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Why not turn downtown Clearwater into a pedestrian mall?

There is talk by some of turning the 400 block of Cleveland Street in downtown Clearwater into a pedestrian mall.
There is talk by some of turning the 400 block of Cleveland Street in downtown Clearwater into a pedestrian mall.
Published Apr. 30, 2015

CLEARWATER — Here's another idea that's being kicked around for moribund downtown Clearwater: Why not turn the center of it into a pedestrian mall?

Downtown leaders have been debating the possibility of blocking off part of Cleveland Street to vehicular traffic. City staffers have been asked to weigh the potential pros and cons of a pedestrian zone. But officials are pouring cold water on the idea, despite the enthusiasm some have for it.

"Our downtown hasn't worked for 20 years. Let's try something crazy," joked Tony Starova, owner of Tony's Pizzeria & Ristorante and the adjacent Capitol Beer House on the 400 block of Cleveland. "Every study we've done is telling us that we have to change something."

Starova is a member of the city's Downtown Development Board, where a potential pedestrian mall has been a hot topic for months. Board members have repeatedly discussed blocking off three or four blocks of Cleveland Street between Osceola Avenue and perhaps Myrtle Avenue.

However, they would start small, with just the 400 block. That's the block between Osceola and Fort Harrison avenues. It's by far the liveliest stretch of Cleveland Street in Clearwater's downtown core, containing a Starbucks and the Capitol Theatre as well as more active businesses than the neighboring blocks.

As envisioned, this pedestrian mall would feature movable tables and chairs, and would host small events and activities. Although the street is sometimes closed for temporary events now, the theory is that a permanent pedestrian mall might entice more Clearwater Beach tourists to check out downtown.

Cleveland Street used to be a lot busier when it was the route to Clearwater Beach. When beach-bound traffic got switched to Court Street with the opening of the new Memorial Causeway Bridge in 2005, vehicular traffic plummeted on Cleveland Street.

Former City Council member John Doran recently pitched the pedestrian mall idea to the Downtown Development Board, pointing to the successful examples of the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, Vt., and the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colo.

"There is no guarantee that this will be a success," Doran cautioned the board. "Approximately 200 cities have tried it over the last 30-40 years. The success rate is about 11 percent."

If it doesn't work out, he suggested, just open the street to cars again.

However, Clearwater officials are shooting down the idea.

Paul Bertels, the city's traffic operations manager, said downtown already has problems with traffic circulation because of the way it was built a century ago.

Michael Delk, Clearwater's planning director, said most pedestrian malls don't survive, and the ones that survive typically have plenty of pedestrian traffic because they're often located near clusters of apartment buildings or college campuses. "In short, they are areas characterized by large numbers of people," Delk said.

Finally, City Manager Bill Horne recommended that the city not do it.

"We really looked at it," said City Council member Jay Polglaze. "The biggest glaring point was the merchants — Starbucks and a list of other folks — were not ready for this and did not want it," Polglaze said.

Starbucks was concerned that the loss of metered parking spots in front of its location would hurt its business.

On the other hand, some business owners like Starova still think that a pedestrian mall would be a way to set downtown Clearwater apart and make it a unique place in Pinellas County.

But at this point, the Downtown Development Board isn't pursuing this plan.

Contact Mike Brassfield at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.

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