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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Housing a key to downtown Clearwater’s revival, leaders say

CLEARWATER - City leaders say building residences on an empty lot on the east side of downtown is essential to filling the area with more businesses and people. Clearwater’s Community Redevelopment Agency this month will review four proposals for mixed-use apartments on 6.85 acres fronting on Cleveland Street, one of the city’s main business corridors. The city-owned parcel, which is adjacent to Prospect Lake Park, has been vacant, surrounded by a fence, for years since the economic recession stymied a previous plan to develop it. As the city looks to big projects like the renovation of Capitol Theatre and the prospect of Clearwater Marine Aquarium expanding downtown, the critical factor to making the city’s traditional center a vibrant place is people, said David Allbritton, a contractor and chairman of the Downtown Development Board.
“We think that that would be one of the key things in the puzzle in putting everything back and making it a successful downtown, bringing people to live in the downtown,” he said. Allbritton grew up in Clearwater at a time when the route to the white-sand Gulf of Mexico beaches was right through downtown on Cleveland Street. As residential development drove people eastward toward U.S. 19 and more suburban areas -- and especially after beach traffic was moved onto Court Street, bypassing downtown -- businesses started moving out and the city core became notably quiet. The city’s Community Redevelopment Agency in recent years has worked to reverse that trend following the success of revived downtowns in St. Petersburg and Dunedin. The result of those efforts can be seen in the wide, tree-lined sidewalks and medians the city installed along Cleveland Street following a major overhaul of downtown’s water and sewer lines. There’s also the Mediterranean Village in the Park, a collection of 15 townhomes next to the empty lot at the corner of Cleveland Street and Prospect Avenue. That was meant to be the first stage of a larger townhome development on several city-owned tracts. “This Prospect Lake site is important because it’s a city-owned property. A lot of the vacant land around it is privately owned,” said Geraldine Lopez, the city’s director of economic development and housing. The city received four responses to its request for development proposals by the April 2 deadline. Developers will present their ideas to a committee next month and a project should be selected by June. The vision for the site is three or four-storey apartment buildings with retail or other commercial space on the ground floors. Allbritton says the retail requirement might be flexible because it currently is difficult to get financing for such projects. “It’s hard to get financing for retail from banks,” he said. “If you look around, we’ve got a lot of retail units downtown that are empty that we’re trying to fill.” A towering commercial building just east of Prospect Lake that was being converted into a mixed-use condominium stalled during the recession and remains unfinished. But the popularity of two downtown condominium buildings completed before the crash, Water’s Edge and Station Square, indicates a demand for such housing, and there now are few options for rental apartments, Lopez said. While downtown Clearwater might be starkly sedate at some times of the day, business owners say shows at the Capitol Theatre and Blast Friday events draw crowds to the city’s collection of downtown bars, restaurants and boutique stores. Tony Starova, owner of Tony’s Pizzeria & Ristorante on Cleveland Street, says much needs to be done to change the perception there is nothing to do in downtown Clearwater. The best way to change that stigma, he says, is to get more people living here. “There’s a single rule in business,” he said: “People go wherever they see people.”

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