CLEARWATER — How has a pandemic that has crippled the economy and three new city councilors affected the Imagine Clearwater downtown redevelopment plan?
Not that much yet, according to Assistant City Manager Michael Delk, the city’s point-man on the $64 million-plus project.
But it will, because new city leaders, including Mayor Frank Hibbard, have some suggestions about how to alter components of the plan, such as the location of the amphitheater and scope of the library renovations.
But those are still just suggestions right now, so Delk said city staff and consultants are forging ahead and closing in on the permitting process with construction drawings about 90% complete.
Delk told council members earlier this month that both consultant teams, Stantec and Williamson-Dacar Associates, the architectural firm working on the library project, have continued to work with the construction manager, Skanska, on the refinement of the project details, the phasing, the value engineering and the budgets.
The coronavirus crisis, however, could potentially push portions of the project back two or more months.
“We had originally had been hopeful that we could commence some breaking of ground on the construction of our new waterfront park in May,” Delk said. “I think realistically, at this point, we’re looking at optimistically mid-summer or if not early fall.”
The pandemic is causing even greater delays because it’s pushing back what could’ve been a November referendum on the future of three city-owned properties. The redevelopment of those properties — the former City Hall, former Harborview Center site, and a piece of land that was owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium — is critical to the rejuvenation of the downtown area. The City Hall and Harborview sites are protected by the City Charter, however, and would need voter approval if the city sold or leased them.
Developers had until mid-May to meet the city’s deadline to express interest in the properties.
Delk said the properties had generated interest and site visits were scheduled, but they obviously couldn’t happen now.
Therefore, Hibbard said it was in the best interest of the city to extend the May deadline.
“I think with the consideration of what’s been going on with COVID-19, I would like to extend those periods because I think we’re going to get more interest if we extend the time,” he said.
That also means a November referendum also would be delayed until at least next year.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a viable plan by November anyway,” Hibbard said.
A change in course?
The pandemic might be a hurdle, but the views of the new members of the council present a curveball.
“I think one of the things we’re going to determine is what are some of the costs of turning this ship. Because a lot of the work has, in fact, been done, there would be additional costs if there are changes,” Hibbard said, referring to the roughly $3 million already spent on design work and demolition of the Harborview Center.
Changes like moving the 4,000-seat amphitheater at the heart of what would be the new Coachman Commons.
“I would prefer to see the performance venue and have always believed that it would be better off in the northern portion of the park with an orientation of the stage either being in the northwest corner or further north with the bandstand using its current orientation,” he said.
He said the move would mean the library becomes a buffer, the venue moves away from a residential area, and it also separates it from the playground area and the water feature and walking paths.
He also said he wasn’t supportive of some of the library renovations, which are costing $6 million.
“I think it’s a lot of money, especially the rooftop,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a large enough venue and I also think we’re getting into a business where we’re competing with hotels; the aquarium is doing a similar venue that’s significantly larger that’s also going to have water views.”
He added that if the city is looking to save money, then he would start by eliminating the rooftop additions.
“That would be one that I would take right off the top,” he said. “I don’t mind the improvements made on the ground level of the library and incorporate it into the overall Imagine project, but I will never vote for the rooftop venue.”
New Council members Kathleen Beckman and Mark Bunker also targeted the amphitheater.
“What I heard most when talking to people who live here is that they didn’t vote for a 4,000-seat amphitheater,” Bunker said. “And the price tag, which keeps rising on the park is concerning.”
Bunker said he loves the plans for the park, but he wasn’t sure such a large performance venue would benefit the residents of Clearwater.
“What’s been successful so far at the park have been concerts,” he said. “That’s the only time we really draw people downtown and with the 4,000-seat amphitheater, I know it promises world-class artists, but they come with world-class ticket prices.”
On April 24, Delk told Tampa Bay Newspapers he had since spoken with each of the councilors to get a feel of what they would like to see.
“They kind of expressed their positions at the last meeting with the update, so we kind of know where they stand, but those were not motions,” he said. “So, they’re going to have to start making motions about the change in direction.”
In order to help guide them, Delk said he asked engineering staff to work with the consultants to start putting together options.
“Based on the conversations I’ve had this week, I was able to get some ballpark estimates of what it will cost us to have some design changes made and also how does that impact the timeline,” he said.
He said he hopes to bring those estimates and options back to the council sometime in May.
But, until then, staff and the consultants aren’t stopping.
“The design work on the construction permitting documents is moving forward,” he said. “We are working on the library drawings, the infrastructure on the park plans. Officially we are under a City Council direction right now. Nobody has stopped the project. Council has not directed us to do that, so until they change that’s their decision to make. Until they do that, we’re going to keep going forward.”
He said he thinks it’s safe to do so, because councilors suggested tweaking the layout but not eliminating any of the components.
“Nobody has given me the indication at this point and time that they don’t intend to move forward with the redevelopment of the park,” he said. “That’s pretty clear at this point. We’ve still got a project.”