Clearwater planners have ambitious plans for a waterfront park. It also aims to turn an obstacle — the city's largest landowner — into an ally.
This year, 2020, is the year St. Petersburg will, at long last, unveil its shiny new $80 million Pier. Not to be outdone, nearby Clearwater, also in Pinellas County, has embarked on its own waterfront beautification effort — the $64.5 million Imagine Clearwater project city planners believe will be a catalyst for downtown revitalization somewhat stunted by the Church of Scientology’s property acquisition spree.
But just like the St. Pete Pier, which went through several design iterations, including the much-maligned “Lens” proposal, Imagine Clearwater is not without its detractors — and the months ahead will bring challenges as the city rolls out its vision to the public.
Clearwater Assistant City Manager Michael Delk has been a driving force behind Imagine Clearwater. He first advocated for an Urban Land Institute study of the area around Clearwater’s Coachman Park in 2012. That report, released in 2014, included a recommendation that the two biggest landowners — the church and the city — work together as partners.
“That started the waterfront development program,” he says. “The ultimate objective is to re-energize downtown Clearwater, reassert public ownership of the waterfront and develop a much more productive, engaging waterfront area.”
Church of Scientology spokesman Pat Harney, in a written response to questions, says the church, too, seeks to be part of a a thriving and successful downtown. "The Church of Scientology supports any improvements that make the waterfront and downtown an attractive and welcoming place for all Clearwater residents," Harney writes in an email.
In terms of the actual work, a large parking lot currently impedes access to the city’s premier stretch of downtown waterfront. Under the Imagine Clearwater plan, the lot would be removed. In its place, the city will build a 4,000-seat, covered amphitheater.
“We have some beautiful waterfront property, but right now we’re not connected to it,” Delk says. “We have the old Harborview [building] and we've got acres and acres of parking lots … but parking lots are a horrific use for beautiful waterfront property.”
The best use is still being debated, even as Imagine Clearwater moves ahead. City staff road-tested the concept at a series of public meetings in December, and more sessions are planned for April, when construction plans are expected to be 60% complete. Groundbreaking should occur sometime in the second half of 2020.
Prior to the public presentations, Delk played the role of devil’s advocate, questioning whether the large amphitheater truly fits the goal of opening up and activating the waterfront as a public space.
“I've had my opportunities to talk to city council about the merits of staying a little more closely aligned with the original Imagine Clearwater plan versus the advocacy for an amphitheater in the middle of the park,” he says. “But council's pretty well put that to rest.”
Amanda Thompson, director of the Clearwater Community Redevelopment Agency, has also questioned how the amphitheater fits in to the Imagine Clearwater project. But she’s all for it, she says, if it will attract more investment in downtown housing projects.
“We have to figure out what the programming around that the amphitheater will be or won't be,” she says, “and what are the associated costs, because it's hard to move forward to build out the organizational structure and the fundraising and all the other things you need without that question being decided.”
“There's a perception that downtown Clearwater is, by and large, no longer there for the citizens of the community.” Michael Delk, Clearwater assistant city manager
The precise amenity the city seems willing to sacrifice — parking — is something it will need if it plans to regularly monetize the amphitheater as a draw for visitors, rather than having the area function more as a public park for casual, everyday use by residents. Some area citizens worry about the loss of free parking spaces that the project, as designed, would bring.
Thompson and her team are aware of the parking issue.
“We have 250 spaces,” Thompson says. “The park is designed to provide enough car storage for people who are using the park on a regular basis. You come for an hour, you play with the kids, you leave. It’s not designed to park special events, and we’ve been communicating that.”
Delk says parking concerns could be alleviated with the construction of a new parking garage on the site of the old City Hall building at 112 S. Osceola Ave. Last year, the City of Clearwater moved its entire operations and staff — save for Mayor George Cretekos — to an office tower owned by Daniels Ikajevs, founder of the The Ring co-working space, at 600 Cleveland St. Making the issue tricky: a museum funded by top Scientology donor Trish Duggan has also been proposed for that parcel. Duggan couldn't be reached for comment.
Though it’s not totally clear how many people would show up, an amphitheater featuring a steady stream of professional performances could potentially be a boon for nearby businesses — if only there were more to benefit. Over the past three years, downtown Clearwater has become increasingly moribund as Church of Scientology parishioners have bought up dozens of commercial properties and shuttered them. Individuals and LLCs associated with the church now own the vast majority of downtown properties within walking distance of the waterfront.
Delk acknowledges the transformation and growing Scientology presence, in general, is not a good look.
“There's a perception that downtown Clearwater is, by and large, no longer there for the citizens of the community,” he says. “But I don't believe that Scientology will necessarily keep us from being successful if we can get our community re-engaged in downtown and create a great public place for them. I've decided I'm not going to use Scientology as an excuse for why we're not as successful as we want to be. There are things that we can do.”
CHURCH VS. STATE
Scientology can't be ignored when it comes to discussions about how to rev up downtown Clearwater. The church ceased all communication with city government in 2017, when the two entities butted heads over a piece of property the church wanted to buy. But in early November, tensions thawed when Scientology leader David Miscavige met with Delk, City Manager Bill Horne and City Attorney Pam Akin.
Little specifics, at least publicly, came out of that meeting, but Thompson sees the meeting as a step in the right direction. She’s also quick to point out that individual Scientologists do not all speak with one voice when it comes to the future of downtown Clearwater.
“Parishioners who own and operate businesses are not the same thing as the institution, the church,” she says. “Business owners want to have a vibrant downtown. They want to make money. Hopefully there will be more conversations because ultimately the church would like to see its parishioners be successful in both their lives and their businesses. They have a right to do that in downtown Clearwater.”
Thompson, having moved from Miami to Clearwater in 2018, sees the Scientology dilemma with fresh eyes. She says the church should be dealt with like “any large property owner in any other place who may or may not want to cooperate with the local government.”
More importantly, she sees the controversy over the downtown business district as one that can be solved by investment in public spaces.
“That's really what defines a downtown: It’s the streets; it’s the park; it’s the plaza, right? It's the civic institution,” she says. “That's where people gather. That's where they celebrate. That's where they exchange ideas — and the city is not abandoning those spaces. We're continuing to invest in them. And the CRA is going to continue to invest in them and continue to tell the stories of all the people who are downtown — not just one institution, but all the business owners, all the residents.”
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