Clearwater Develops A Downtown Identity
STEVEN GIRARDI The Tampa TribuneCLEARWATER - When Brian Beck looks at downtown Clearwater, he sees Denver.
Published: November 17, 2008
Published: November 17, 2008
Not Denver 2008, but Denver 20 years ago, before merchants, investors and the city fashioned the "LoDo" district of nightclubs, restaurants and loft-style condominiums from an aging collection of old warehouses.
"You could have bought an entire block of them for $125,000," Beck said. "Now they go for a million dollars apiece."
Beck, 49, is one of the people who recently decided to take a chance on downtown Clearwater. In October, he opened Rio Grande Mexican Grille at 528 Cleveland St. in the downtown area called the "Cleveland Street District."
Beck harbors no illusions that Clearwater, the junior partner in the Tampa metropolitan area, can be Denver, the center of the Mountain West. But he stands by the comparison as the city gains traction in its decades-long quest to redevelop its downtown core.
Even the most optimistic city leaders concede there is a long way to go, especially in an economic downturn, but they say they have a solid plan and a promising start.
Here is a look at five ways Clearwater intends to make it happen.
1. Not Just Anywhere
A unique identity is the top priority, said the people in charge of re-energizing downtown Clearwater, as well as those who have had success in neighboring communities such as Dunedin, Safety Harbor and Palm Harbor.
Capitalizing on its enviable position atop the bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor, the city aims to create a distinct retail and housing community.
The renamed Cleveland Street District, four blocks from Myrtle Avenue to the Intracoastal Waterway, is remade with sidewalk pavers, planters and decorative lamp posts, and new and restored storefronts. Two high-rise condominiums will anchor the district, and a marina with about 127 boat slips is scheduled for completion in July.
Even the new bridge to Clearwater Beach, which some complained would divert traffic from Cleveland Street, is an asset.
"We were able to recapture the street and make it more pedestrian," city Economic Development Director Geri Campos Lopez said.
The goal: Attract specialty shops and restaurants that, in turn, will add character and attract people. As the Pinellas County seat, downtown Clearwater already has about 2,300 people a day working there - and it hopes to get them to stick around after-hours.
"I think the city has provided the right atmosphere for the private sector to come to invest," a cautious Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "That said, it's a pretty tough time. We're not seeing that private-sector investment."
2. Paving The Way
To define its downtown core, the city undertook a streetscape program in 2000 to spruce up an aging shopping district that went into decline with the advent of shopping malls three decades ago.
The $10 million project, completed this year, dressed up Cleveland Street and made it pedestrian-friendly, Campos Lopez said.
The city provided money to help businesses improve their facades, in some cases removing siding that covered historic brick exteriors. Not as visible, but as essential, was the infrastructure work to support new development.
In all, about $385 million in public and private money has been spent in downtown.
These are the basics for successful downtown redevelopment, said Robert Ironsmith, economic development director in Dunedin, whose downtown renovation has been widely acclaimed.
"You really do have to make it a different place that you don't see anywhere else," he said.
3. Shopping For Shops
Three days each week, Courtney Orr, downtown manager for the Clearwater Redevelopment Agency, shops the Tampa Bay area - for interesting, owner-operated shops and restaurants that would fit in downtown Clearwater.
She is hitting Hyde Park in Tampa, BayWalk in St. Petersburg, downtown Dunedin, Safety Harbor and Dade City. Each of those districts have staged makeovers.
"People within a 10-, 20-, 30-minute drive would come to downtown Clearwater if given a reason," Orr said.
She's seeing some interest, especially among those who haven't been downtown in several years.
"The beach is an asset," she said. "They like that."
As an incentive, the city and the Downtown Development Board offer $35,000 to retail stores and $50,000 to restaurants to locate there.
But with the economy uncertain, businesses are holding back. "They know they'll be pioneers, so it needs to be an established business with a loyal following," Orr said.
Beck, who opened the Rio Grande Mexican Grille, said he always wanted a restaurant, and Clearwater seemed worth the risk.
"Since I took the money out of the stock market to put in here, it's a little less of a gamble," he said.
There are still more empty storefronts than occupied ones, but other shops and restaurants are filtering in. The streetscape, the festivals and events, the building renovations and the new condominiums give Beck confidence in the future.
"My thinking is this is a carbon copy of what happened in Denver, though obviously a little smaller scale," he said.
"For that not to happen, a lot of these projects would have to shut down. I can't imagine that happening."
4. Home, At Last
Those with a stake in downtown agree on one thing: Without residential development, none of this works. So as two high-rise condominiums go up in the Cleveland Street District and another rises about a half-mile to the east, so do the city's hopes.
Water's Edge, the city's tallest building, is a 153-unit, 26-story luxury condominium perched atop the bluff. It opened in September. Station Square Condominiums, a 126-unit, 15-story tower a few blocks east on Cleveland Street, is nearing completion.
The Strand at Clearwater Centre, a mixed-use project at 1100 Cleveland St., east of the Cleveland Street District, has stalled, but will have 71 luxury condominiums, 17 town houses and 20,000 square feet of retail and office space when completed.
And the Marriott Residence Inn, a 115-room hotel on the eastern edge of the district, opened in September.
Within a dozen blocks, three town house communities and a grocery store have opened in recent years, "so that's a good thing, too," Hibbard said.
Campos Lopez said there are about 500 new housing units in and within a mile of downtown.
"We need residential to get bodies down here to support retailers," Orr said.
So with that, all eyes are on Water's Edge, with its views of Clearwater Harbor, the beach and beyond.
The $100 million project offers condos and town houses ranging from mid-$300,000 to $1.6 million for a penthouse.
The real-estate market has nosedived since construction began in 2005, and Water's Edge has only a handful of residents. Developer Opus South won't discuss sales figures, but real estate manager Grant Wood said the company is prepared to weather the market.
"We're not going to walk away from anything," he said. "Things change in the marketplace, and you have to anticipate things are going to change.
"It's the risk that you take."
He said buyer interest has picked up since the streetscape project was competed, and the opening of the boat slips will be yet another attraction.
"We're excited about it," he said.
5. Coming Attractions
Several public projects still are in the works that, combined with a steady calendar of special events, are expected to bring more people downtown.
The boat slips on the harbor, at the foot of the bluff, are targeting year-round boaters as well as sailors passing through.
"Clearwater is a very good jumping-off spot," halfway between Pensacola and the Florida Keys, with easy access to the Gulf of Mexico, Hibbard said.
The city is on the verge of buying the landmark Royalty Theatre and working with Ruth Eckerd Hall to turn the Royalty into a concert and performing arts venue.
The vacant 1920s-era theater at 403 Cleveland St., in the middle of the renovated district, could seat 600 to 700 people, Hibbard said.
Also, Harborview Center, the city-owned community building on the bluff above Coachman Park, is slated to be demolished in January 2010 and could be offered for development.
Hibbard said the downtown domination of the Church of Scientology, which occupies the historic Fort Harrison Hotel and the massive Flag building across the street, doesn't seem to be the deterrent it once was perceived to be.
"It's an issue with some of our citizens but probably not to people outside the core of Clearwater," he said.
Campos Lopez said revolving public art exhibits will become part of the regular landscape, along with regular events such as Fourth Friday street parties and concerts, and similar activities.
Special events are the key to drawing new people to the area and gaining exposure, said Robin Husbands-Cauchi, executive director of Old Palm Harbor Main Street, which recently underwent a similar transformation.
"They're headed in the right direction," Husbands-Cauchi said. "People have to keep in mind these processes are incremental."