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Clearwater needs to take a risk to jump-start downtown development | Editorial
For years, the city’s downtown has failed to live up to its potential.
 
A revised rendering shows one tower with 400 apartments on the former City Hall site on Osceola Avenue in Clearwater. The developers' original plan called for two towers with 600 units.
A revised rendering shows one tower with 400 apartments on the former City Hall site on Osceola Avenue in Clearwater. The developers' original plan called for two towers with 600 units. [ Behar Peteranecz Architecture ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Feb. 8

Downtown Clearwater has so much potential. The city’s core sits on a bluff with views of the water. The area is walkable, relatively safe and close to some of the prettiest beaches in the state. But so often it feels deserted, exuding an uneasy aura of a place where good things should be happening but aren’t.

Developers notice it, too. It’s why they see downtown Clearwater as a riskier bet than downtown Tampa or St. Petersburg. Those two bigger cities are awash in construction cranes. For years, developers have fallen over themselves to build the next high-rise or apartment building near St. Pete’s waterfront or around Tampa’s Water Street area. Not so much in downtown Clearwater. Why would developers risk tens of millions of dollars on a place with a questionable vibe? Why indeed, especially given the intractable nature of two of the main contributors to its stasis: the long distance from an interstate highway and the Church of Scientology and its followers’ kung fu grip on vast swaths of unused downtown real estate — and the lack of transparency about their plans for all of that property.

So it’s no wonder Clearwater City Council threw a bit of a Hail Mary this week. The members voted unanimously to subsidize an apartment and hotel complex on the bluff bordering the recently revitalized Coachman Park, despite having to scale back the size of the project. Two years ago, the deal called for the city to sell two parcels of land to the developers, who would build a 158-room hotel plus close to 600 apartments in two 27-story towers, with all of the parking underground. But building costs skyrocketed. The developers and the city renegotiated and recently arrived at a new deal that includes the hotel, but only one tower with 400 apartments, and only about half of the parking underground. The city also cut the price of the land by nearly $12 million and will still provide about $17 million to build parking. If all goes well, developers Gotham Organization of New York and The DeNunzio Group of Pinellas County will complete the project by the end of 2028.

Clearwater is getting less from the new deal. It’s easy to find reasons not to like this scaled-back version. Tampa or St. Petersburg, for instance, wouldn’t need to be nearly as generous to entice a developer to construct a single apartment tower and a hotel. They already have lots of apartment and condo high-rises, and more on the way. But that’s the point. Clearwater doesn’t have that momentum. It doesn’t have all of those examples, the kind of successful projects that make other developers think they can make money by building their own project nearby. Downtown Clearwater badly needs someone to go first, to build a project where people clamor to live, a project that will show other developers the area is worth the risk.

Ideally, Clearwater leaders wouldn’t need to interfere so much in the construction market. Builders would assess the risk and reap the rewards — or suffer the losses. But downtown Clearwater is not a normal market. Scientology and its followers own many of the properties. Limited liability companies controlled by Scientology parishioners have bought about 200 properties in the downtown core and nearby North Marina area, all within walking distance of the bluff. They wield outsized influence and their priorities don’t often align with those of city leaders. The proof is abundant: the many buildings controlled by Scientologists that have remained empty for years, a fact the Tampa Bay Times has documented in detail. Empty buildings do not make for a vibrant downtown.

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Former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard has called the Gotham/DeNunzio deal a “proof of concept,” a springboard toward attracting more development and more people to downtown Clearwater. More recently, council member Mark Bunker called the deal “an important step in taking back the downtown.” That’s true. It might be the needed catalyst, the push to get others to risk their money to vitalize downtown Clearwater — but with fewer government incentives.

Here’s something else that’s true: It might not work. That’s the thing about going first, about trying to prove a concept. Sometimes it fails. To overcome that hurdle, council members had to put more of the city’s skin in the game. Clearwater has struggled for so long to make downtown Clearwater a place more people want to live and visit. This deal still feels like a risk worth taking.

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 more opinion news.