City of Clearwater aims to revitalize North Marina District

On weekends, empty boat trailers fill the sprawling parking lot at Clearwater’s Seminole Street boat ramp.
In fact, the crowds of anglers and recreational boaters have swelled to sizes never seen before since a $6.5 million construction project to upgrade the already busy boat ramp largely wrapped up late last year.
“We’ve been getting rave reviews from the public,” Clearwater’s Marine & Aviation Director Ed Chesney says. “We have seen record crowds. It’s busier than it has ever been. It is so busy we have parking lot attendants in there on weekends, which is something we never had before. That was a surprise for us, but a good surprise.”
For Clearwater, the project goal is threefold: repair and improve the busy boat ramp; harness a scenic city property’s untapped potential as a waterfront destination; and breathe new life and activity into the North Marina District, the area north of downtown along the North Fort Harrison corridor where city officials seek to attract redevelopment and business interest.
Improvements to the Seminole Street ramp’s battered, outdated 1960s-era parking lot include resurfacing and larger parking spaces to accommodate the trailers of larger boats. The eight boat launches have been improved to help with vehicle flow. There is a new restroom building to replace portable toilets, new lighting, stormwater and drainage enhancements, and Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades.
Creating a destination
Seminole Street has the distinction of being the largest boat ramp in north Pinellas County and the second-largest in all of Pinellas behind Ft. DeSoto. Against that backdrop, a primary focus of the recent construction is to improve its functionality as a ramp. But city officials also want to transform this picturesque location on the Intracoastal Waterway into a destination where residents and tourists alike will come to walk, have lunch, or take in the scenery.
To that end, there are new parking areas for cars without boat trailers, a dog walk, newly planted palm trees and landscaping, and picnic tables under the shade of a blue canopy. A palm-lined promenade along the waterfront offers panoramic views of boats cruising to and from the ramp and pelicans in flight. Along that walkway, there is another picnic table with a waterfront view in the shade of canopy. Lush new landscaping and a new kayak launch enhance a natural western area of the property that overlooks the water.
“We want people to come to the site as a destination and not just a place to launch,” Chesney says. “We want people to come down for lunch. We want to make it a walkable destination.”

For the city, the early returns are positive.

“I drive out there and I see people sitting on a park bench near the water,” says Assistant City Manager Michael Delk. “To me, that’s what it’s all about. People coming down to enjoy this area that used to be desolate.”
Zach George, who owns Wet Lines Fishing, a bait and tackle shop and fishing charter service at the Seminole Street ramp, says the new pavement and upgraded facilities are boosting business.
“A lot more people are coming here now,” George says. “It’s a great thing the city did here. Everything has gotten 10 times better.”

The city likely is not done. Chesney says there are plans for two floating boat docks that can accommodate up to a dozen boats. The idea is that people will decide to boat to Seminole Street instead of just launching from it. Chesney says there is also private interest in opening a restaurant or food venue at the property.
“With the rebranding of that area as the North Marina District a few years back, that is exactly the type of private interest in business and redevelopment we are trying to bring in,” he says.
New use for an old school 

With the boat ramp improvements complete and a private developer building condominiums on a neighboring property, the city’s next significant project in the North Marina area is finding new life for an old school.
North Ward Elementary School operated as a public school from 1915, shortly after Pinellas County was established, until it was shuttered in 2009 due to lagging enrollment. The city purchased North Ward from the Pinellas County School Board in 2019 with plans to find a partner -- possibly a developer, an arts group, a nonprofit organization, or some other entity -- to team with on a historic renovation and adaptive reuse of the red-brick schoolhouse. Right now, the school has stood fenced-off and vacant for more than a decade and the city’s most pressing needs include patching holes in the leaking roof and stabilizing the structure.
Looking more long-term, the City Council is seeking up to $3 million during the current legislative session in Tallahassee for renovation work. The city has also set the wheels in motion to apply to have the school added to the National Register of Historic Places, an honorary designation that makes the property eligible for federal historic tax credits as long as future renovation work maintains the building’s historic character.
The City Council may also designate the North Ward property as a local historic resource, meaning any future renovation or construction would have to comply with the historic preservation provisions of the city code. As that process plays out, the city also plans to put out a request for proposals from potential development partners to see their vision for the future use of the North Ward property.
During a Feb. 16 discussion on the property, city staff and council members noted that residents of the neighboring Old Bay neighborhood and North Ward alumni have a strong connection to the school and want to see it reborn as a community gathering place.

“The residents really view this as a community asset, part of the neighborhood,” Planning & Development Director Gina Clayton says. “But they want that fence removed.” 

There are several local success stories Clearwater can look to for the renovation and reuse of a historic building.
A report prepared for the city points to nine examples of the adaptive reuse of historic buildings in the Tampa Bay Area. In Tampa, the circa 1902 former pump house for Tampa Water Works is now the Ulele restaurant and microbrewery. The Armature Works upscale food hall and event venue is the former trolley barn for Tampa’s old streetcar system. The historic Rialto Theatre on North Franklin Street is now an events space, arts, and dance venue.
Several former schools in the area have also found a second life as a new use. For example, the early 20th Century building in St. Petersburg, which was once a different North Ward School, now houses a restaurant, an attorney’s office, fitness studios, a wine shop, clothing boutiques, and a spa.
Civic space, retail shops, an arts and culture venue, and a museum are just a few of the ideas floating around for the future of Clearwater’s North Ward. When the city officially seeks proposals, Delk expects substantial interest.

“We’ve just had a major public investment in the Seminole boat ramp and major private investment in the new condos going up,” Delk says. “So we have significant public and private investment in that area and now the possibility for a significant public-private partnership. It’s a good time to move forward with North Ward.”

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. Chris spent more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys our local music scene, great weather, and Florida's wealth of outdoor festivals.