CLEARWATER — Her sixth-floor office in downtown Clearwater provides a view of the blue Intracoastal Waterway, the beaches and all the way to the far horizon where the sun sets in the Gulf of Mexico.
When she stands at the window and looks down, the Capitol Theatre marquee juts above the palm trees lining Cleveland Street to the left. The tall, sloping roof of the Main Library and the 264-foot-tall Water’s Edge condominiums dominate the skyline up the street, and where the Harborview Center once stood, a grassy bluff now slopes down to Coachman Park.
As the director of the Clearwater Community Redevelopment Agency — the city agency funded by business taxes — Amanda Thompson’s job is to bring a spark to the downtown, turning it into a vibrant and interesting place where people want to live and work. As city liaison, she recruits downtown business owners, real estate developers, artists, and others in her efforts to ignite an urban environment where residents can step out and walk the neighborhood to listen to live music, interact with artists, writers, musicians, and meet other creative and technical types.
“That’s the whole point of cities and public spaces,” says the 40-year-old Thompson, who became CRA director in January 2018. “That’s where that unplanned exchange happens.”
The Atlanta native has also lived in Washington, D.C. As part of Decatur, Georgia’s planning department for a decade, Thompson helped bring $150 million in mixed-use development to that city’s downtown.
The idea is, when that downtown ember begins to glow, you’ll see plenty of people on the streets. You’ll see people walking to listen to live music, awaiting an open table outside restaurants, or chatting on park benches. Day or night, there’s a self-sustaining urban scene with a musician playing for tips, someone painting at an easel, movies in the park, families enjoying the night air.
Thompson says Clearwater’s downtown is getting there, with 3,000 to 5,000 people showing up for the monthly Blast Friday street party. And when there are concerts in Coachman Park and other events, the spillover translates into diners and bar patrons on Cleveland Street. When there are no events, not so much.
On any given night
According to Pinellas County Economic Development, more than 6,000 people live in downtown Clearwater, with at least 5,500 of them living in the same downtown area the CRA taxes businesses.
“On any given night, if there’s not a special event going on, we won’t see a lot of people on the street,” Thompson said. “That’s because we don’t have a lot of people living downtown. That’s why building housing is so important for us.”
And not building just any housing, either: Thompson wants affordable housing for people who work in service industries, at Morton Plant Hospital, and at other businesses near downtown. The economy has left some working people with little for rent, she says.
“There is not a lot of property for sale, but people have debt, so buying is not an option,” she said. “So now there’s a greater number of renters who have less money to spend on rent, and a very low supply of rental housing in downtown.”
Affordable housing on Fire Station 45 site
Thompson got a step closer to providing more affordable downtown housing Oct. 14 when the City Council, which convenes monthly as the CRA board, approved the sale of the Fire Station 45 property to a developer who will receive tax breaks for erecting an 81-unit apartment building on the site. The agreement was reached months after the city turned down a Church of Scientology letter of intent to turn the old firehouse at 610 Franklin St. into a nonprofit art center — a suggestion that was outside the CRA’s stated plans for the building.
During the Oct. 14 CRA/City Council hearing, the council first sold the property to the CRA for $1 million, then gave the CRA permission to sell the property to Blue Sky Communities LLC, for $2 million. The developer specializes in tax-credit housing and residential projects. Thompson suggested using the $1 million difference for building additional housing or more parking structures.
As part of the agreement, Blue Sky, headed by chief executive Shawn Wilson, will spend $22 million creating workforce housing for the workers Thompson talks about. Blue Sky will apply for $17 million in tax credits to subsidize the cost.
Project depends on tax credits
“As for a timeline, we’ll know in March if they’ve received tax credits, and when that happens, we’ll go through due diligence and closing,” she said.
Once Blue Sky’s apartment project jumps through the city’s design and permitting hoops, it should break ground in early 2021, Thompson said. She told the council that rent at 610 Franklin St. will be priced in three categories: 30 percent of area median income, 60 percent of AMI, and 80 percent AMI. The median household income in Clearwater is $45,631, according to federal housing data.
The BlueSky proposal hits all the right points, Thompson said.
“It was a rare occurrence when you have all the adopted goals of downtown, including planning, supporting workforce housing, taking advantage of state and federal tax credits, zoning that already allows housing, the CRA actually owning the property and a developer with a tax credit program — all of this comes together as a win-win,” she said.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in downtown Clearwater, fair-market rent looks something like this: Studio apartments, $916; one-bedroom apartments, $1,133; two-bedroom apartments, $1,485; and three-bedroom apartments: $1,794.
Joins Apex 1100 and The Nolen
Blue Sky’s project would join Apex 1100 condos and The Nolen luxury apartments at 949 Cleveland St. as downtown rental apartments. The owners of The Nolen, NM Residential of Maitland and Cleveland, Ohio, also has rental towers on Lake Erie. After failing to find retail tenants for its ground floor, the company recently applied for CRA grant money to install its own retail businesses on The Nolen’s ground floor, Thompson said.
“They’ve prequalified for three spaces and have proposed a coffee shop, a food hall and a beer-and-wine place,” she said. “After the CRA staff reviews the proposals, we’ll bring it to the City Council for a grant request in November or December.”
It’s a familiar process. To ignite the aforementioned spark, the CRA has already provided a half-dozen or so grants to downtown food and beverage operations under its Anchor Tenant Incentive Program. The program — designed to attract anchor restaurants and brew pubs to Downtown — provides loan-to-grant funding of up to $250,000 to property owners and commercial tenants.
In the meantime, Thompson will continue to match state and federal tax projects with developers willing to build downtown housing.
“We know affordable housing is sorely missing in our market,” Thompson said. “A single parent that works in the checkout line at Publix, the manager of a beach motel, or a service industry worker can live in these units.”