Cleveland Street

Patrons enjoy some al fresco dining on Cleveland Street as they watch the Stanley Cup finals recently. City Council  members said they would like the street to remain closed indefinitely.

CLEARWATER — The City Council directed staff to prepare for the “indefinite” closure of Cleveland Street on July 15 — a move initially brought on by the pandemic that has been championed by local businesses for rejuvenating the once-sleepy downtown.

The street’s 400 and 500 blocks were closed to vehicular traffic in May of last year, in an effort to allow businesses to reopen to pedestrians while maintaining social distancing protocols. The closure was extended in September and again in January, thanks to efforts from the Downtown Clearwater Merchants Association. The decision July 15 looks to extend the closure permanently.

“We’re unanimous in our discussion,” council member Hoyt Hamilton said. “We’re committed to moving towards an indefinite closure of an indefinite period — not just three or six more months, but for the foreseeable future.”

Since the closure, downtown businesses have enjoyed a surge in foot traffic, in part because of their expanded outdoor dining and live events. It has also been the impetus for at least 50 new jobs in the area, according to co-president of the DCMA Scott Sousa.

“We’re bringing people from Dunedin, from Safety Harbor, from Belleair that hadn’t been downtown in a long time,” Sousa said July 15. “We’ve changed the dialogue of what downtown is all about, from empty storefronts and nothing going on, to ‘It’s lively and fun.’”

Sousa, wearing a black shirt emblazoned in bold white letters saying “WE NEED CLOSURE,” also cited the positive financial effect the closure has had, in a local economy that was battered by COVID-19.

“Many of these businesses would not be open today (without the closure),” Sousa said. “It was a game changer, a lifesaver, for a lot of companies.”

The decision to move forward on the issue comes after city officials identified the priorities and requirements for a permanent closure at a July 12 work session.

“First, we want it to look nice and inviting,” said Mike Lavery, assistant to the city manager. “Second, it absolutely needs to protect public safety, if we're inviting pedestrians to be in the roadway.”

The pedestrian zone will likely be closed off by concrete barriers, featuring decorative murals painted by local artists — similar to those present on Myrtle and Court streets. Road signage and turning lanes onto Cleveland will be removed “in the coming weeks,” Lavery said.

It is unclear how the closure will impact Imagine Clearwater, the redevelopment proposal slated to reshape the downtown waterfront area. However, city officials noted that Cleveland Street’s vehicular capacity is “relatively limited” anyways.

Further improvements to the stretch to make it more “pedestrian-friendly,” such as removing curbs and replacing the roadway, will likely be financed by the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, according to Mayor Frank Hibbard. Cleveland Street lies within the CRA’s 488-acre redevelopment district in downtown Clearwater.

The closure will require Cleveland Street businesses to return to city code standards, some of which were waived during the pandemic, over the next 90 days.

“Because we allowed flexibility during COVID, I don’t think we have one current outdoor cafe permit out there,” said Director of Planning and Development Gina Clayton.

Businesses will also have to obtain an updated liquor license allowing for alcohol sales onto the street, which is a public right-of-way.

City staff will present a more concrete proposal for the closure in August, to be voted on by the council.

“I’ll be very vocal right now: I think it’s great,” said Council member David Albritton. “It’s done great things for our downtown. Sometimes events have silver linings you don’t realize, and this is one of them. It’s turned our downtown around in ways that we would have never imagined before.”

Hibbard shared Albritton’s satisfaction with the success of the Cleveland Street experiment.

“I have to say, we’ve done a lot of different projects downtown, but this is the cheapest and most efficacious that I can remember,” he said.