developer building 134 apartments and townhomes in the long-abandoned tower across the street at 1100 Cleveland St., also said he was counting on the city acquiring the lot for parking to serve the 6,000 square feet of retail in his project.

Akin contacted Scientology attorneys at the end of November to arrange a meeting with local church officials to restart negotiations but was met with silence.

Scientology officials had cut most communication with the city in April after the City Council voted unanimously to buy a 1.4-acre downtown lot from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which Scientology also coveted and offered to pay three times as much for as the city.

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City Manager Bill Horne said he and Akin pursued discussions again early this year because of the need for parking for the Nolen and 1100 Cleveland St. projects, leading to the contract going before the council this month. Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to requests for comment.

Appraisals commissioned by the city last year showed the Scientology lot is valued at $600,000, well above the $425,000 combined value of the three city parcels.

Mayor George Cretekos said the timing is now better than last year to go through with the swap. Cretekos said last year the priority was to push the referendum to enable the Imagine Clearwater waterfront redevelopment, which voters passed in November.

"We didn't want to get distracted," he said. "I think this is a good time to take another look at the deal."

But council member Doreen Caudell said she will not be supporting the land swap.

Caudell said Cleveland Street already has sufficient street parking to accommodate retail. She also said the city must hire a new transit director and parking manager before making these types of decisions because "we are not programming parking in the entire city of Clearwater correctly."

She also said that because the council has a new member, David Allbritton, elected only one month ago, the time is not right to make a decision on the deal. Caudell said her aversion to the swap does not have to do with qualms about doing business with Scientology, which has a long, strained relationship with the city.

"We have holes in our staff, we have a newly elected council member. I don't think this is the right time to be discussing it," Caudell said.

Allbritton said he is still gathering details on the deal but thinks gaining control of the property to use for parking is key to recruiting more retail downtown.

"We don't have a good relationship with the church right now, obviously, and I think that needs to be repaired," he said.

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