The Clearwater City Council will have a pivotal discussion this afternoon that could help determine the future of a downtown that has been waiting decades for a revival. Council members should agree to buy a prime piece of land adjacent to City Hall with an eye toward future redevelopment that could fit nicely with the latest revitalization plan. Or they can take a pass, let the Church of Scientology buy the land and allow the church to tighten its choke hold on the city.
It's important to take the long view. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium bought the 1.4-acre lot in 2012 as part of an ambitious plan to build a new home along the downtown bluff that would have been the long-sought signature attraction for a rejuvenated downtown. Voters demonstrated their faith by approving a referendum in 2013 to allow a long-term lease of the adjacent City Hall site to the aquarium. But the aquarium could not raise the millions it needed, abandoned the idea in 2015 and is ready to sell the vacant lot it no longer needs.
The aquarium, which is renovating its facilities on Island Estates, has done its part. It has given the city time to complete a new blueprint for downtown. For more than a year, it has held off the Church of Scientology, which has offered the aquarium more than $4 million for the property. Mayor George Cretekos said Monday he is inclined to have the city buy the property, and the other council members also should step up.
This piece of property, combined with the City Hall property across the street, is just as important to the future of Clearwater's downtown as it was when it was expected to be included in the footprint for the aquarium's new home. The new downtown master plan envisions lots of green space, walking and biking trails, a public plaza and a reinvigorated Coachman's Park along the waterfront. That makes this vacant lot and the City Hall property even more attractive as a site for the new development Clearwater has craved for decades.
Skeptics of the purchase point out that the city's consultants did not propose a specific use for the property and made no mention of the impact of Scientology's long shadow over downtown. Of course they didn't. No consultant wants to poke the giant, particularly one that pokes back. An earlier downtown analysis by the Urban Land Institute recommended the city work with the Church of Scientology, but there is nothing to suggest the church has the city's best interests at heart. In fact, it worked behind the scenes to undermine the aquarium project. If the church wanted to be a genuine collaborator, they would be more open about their long-range plans and less confrontational.
This vacant parcel cannot be viewed in isolation. It is in Clearwater's long-term interest to move City Hall somewhere else and maximize the use of that property, which also includes a parking lot. It would be even more attractive to developers if the land could be packaged with the aquarium-owned lot that is at issue today. If the Church of Scientology buys the lot, the City Hall property will be a bit less enticing to other buyers who could help transform downtown. And guess what neighboring property owner would want to buy it when the city finally decides to sell.
The Church of Scientology is already the largest taxpayer in downtown Clearwater and owns property in the city worth more than $260 million. It says it wants the aquarium's vacant parcel to build more accommodations for its members, but that is not the best use of this land for the long-term vision of downtown Clearwater. The City Council should agree to buy the property and be prepared to resell it separately or package it with the City Hall property for redevelopment.
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This editorial has been revised to reflect the following correction: The Church of Scientology has accumulated more than $260 million in real estate in Clearwater. An editorial Tuesday cited a different number.