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    Urban revival treads rocky road

    Clearwater's downtown redevelopment is experiencing similar throes St. Petersburg dealt with for 15 years.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001

    The progressives have a grand vision to rebuild downtown. The opponents think it's all wrong. A knock-down, drag-out civic fight ensues.

    Clearwater today? Or St. Petersburg a decade ago?

    Both, actually.

    As Pinellas' two largest cities head toward March elections, their redevelopment battles, in large measure, are influencing politics and defining issues.

    The revitalization of downtown is one of the major issues Clearwater City Commission candidates are wading through. The St. Petersburg version of urban renewal, which has played out over the past 15 years, etched fault lines among voters that exist to this day.

    "There are an awful lot of similarities in these situations, except that St. Petersburg is probably a decade ahead of Clearwater on the curve," said Bob Stewart, a county commissioner and former St. Petersburg City Council member.

    The lessons, say those who have watched both cities struggle, include lasting tension created when government imposes its will despite objections, and the contradictory value of having the pieces in place to ride unpredictable waves of economic good times.

    Those involved say history tends to repeat itself.

    "Your mom and dad can tell you a thousand times not to do something and you don't listen," said Tim Clemmons, a St. Petersburg architect who objected to parts of the city-sanctioned plan to redo St. Petersburg's downtown. "It's the same thing."

    Support has limits

    Big isn't always better, particularly when it comes to downtown redevelopment plans. Planners in Clearwater and St. Petersburg have found that neither the economy nor the public can be counted on to support them.

    St. Petersburg's $200-million Bay Plaza plan, which included a $40-million city investment, was criticized as a behemoth. Ultimately, it fell victim to a struggling retail economy.

    The fight over Bay Plaza, the domed stadium and other issues fractured the community and led to some ugly campaigns in which the St. Petersburg electorate broke along the same geographic lines. The March elections will test whether those lines have blurred.

    Thomas Dunn, a St. Petersburg lawyer who has been involved in various civic causes, predicts they have. He said he thinks the success of BayWalk, the much smaller-scale downtown shopping and entertainment project that rose from the ruins of Bay Plaza, has been a balm for those angered by public expenditures downtown.

    Also playing into the mix: new downtown condominiums. The continued percolation of strong fine arts and performing arts communities. New museums. The Devil Rays' occupation of Tropicana Field. Especially important, Dunn said, has been Mayor David Fischer's attention to neighborhoods. "In the past, neighborhoods felt they were neglected," Dunn said. "I think that's dissipated -- that old sense of isolation, anger and neglect."

    Long time coming

    Remember Pier Park?

    Stewart, the county commissioner, does. He was the citizen leader of the group that tried to persuade St. Petersburg voters it was a good idea.

    Pier Park was a planned waterfront marketplace at the foot of the city's municipal pier that would include an aquarium, museums and the city's commitment to borrow $15-million to $17-million to pay for it. The year was 1984. The defeat was resounding.

    Shortly after the plan went down, so did Alan Harvey, the gung-ho city manager. He had championed Pier Park and the baseball stadium. The ignition point for Harvey's departure was his questionable real estate investments. He was forced to resign.

    Sound familiar, Clearwater?

    "It's deja vu all over again," Stewart said. "From my perspective, a community has to go through various stages to reach a consensus on what it wants to become."

    In July, Clearwater voters rejected a similarly grand redevelopment plan, which has opened the door for similar conversations.

    The $300-million Clearwater downtown redevelopment project included more than 320,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, a hotel, a movie theater and 1,200 new apartments and condos.

    It was large not only in scope but in public commitment: The city would have leased publicly owned waterfront land to developers for 99 years for as little as $1 a year.

    "They need to move in a more gradual, incremental basis," said Ed Armstrong, a Clearwater lawyer who has been involved in local politics for years. Mike Roberto, former Clearwater city manager, takes solace in knowing that most downtowns go through a series of plans before hitting the right combination at the right time.

    "Most successful downtowns have had failures," said Roberto, who resigned under pressure after the referendum was voted down. "Out of the ashes rises the phoenix. I never considered the defeat of the referendum as a failure. It's just a stage in the process."

    Some differences

    Although the cities are experiencing the same basic cycle, there are idiosyncrasies.

    St. Petersburg had the domed stadium to contend with -- a huge public expenditure made without a public vote that was no small source of political animosity.

    That couldn't happen in Clearwater because the city's charter limits that large a public expenditure without putting it to a vote.

    Clearwater also has the Church of Scientology, a major presence downtown that some say raises questions in the minds of potential investors.

    And although the cities' experiences are more similar than different, finding the balance that works in Clearwater is the challenge.

    Dick Fitzgerald, who served two terms on the City Commission, said public sentiment has evolved to where most residents favor some sort of city-supported downtown redevelopment.

    "I think there has been a shift in attitude toward development and away from the city being primarily a bedroom-type community," Fitzgerald said.

    The next step, said Clearwater planning director Ralph Stone, is to consider ways of encouraging people to live downtown, and for the private sector to follow with shopping and entertainment amenities.

    Whichever way Clearwater ultimately proceeds, proceed it must, said Stone, a former St. Petersburg planning director. A strong, and potentially destructive, similarity he sees between the cities is the necessity of a strong downtown tax base to take the pressure off residential property tax rates.

    However, before residents are willing to get behind substantial downtown investment, they're going to have to believe in the public officials who write the checks, said Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida political scientist.

    The defeat of the Clearwater referendum last summer and the continuing fractious nature of St. Petersburg politics demonstrate just how far Clearwater's politicians need to go, and the dangers of moving without consensus.

    "I think it just demonstrates that certain pieces have to fall into place before the public is ready to accept change in its downtown redevelopment," Paulson said. "The big question here is whether they'll ever get to that stage."

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