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Downtown plan is city's best opportunity

By Compiled by Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000


For 30 years the city government of Clearwater has been aware that its downtown was in trouble.

Suburban neighborhoods and malls began taking residents and customers out of downtown as early as the 1960s. So the city began studying its dying downtown and drafting redevelopment plans to save it.

In the year 2000, downtown is filled with empty storefronts, ramshackle buildings and vacant lots, and all those redevelopment plans are on the shelf. Why? Because Clearwater city government lacks the vision and financial resources to carry out a redevelopment project of the magnitude needed to substantially reverse the trend.

Late last year the city put out a request to hear from private developers who could build such a project. After talks with several developers of national stature, the City Commission decided to do business with the successful West Palm Beach development team of George de Guardiola and David Frisbie.

That was Step 1 toward bringing about a renaissance downtown.

Step 2 comes July 11, when Clearwater voters will make decisions on three referendum questions. If the referendum is approved, the city can move on to Step 3, which is negotiating legal documents that will formalize the city's relationship with the developers. Only then will de Guardiola and Frisbie be able to proceed.

The referendum is fairly simple and is only the middle step in the process. But it has aroused great controversy in the community and spawned a misinformation campaign unparalleled in Clearwater.

Residents cannot let fear or bad information prevent them from embracing a remarkable opportunity. The Times, after weeks of study, recommends that Clearwater residents vote yes on all three referendum questions.

Let us tell you why.

Lease and use of public land

De Guardiola and Frisbie have a conceptual plan for redeveloping downtown Clearwater that is both wonderfully creative in design and awesome in scope. (If you are a Clearwater Times reader, you can find a drawing of the plan inside today's section. Otherwise, you can check the city's Web site at http://www.clearwater-fl.com.)

The proposal includes more than 320,000 square feet of retail shops and restaurants, a hotel, a multi-screen movie theater and 1,200 new apartments and condominiums.

The developers also will construct public improvements, among them a building to house a new library and city government offices; botanical gardens; a city pier; and a major expansion of waterfront green space.

The city doesn't have the money to build the millions of dollars worth of public improvements. It doesn't even have the money in its treasury to pay back the developers for building them. However, the developers will get paid back this way: The city will issue bonds to raise $15-million for the new library; the city will give the developers $2-million to set aside to improve the public bayfront; and the developers' remaining costs for building the public improvements will be reimbursed by new property taxes generated in the entire downtown district after property values start rising.

A lease of public land

The developers already are negotiating to obtain the private land they need for their project. But to make the project successful, they say they also need to lease seven pieces of publicly owned land downtown for 99 years. They will use their leasehold interest in those parcels to borrow some of the money they need to start building.

Lenders require a long lease in such situations. The developers offered to lease those seven parcels for only 60 years, but only if the city paid for building the public improvements. The city couldn't afford that. So the developers agreed to front the money for the public improvements, but only if they could get 99-year leases for $1 a year, which are common in redevelopment projects throughout the nation.

These are the seven parcels proposed for leasing: a piece at the corner of Osceola Avenue and Drew Street where the new library building will be built; the Harborview Center; a small parcel in the general vicinity of the current library parking lot, where they plan a small cafe and public restrooms; a parcel on Drew Street north of Osceola that is now a city parking lot; the property where Clearwater City Hall now stands; a parking lot beside Station Square Park four blocks east of the waterfront; and a short portion of the existing Memorial Causeway Bridge that will be left standing when a new bridge is built.

Referendum Question 1 asks voters to approve a new section for the City Charter that would permit the city to lease those seven parcels for up to 99 years, allow improvements to be built on those parcels, and permit maintenance of the parcels.

The new section is necessary because the current city charter allows leases of public land for a maximum of 60 years, and on a certain part of the bayfront forbids the development or maintenance of land for any purpose other than open space and public utilities.

If you vote yes on Question 1, you will not be "giving away the bayfront," as opponents have charged. Only those seven parcels are involved, not other public land. The parcels will be leased, not sold or given away. Coachman Park, the only substantial green space on the waterfront now, is not among the parcels to be leased. The park will remain under city ownership and control.

A land exchange

Though Question 1 has inspired the most controversy, there are two other ballot questions.

Question 2 asks voters to let the city issue revenue bonds to raise $15-million it needs for the new library.

About $11-million would pay to build and furnish a 55,000-square-foot library inside a new, signature building at the corner of Osceola Avenue and Drew Street. The library lobby would be on the first floor of the building, along with a cafe and probably a bookstore. The library would be on the second floor and would be a great improvement over the existing main library, which will be torn down.

On the third floor would be an additional 50,000 square feet of unfinished space, built with the remaining $4-million. It could be finished as library expansion space if private fundraising efforts are successful. If not, it could some day be finished for other public uses. The library director and Greater Clearwater Public Library Foundation enthusiastically endorse this building plan.

Above that unfinished floor would be one more floor that would contain city offices moved from the current City Hall and a 10,000-square-foot public auditorium.

Question 3, if approved by voters, would allow the city to swap some recreation land on McMullen-Booth Road for a piece of property on Drew Street owned by Calvary Baptist Church. The land swap would enable Calvary Baptist to move out of its downtown buildings and build a new facility on McMullen-Booth. De Guardiola and Frisbie plan to purchase the church's downtown properties and build apartments, condominiums and a hotel there.

Why vote yes, yes, yes?

This redevelopment plan offers the city an unprecedented opportunity.

Never before have experienced and well-financed developers come to Clearwater and laid down a plan of such magnitude and appeal that includes both private and public amenities.

Many cities trying to reverse the decline of their downtowns have been forced to buy huge blocks of private property, pump up their property tax rates or pledge city revenues to finance their own redevelopment projects. None of those is required in this deal.

The developers assume most of the risk and must pledge their own security for financing. And because they are private businessmen who want to hit a home run on this project, they will be motivated to stick around and make it work.

Today in downtown Clearwater, the only busy developer is the Church of Scientology, which continues to expand its holdings and renovate deteriorated structures.

If de Guardiola and Frisbie are successful, not only will more Clearwater residents have reason to go downtown, but so will tourists on Clearwater Beach and residents of Dunedin, Belleair and other surrounding communities. They will come to downtown Clearwater to browse in the shops, eat in the restaurants, attend outdoor events and watch movies.

We understand residents' reluctance to lease public land for 99 years. But keep this issue in perspective. Only seven parcels will be affected, and only four of those are on the bluff overlooking the waterfront. All seven parcels already have either structures or parking lots on them. The properties will continue to be owned by the public, but will be returned to the tax rolls when private uses are built on them.

The de Guardiola/Frisbie plan will bring a huge expansion of attractive, public open space downtown. In addition to the new streetscapes along downtown streets, there will be a public plaza with an interactive fountain between the library and theater buildings, the "Grand Stair" where Cleveland Street now drops downhill to the waterfront, the pier, a wide promenade beside the harbor, and a tripling of green space along the bayfront.

The plan is notable for the inclusion of apartments and condos. Talk to experts in the field of redevelopment and they will tell you that a project is more likely to succeed if it includes residential units.

Finally, if not this plan, what? There is no other realistic plan on the table. The killing blow to downtown will come in 2003 when the new bridge to Clearwater Beach opens, Cleveland Street becomes a dead end and the flow of traffic through downtown stops. As one city official recently put it, "In 2003, this downtown is headed head-on into a train."

Here's the risk

Remember that the July 11 referendum is only the second step in a three-step process to initiate the redevelopment project. It is in the third step that we believe the city faces its only real risk.

In Step 3, the city will negotiate with the developers an agreement that will set forth in great detail and legal language the obligations of both sides. City negotiators must put tough standards of performance on the developers and make sure that the city is protected if the developers fail.

Public trust of city government is appallingly low in Clearwater today. The city manager is disdained by many residents, and some have thrown up their hands over their weak-kneed City Commission.

Why should we trust city government to negotiate a development agreement?

Here's why: The commission plays an important advisory role, but won't have primary responsibility in the negotiations. That job will fall to City Attorney Pam Akin and consultant Charles Siemon.

Though Siemon, an attorney who has spent years working in the development business, has more experience with such agreements, the burden of responsibility to protect the public's interest falls on Akin. We think Akin, who is respected by residents and the legal community, is up to the task.

To help her, the City Commission should keep those at City Hall who lack expertise or public trust out of the process.

Here's another reason: The public will have many opportunities to observe the development of the agreement as Siemon and Akin regularly seek policy guidance from the City Commission in public meetings. And the draft of the completed document will have to be approved by commissioners in public.

Residents' involvement must not end at the polling place on July 11. They will need to be just as active and questioning -- perhaps more so -- while the contract is being negotiated. And this newspaper feels intently its responsibility for reporting and analyzing the process as well.

The Times recommends a yes vote on all three Clearwater referendum questions July 11.

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