Clearwater staff favor plan with two 27-story towers for downtown bluff

When City Council chooses one of three development groups to transform the downtown bluff on Thursday, it will be a “once-in-a-generation decision,” according to City Manager Jon Jennings.

The council selection must be able to win the trust of residents by pushing its plan for the city-owned City Hall and Harborview sites through a referendum in November.

The city will rely on the chosen developer to help bring the struggling downtown to life with mixed-use projects to surround the $84 million renovation of the waterfront and Coachman Park.

During a work session Monday, Jennings recommended the board begin negotiating a development deal with The Bluffs, a team comprised of the New York-based Gotham organization and Pinellas County’s DeNunzio Group.

A rendering of the Harborview site featuring 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 an underground garage. [ The Bluffs development group ]

For the 1.4-acre Harborview site, The Bluffs offers a 13-story, 150-room hotel with 15,000 square feet of retail and dining space, a conference center, bar and rooftop pool and an underground garage.

The group has launched two 27-story towers with a combined total of 600 rental units for the 2.6-acre City Hall site, with 25,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space and parking underground.

Bluffs Development Group offers two 27-story apartment towers on the site of the Old City Hall near the downtown waterfront.
Bluffs Development Group offers two 27-story apartment towers on the site of the Old City Hall near the downtown waterfront. [ The Bluffs development group ]

The Bluffs offered to buy the old City Hall site for $15.4 million and the now-demolished Harborview Center site for $9.3 million, according to Gotham’s vice president, Matthew Pickett. Any incentives for the developer will have to be determined during negotiations, but subsidies are to be expected, Jennings said.

Gotham CEO David Picket said he would be willing to discuss a lease instead of a sale for the Harborview site, but a City Hall purchase would be more feasible to secure a financing on a multi-family dwelling.

Jennings said that of the three proposals, The Bluffs’ “visionary project” did the best job of integrating the two plots into the soon-to-be-revitalized Coachman Park. The design also creates view corridors of the Intracoastal Waterway and incorporates a conference center that the community needs, Jennings noted.

The recommendation was unanimous among Jennings and a committee of seven city staff.

Mayor Frank Hibbard said he was waiting to explain his preference among the three groups until the public had a chance to comment at Thursday’s meeting. He said he traveled to New York on April 28 for a business trip and met with Gotham’s CEO while there. He visited Gotham West, a $520 million residential, school and restoration project.

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Council member Mark Bunker said he believes The Bluff’s proposal has the potential to “break that 50-year curse,” referring to the Church of Scientology’s presence downtown that has discouraged business and private investment for decades.

Chicago-based GSP Development proposed to build 504 units on the two plots with retail, restaurant and civic space. Jennings said staff determined the proposal did not have enough housing units. Its financial offer also fell to $3.5 million for the two sites without a subsidy request.

The third nominee was Elevate Clearwater, a team of many partners including Ken Stoltenberg, who has multiple projects in Tampa’s Channel District; Atlanta-based ECI Group; and Clearwater investor Daniels Ikajevs. The group proposed a 200-room hotel for the Harborview site and 388 apartments and townhouses in a 24-story building for the City Hall site with retail outlets, a culinary incubator and a grocery store.

Jennings said the layout of the buildings on Elevate blocked views of the Intracoastal. The team offered to purchase the City Hall site for $15.4 million with incentives including a tax abatement for 10 years, waiving of all impact fees, $5 million for parking and reimbursement of demolition costs.

For the Harborview site, Elevate offered a 65-year lease and incentives of a $6.8 million interest-free loan, $900,000 for parking and waiver of impact fees.

David H. Henry