Downtown Clearwater needs a boost. The core of the region’s third-largest city too often feels like a ghost town — quiet, empty, listless. It lacks the small-town feel of Dunedin’s downtown, but doesn’t have big-city energy either. The underachievement looks worse next to the thriving downtowns in nearby St. Petersburg and Tampa.
All the more reason for Clearwater voters to support a plan to sell two city lots to build an upscale hotel and two 27-story apartment towers. The $400 million project won’t revitalize downtown on its own. The challenge is too deep for that. But downtown needs a major spark, and this project would be a good first step. The project is a solid fit for the two properties, and it would likely spur other developers to take a chance on a downtown area that is too often perceived as a risky bet. In the Nov. 8 election, voters should give the city permission to sell the two properties.
The basics: The DeNunzio Group and Gotham Property Acquisitions want to buy the vacated City Hall on Osceola Avenue for $15.4 million to build 500 to 600 rental apartments in the two towers, which would provide views of Clearwater Beach and the Gulf of Mexico. The deal also includes the purchase of the former Harborview Center at the corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue for $9.3 million, where the developers plan to build a 13-story, 158-room hotel and a two-story, 12,000-square-foot commercial space. The plans for the two sites call for a conference center, a rooftop bar, a beer garden, several restaurants, some retail space, a pocket park and a plaza. The project would connect to the new amphitheater and Coachman Park, which is undergoing its own $84 million renovation.
The plan for the hotel includes 169 parking spaces, 50 of which will be for city use. The apartment towers require one parking space for each unit, the minimum allowed under city code. The project is on a bluff, so the plan is for the parking to be underground, a rarity in much of the Tampa Bay area. The project will be built in stages and is expected to be finished in 2028.
The deal includes $25.5 million in incentives from the city — about $22 million for parking and the remainder for impact fees and to split the costs of a pedestrian bridge that will connect the two sites. That’s not cheap, but there is little chance a developer will take on this kind of risk in downtown Clearwater without a healthy dose of financial help from the city. On the plus side, the two city-owned properties are not currently on the tax rolls. Selling them, and building the proposed project, would result in about $6.9 million in property taxes in the first full year the project is open, according to an estimate from the city that Mayor Frank Hibbard described as conservative.
Why rental apartments and not condos? Hibbard pitched it as a better way of ensuring people will live in the buildings year round. More permanent residents mean more opportunities to attract new businesses and retain and grow the ones that have somehow survived for years in such a sleepy part of town. That logic makes a lot of sense for downtown Clearwater.
Little formal opposition has formed against the project, not surprising given how obvious it is that the downtown has failed to blossom. Blame the location far from an interstate. Blame past government decisions. Blame the Church of Scientology and its followers’ strangle grip on large swaths of commercial real estate in the area. Whatever the prior failures, a project like this one could help turn things around. It could be the catalyst that attracts other developers, the ones who prefer someone else takes the first step.
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The development team also has strong local ties. The DeNunzio Group is based in Palm Harbor and Cambridge, Mass., and its president Dustin DeNunzio grew up in Clearwater and has built projects in the Tampa Bay area. He has a clear understanding of downtown Clearwater’s challenges and why this project is so important.
This editorial board takes extra care in assessing projects near or on the waterfronts of our local downtowns. Waterfront projects — whether they be parks or towers — must fit the character of the surrounding area and ensure adequate access to the public. No project is perfect, but this one is set back enough from the waterfront and appears well designed to blend in and accentuate the positive moves the city is making in and around Coachman Park.
Downtown Clearwater cannot be left to wilt any longer. This project will provide a needed spark. On Clearwater’s amendment to sell the two city-owned properties, the Times recommends voting Yes.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.