Clearwater officials have been dreaming for decades about how to put their city’s pristine downtown bluff to better use, and on Thursday, the City Council unanimously selected a development team’s $400 million plan to transform it with residential, retail and hotel projects.
Now city staff have less than three weeks to negotiate with the New York-based Gotham Organization and The DeNunzio Group of Pinellas County to create terms that can pass the scrutiny of Clearwater voters.
The council must approve a development agreement on July 7 in order to make the deadline to get the referendum question on the November ballot.
Council members agreed that the deal would include selling the developer two bluff parcels: the 1.4-acre site of the now-demolished Harborview Center at the corner of Osceola Avenue and Cleveland Street and the 2.6-acre property a half-block south with the old City Hall.
Historically, Clearwater voters have been fiercely protective of the bluff. Mayor Frank Hibbard confirmed deed restrictions would be built into this deal specifically to assuage longtime fears that a developer would flip the land to the Church of Scientology, downtown’s largest property owner.
The two sites surround the 22-acre waterfront, where the city is spending $84 million to renovate Coachman Park with an amphitheater, garden, gateway plaza and promenade.
“I’ve got kids and grandkids here in Clearwater, and I want them to be able to see what Clearwater can be again,” council member David Allbritton said. “When I was a kid, it was a very, very vibrant place and it hasn’t been for a long time, and I’m hoping that this will be the first step.”
Gotham and DeNunzio’s plan, called The Bluffs, offers to pay $15.4 million for City Hall and $9.3 million for the Harborview parcel.
For Harborview, the group pitched a 13-story, 150-room hotel with 15,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, a conference center, a rooftop bar and pool and 163 below-ground parking spaces.
The plan includes two 27-story towers with a combined 600 rental units for City Hall, with 25,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space and 600 below-ground parking spaces.
The residential project on the City Hall site could cost $325 million, with the Harborview hotel costing $75 million to be covered by private financing, according to Gotham’s vice president Matthew Picket. He said Gotham has secured $1.2 billion in debt and equity for projects in New York City since 2019 and has a joint venture equity partnership with Goldman Sachs.
Picket said the Clearwater project would be built in two phases. The hotel and first residential tower would begin in 2024 and be completed two years later while the second tower would be completed in 2028.
The Bluffs did not specify minimum incentives the team would require. The subsidy will be determined during negotiations for the July 7 development agreement.
Council members said they would have preferred to lease the Harborview site instead of selling it due to fear that voters will not be willing to part with the land. But if the city offered to sell City Hall and lease the Harborview site, the split deal would require two referendum questions, which the council agreed would create an overly complicated ballot.
A single referendum with a lease for both sites would be difficult because developers are less likely to get financing for the residential project on City Hall if they don’t own the land, City Attorney David Margolis said. One referendum question with a sale of both sites was the most feasible, they agreed.
From three proposals received, The Bluffs was the unanimous recommendation of City Manager Jon Jennings and a staff committee.
On Tuesday, council members heard from 20 supporters of another proposal, Elevate Clearwater, led by a large team that includes Tampa’s Channel District developer Ken Stoltenberg and Clearwater investor Daniels Ikajevs.
Elevate proposed a 200-room hotel for the Harborview site and 388 apartments and townhomes in a 24-story building for the City Hall site with retail, a culinary incubator and a grocer.
Most council members agreed with staff that Elevate’s incentive request, which included tax abatement and a no-interest loan, was too costly and complex. They also preferred The Bluffs’ plan for how the buildings integrated with the adjacent park and waterfront views.
Council member Lina Teixeira was the only one to prefer Elevate’s proposal, citing its offer of more parking, a single building for the residential site and a music-themed hotel that could bring identity to downtown. Outnumbered, she said she wanted to pivot to show a unity with the council going into the referendum, which others echoed.
“I hope that everybody in this room, regardless of which team you’re on, will support the referendum that we have in November because if you really care about Clearwater, this is the best thing to move forward,” Hibbard said.