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People who know how desperately Clearwater officials want to improve Clearwater Beach might wonder why they have been so quiet since the big announcement that a developer wants to build a $350-million, mixed-use project on a rundown section of the island.
Isn't that news to celebrate?
Well, maybe. Maybe not.
City officials recognize there are pros and cons to the proposal and are being cautious. They have not been particularly encouraging to the developer. Their reaction ought to put to rest, at least for the moment, the repeated charge by their critics that they would sell the city down the river to give a developer what he or she wanted.
The size and scope of the proposed project alone are enough to make one take a step back. The so-called Bluewater Isle Resort would cover 10 acres in what is known as the Eastshore area of the island: on the harbor side north of Memorial Causeway. To get an idea of how large that is, consider that the new Catalina Beach Resort going up on the site of the former Yacht Basin Apartments is just 6 acres. Catalina will have about 236 condominiums; Bluewater Isle would have 350 to 420.
The Bluewater Isle project would include four condominium towers, 20 to 24 townhomes, restaurants, retail shops, a seafood market and a 200-slip marina.
Bob Metz of Clearwater, who owns a real estate and insurance company, has been signing contracts to buy some 60 pieces of property in Eastshore, which is dominated by small motels and aging cottages. Eastshore is arguably the most rundown area of Clearwater Beach and the part that could most benefit from redevelopment. It also has presented a real challenge for developers trying to assemble enough property to build a profitable project. Not only have some property owners held out for top dollar just because they thought they could get it, some properties are highly mortgaged. Experienced developers have tried and failed to assemble significant acreage in that area.
In come Metz and his partners, who say they have contracts on more than 60 parcels and are prepared to develop a project that ultimately would cost $150-million more to develop than International Plaza in Tampa.
In response, Clearwater commissioners figuratively raised an eyebrow, crossed their arms and said, "We'll see."
City officials already have communicated to Metz that his condominium towers may be too tall. Two of the four have been proposed at 150 feet -- 50 feet taller than the city allows in that part of the beach under its beach redevelopment plan called Beach by Design. Commissioners would have to change the plan again to permit the taller towers. Another problem is that the number of units Metz has proposed is higher than the city allows there.
The concessions Metz would need to proceed set up commissioners for a thorny political battle. Beach by Design contemplated the Eastshore area as a sort of transition zone between the resort/high-rise hotel area on the south half of the island and the residential neighborhoods on the north end. The Metz proposal would look more at home in the resort area. Some residents of Clearwater Beach have been sensitive about tall buildings in Eastshore, and commissioners already have been criticized for changing Beach by Design soon after it was approved.
Yet Eastshore must be developed. Its decline cannot and should not continue. And city officials already know that other developers have rejected the idea of doing projects in that area because it was too difficult or too costly. What is it worth to the city if Metz succeeds where others failed? Is it worth an extra 50 feet? Is it worth an increase in density?
Metz also has sweetened the pot by adding a number of public amenities to his project: a 25-foot-wide boardwalk along the Intracoastal Waterway, 800 public parking spaces, landscaping and lighting improvements in the area, a small amphitheater overlooking the water, space for a beach library and a small city history museum. What are those free amenities worth to the city?
Those questions will have to be answered eventually. For now, commissioners are wise to go slowly and reserve judgment until Metz and his partners deliver a solid proposal to the city and prove they have the financial wherewithal to carry it out.