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    A Times Editorial

    Downtown shows signs of vitality

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published November 7, 2001

    Despite gloomy national economic forecasts, signs continue to crop up that redevelopment is occurring in downtown Clearwater.

    The most recent sign: commercial real estate broker Lee Arnold announced plans to develop a condominium tower, luxury hotel and retail and restaurant space across Osceola Avenue from the main library. Construction could begin in 2003.

    The project will be built in what city officials last year began referring to as "the super block" -- that block just east of the library that has the advantage of views of the water from the top of Clearwater's unique waterfront bluff.

    During last year's effort to get voters to approve a massive redevelopment plan for downtown -- an effort that failed in a July referendum -- city officials frequently referred to the super block as key to rejuvenating downtown.

    The new main library Clearwater plans to build where the current one is located, beautiful Coachman Park, and the city's Harborview Center were all viewed as attractors that would bring people into downtown for recreation or special events. But it is difficult to get those visitors to leave those locations and walk to the downtown retail district, especially if there is nothing in the first block across the street to start drawing them in that direction.

    Arnold, along with his partner and father-in-law Herb Brown, former chief executive of Checkers, plans to fill that gap by providing retail shops and perhaps a destination restaurant on the ground floor of his project. Above or behind that would be a boutique hotel with about 86 units, and then a 92-unit, luxury condominium project.

    The extensive project can go ahead because Arnold, whose Colliers Arnold Commercial Real Estate Services office is among the buildings in the block, was successful at assembling land. With a little push from Mayor Brian Aungst, the Church of Scientology agreed to sell property it owns in the block to Arnold. Arnold still has to negotiate purchase of a city-owned parking lot in the block.

    Arnold's plans are so preliminary that parking has not been discussed publicly, but it will be an important issue for city officials to study as the project plans come forward. Under last year's downtown redevelopment concept, the super block was slated to get a parking garage in addition to apartments and stores. The garage was considered vital, not only to provide parking for those who would live and shop in that block, but also so the city could convert some of a large parking lot on the waterfront west of the Harborview Center to green space.

    There are other signs of new life downtown. Starbucks recently opened in a renovated building near the super block. Publix still is on track to build a supermarket and other retail shops on the northeast corner of Fort Harrison Avenue and Druid Road. At least a couple of other condominium projects are slated for the fringes of downtown.

    No one knows how the downturn in the economy will affect these projects. But after years of frustrating decline downtown, it is good to see that an increasing number of developers see downtown Clearwater as a viable location for their projects.

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