CLEARWATER — Elected officials have talked about relocating City Hall from the downtown bluff for a good 30 years. Now there's a jolt of urgency to actually do it.
Voters backed a referendum in November that essentially greenlighted the $55 million redevelopment plan Imagine Clearwater, pitched as the city's most ambitious effort to revive downtown through a transformation of the waterfront. But with the plan now stuck in the design stage, residents won't see construction crews any time soon.
To show evidence of progress in the meantime, the City Council has directed staff to scope out temporary office space for the 45 City Hall employees so the outdated building can be demolished and the property can be marketed to developers sooner than planned.
"The thing I like about it is we can show something going forward for Imagine Clearwater," City Council member David Allbritton said.
Consultants who unveiled the Imagine Clearwater concept in February 2017 intended for City Hall redevelopment to come last, after the reshaping of Coachman Park and replacement of the Harborview Center on Cleveland Street.
City Manager Bill Horne said "we felt we've been under a mandate to move Imagine Clearwater forward as quickly as possible" and getting the City Hall site cleared and ready for development is a doable switch. Although voters will have to approve any new project on the City Hall site, the city can demolish the building and solicit development plans without a referendum.
Mayor George Cretekos, the only one to vote against searching for temporary office space, fears changing the game plan could disrupt the whole effort. Officials have discussed recruiting a residential, retail or mixed use project for the City Hall site, assuming investors will be emboldened by what they will see in the new Coachman Park with its winding terraces and paths along the Bluff, a larger concert green, gardens and a gateway plaza on the Harborview site with a restaurant and retail.
In May the city fast-tracked the original 10-year build-out schedule, proposing to have the waterfront and Harborview phases done before 2021, with the City Hall redevelopment to follow.
"The whole idea behind the Imagine Clearwater idea was to get the park activated, get people coming downtown, and then this property becomes more valuable," Cretekos told his colleagues. "If we do what y'all are suggesting, that goes out the window."
The city cannot demolish the Harborview Center until Stantec engineers deliver a 15 percent design for Imagine Clearwater this summer, which will determine if any aspects of the building are needed for the new civic gateway, according to Assistant City Manager Micah Maxwell.
If the council approves a temporary City Hall, the government could be operating out of it for at least five years, Maxwell said. The city has been in discussions with Pinellas County to build a joint government center, but potential locations, how it would be paid for and when it should be built are nowhere close to being finalized.
There are also other developments up in the air that complicate plans.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transportation Authority is designing a transit center on the city-owned vacant lot at Myrtle Avenue and Court Street. It would replace the outdated bus terminal on Park Street, and that site is one of the candidates for a city-county joint facility.
But city officials don't expect the PSTA project to break ground until 2021, leaving the Park Street site tied up until then.
Maxwell said he is in discussions with Daniels Ikajevs to lease the sixth floor of his Bank of America building at 600 Cleveland St. The lease could save the city an estimated $50,000 annually in operations like water, power, janitorial service and maintenance, Maxwell said.
He said he's also considering the iDatix Corp. building at 1499 Gulf to Bay Blvd. and will be looking for other options over the next two weeks.
But the city has been this close to the brink of moving its headquarters before. In March 1993 the council voted 3-2 to buy the nine-story Atrium tower at 601 Cleveland St. for $6.45 million for a City Hall. But an election that month flipped the scales and a newly elected official, Fred Thomas, helped sway the council to vote to sell the building 3-2. The city renovated the exiting City Hall instead, which houses offices of the city manager, city clerk, economic development and community redevelopment agency.
Ground broke in 1995 on a $22 million city complex with a municipal services building, police headquarters and a parking garage at Pierce Street and Myrtle Avenue.
Maxwell said at this stage of planning for the joint city-county building, it's undecided if municipal services will also be relocated to the government center.
And although plans to move out of City Hall are on the horizon, there are $235,000 in carpet replacement, painting and improved security upgrades scheduled for this year.
Unless the city employees are moved out of the building this year to a temporary facility, Maxwell said those improvements will move forward on the lame-duck of a building.
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.