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Sunday, Nov 18, 2018
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Pedestrian-friendly U.S. 19 coming to Clearwater

CLEARWATER — Getting in and out of shopping centers and strip malls along U.S. 19 near busy spots like Drew Street can be nerve-wracking for motorists.

For those traveling by foot, it can seem death-defying.

“The most frightening thing for me is when I see people trying to cross in the middle where there’s no intersection,” Clearwater city planner Gina Clayton said.

This commercial corridor running through Clearwater wasn’t exactly designed for walking, but a set of code changes being drafted by planners would make this heavily-trafficked thoroughfare a bit friendlier for bus riders and other foot-powered residents.

The Clearwater City Council recently got a primer on what’s likely to be a complex overhaul of development regulations on an eight-mile stretch of the road from Belleair Road to Curlew Road.

The presentation by a consultant with HDR Inc. drew a picture of a tidier U.S. 19 with sections that promote neighborhood shops and restaurants separated from big regional shopping destinations like Countryside Mall or the massive car dealerships in between.

Narrow sidewalks on the highway’s frontage roads would be doubled in width and linked to stores by adjoining walkways, landscaped with grass, trees and shrubbery.

The real challenge in the city’s U.S. 19 Corridor Redevelopment Plan will be turning a broad, forward-looking vision into concrete, detailed codes.

“Now we’re actually trying to put in place the regulations to make that [plan] happen,” Clayton said.

In 2012, architectural consulting firm HDR worked with city staff, residents and developers to create a master plan for the Clearwater portion of the highway and the sprawling hodgepodge of shops, car dealerships, malls, restaurants and other assorted homes and businesses that has grown up around it.

Imagining order out of the development chaos has proven a challenge, as attested to by consultant Steve Schukraft at a recent city council workshop.

For example, wide interconnecting sidewalks are vital for helping bus riders safely get to stores, but in many places utilities just a few feet off the frontage road would make it difficult to sufficiently broaden the walkway for pedestrians or leave room for a buffer of green space.

“[U.S.] 19 is sort of a legacy of that design thinking where it’s a minimum standard for a sidewalk along a frontage road like that,” Schukraft said.

Pedestrian access on the highway is on the minds of state and county transportation planners and likely will become more prominent if voters approve the Greenlight Pinellas plan this fall, which would bring more efficient bus rapid transit to the area.

Another challenge in drafting new codes will be distinguishing car-oriented business centers from more residential, walkable ones while still giving property owners flexibility in what they build.

The plan shows mixed-use neighborhood business development around intersections at Curlew Road, Sunset Point Road and Belleair Road, with more intense commercial development around Countryside Mall and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.

The sprawl in between could continue to accommodate uses with a larger need for space, such as car lots.

The broad goal of the new rules would be to create uniform setback lengths, move building fronts closer to the sidewalk and push parking spaces to the back.

While this could pose some difficulties for new development, many people who have voiced their opinion about the corridor plan had a different concern.

“They were less concerned about where the buildings were, how much landscaping is required and more concerned about what uses could go into different spaces,” Schukraft said.

That would mean less rigid zoning restrictions, giving an investor the ability to easily change a space from retail to office use, for example.

Developers will be looking with interest at what the future code will support at an undeveloped 16-acre plot near the Belleair Road intersection.

That area has a mix of office space and a community of upscale condominiums that back up to the water. The plan envisions it as a neighborhood center with shops to serve residents nearby.

Tampa real estate advisor Chip Jones applauds the city for crafting a new code that takes a long view on future land use.

His firm Lerner Real Estate Advisors represents the owners of the vacant land near Belleair Road, which will ultimately be sold to a developer.

“If you have a set of codes that are reasonable, they’re well-drafted and they have good vision, that makes all the difference in the world,” Jones said.

Jones is part of a steering committee of business owners, architects and residents tasked with helping the city accomplish just that.

They have their work cut out for them.

Businesses along elevated sections of the road will struggle to get the attention of motorists whizzing above them at 60 mph. Setting the right limits on height, density and even signage will be crucial for ensuring quality redevelopment is actually profitable.

Planners also would like to draw more target industries to the area, such as information technology and financial services companies, Clayton said.

What’s standing in the way for some investors may be the Florida Department of Transportation’s seemingly endless work in this part of U.S. 19, which Gov. Rick Scott has promised would finally end by March 2015 while announcing an additional $4.8 million for the project earlier this year.

After that, development likely will start up again in sections of the highway that have emptied in recent years, newly-elected city councilman Hoyt Hamilton said at the workshop.

“I believe there are people in this area that see the potential in the commercial properties along U.S. 19 that, once it’s developed and finished, it’s going to have the opportunity to do really good things,” he said, adding that it will be important to make sure new landscape requirements don’t impede businesses ability to erect effective signs.

A clear picture of future development may not emerge until a countywide zoning map is completed later this year, which will set height and density limits along the corridor.

Clayton and other planners are offering their input into those regulations and will be working out the details of Clearwater’s code to ensure it matches up.

Current businesses need not worry for the time being about having to plant new trees in front of their shops – the new codes would only apply when a property is redeveloped.

That means it could be years, maybe a couple decades, before the effect of the new regulations become noticeable.

“We can’t ask them to retroactive change what’s out there,” Clayton said.

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