St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

3 projects hold promise of change for beach

Developers and city officials see a wave of new projects reshaping the beach's personality. But some fear the new strand only will appeal to the wealthy.

AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published August 22, 2004

CLEARWATER - With $15-million now committed to a waterfront revival and developers keen to raise three grand hotels, the transformation of Clearwater Beach has started to take shape.

Already, new multimillion-dollar condominiums have altered the skyline. Road improvements have augmented the north end of the beach.

But the city's revitalization efforts have banked on upscale resorts and a lush promenade. Together, they would change the beach experience, officials promise.

Finally, both are in sight.

"The beach is extremely tired and old," said Helen Sykes, who owns the five-unit Beach House Apartment Motel near the south end of the beach. "And that's putting it nicely. We need this."

In the last two weeks, three major beach projects have accelerated toward development. Though none is finalized, if built they would overhaul the beach south of the roundabout.

BeachWalk, a city project, would make over South Gulfview Boulevard, the road that fronts the Gulf of Mexico along Clearwater Beach. Gulfview would be moved closer to the water and turned into a meandering two-lane promenade, surrounded by palm trees and brick-lined walkways. Nearly 400 parking spaces would be eliminated as part of the $15-million project, which aims to enhance the beach experience.

Meanwhile Coronado Drive, the main street on the intracoastal side, would be widened to three lanes to help increase traffic flow.

In between the two roads, two luxury hotels hope to rise.

Just south from the roundabout would be Tony Markopoulos' proposed 350-room Clearwater Beach Resort. Spread over several Gulfview rental properties, including the Days Inn and the Spy Glass Motel, the resort would rise 14 stories and be topped with 75 condos.

City staffers had objected to the $100-million project, saying it was too massive, but a Clearwater development board sided with Markopoulos last week, and approved the resort's site plan. His project now needs approval from the City Council.

If built, the Clearwater Beach Resort might stand next to another 150-foot hotel, proposed as a member of the Hyatt hotel group. Tampa developer Brian Taub announced earlier this month he plans to buy around two acres from Clearwater lawyer William Kimpton and Dunedin project planner Richard Gehring along Gulfview for a 250-room, 18-condominium resort.

Taub said he would only build, and Hyatt would only be involved, if city officials committed to BeachWalk. When city officials set aside funding last Monday and tentatively set a start date of next spring, Taub said his $90-million project passed a key hurdle. He said he hopes to open the resort to guests in 2007.

By then, Clearwater Beach might look quite different, Taub said.

"It's not going to be geared to just spring breakers," said Taub, 48, who is completing the $19-million Utopia condo project on Sand Key. "Not only will there be additional upscale resort development, but there will be upscale restaurants and upscale shops - all the amenities of a complete resort destination."

Future city investments in Clearwater Beach would produce rapid growth, according to a study commissioned by a group of developers hoping to build a 260-room hotel at the north end of the beach.

Developers Mike Cheezem of St. Petersburg and David Mack of Connecticut propose to replace the Clearwater Beach Hotel with a $140-million complex that includes 260 hotel rooms and a gulfside spa.

A study prepared for them by an Orlando consulting firm said that by 2018 there would be an additional 170,000 square feet of retail space and around 1,000 new hotel rooms.

Under that scenario, public investments like BeachWalk trigger a resort renaissance. Private investment also increases in existing properties. Eventually, additional hotels are developed near the city's marina and three new parking garages are needed.

"Without strong public action in terms of parking and improved public infrastructure, (a complete transformation) cannot occur," said the study, prepared by Fishkind and Associates. "However, with such investments Clearwater Beach will attract very substantial private investments producing a balanced economy based on both tourism and luxury condominium living."

In City Hall, officials understand parking will become an issue. They already are eyeing potential sites for a garage, a multimillion dollar endeavor, said City Manager Bill Horne.

Redevelopment of the marina is also a long term priority.

"The hotel resort component on north beach and south beach would really kick start the revitalization," Horne said. "The development people tell us that once we get the public improvements, then you'll get the hotel. Then you'll get the dining. Then you'll get the retail."

When it's finished, Clearwater Beach would surpass other top tourist draws in Florida, like Naples or Fort Lauderdale, said Taub, the Hyatt developer.

Along with a world-class beach, the area is accessible by two international airports. The connection will be made easier once the new Memorial Causeway bridge is finished.

It all only stands to increase the city's tourism business, which currently draws 1.4-million visitors annually.

"It's going to create jobs, too," said said Sheila Cole, executive director of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce. "More people working is marvelous."

But not everyone is excited at the beach's long term prospects.

Ward Sexton lives in Clearwater and repairs aircraft instruments. A self-described common-man, Sexton said the plans for the beach don't seem to include people like him. He thinks the new Clearwater Beach will become a haven for the ultra-wealthy.

"They want to turn Clearwater Beach into the playground for the rich and famous," Sexton said. "And the last thing they want is any of us working slaves splashing sand around there."

Leona Baker is worried about the beach she's always known. At 97, she has frequented the old Clearwater Beach Hotel for close to 30 years. The landmark property, built in 1918, has an ageless character.

She's worried about what will replace it.

"Maybe I'm a square," said Baker, who often eats lunch at the hotel. "To my way of thinking, it is the most luxurious place we have in our Clearwater area. It is the only one I know that has beautiful service and beautiful surroundings."

Developers say the new beachfront will be magnificent.

City officials promise it will be for everyone, too.

"Our own residents will find it more accessible to come to the beach and spend time in restaurants and shops," said Horne, the city manager. "I understand the concern that a resort hotel like the Hyatt is going to bring another type of client. But different levels of business will always be able to survive on Clearwater Beach."

Sexton, who is weary of luxury development, said he hopes Horne's right.

"I don't want to see Clearwater turn into Miami Beach, that's all," he said.

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at 727 445-4160 or asharockman@sptimes.com

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.