Imagine Clearwater looks to transform city waterfront

Once in a generation, perhaps even a lifetime, a city has an opportunity to transform itself into a  bustling hub that draws in residents, visitors, and businesses.

For Clearwater, that time is now.
In the next few months, the city expects construction to start on the centerpiece of the $64 million Imagine Clearwater plan to revitalize its downtown waterfront -- a complete reconstruction of Coachman Park that will transform the underdeveloped diamond in the rough on Clearwater Harbor into a picturesque gem with a 4,000-seat covered outdoor amphitheater for concerts.
The city has also sent out a call for developers to submit proposals to redevelop three city-owned properties with a prime location on the bluff overlooking the park and harbor:
  • the vacant former site of the Harborview Center,
  • the former City Hall building and property,
  • and an empty lot on Osceola Avenue and Pierce Street, across from the old City Hall.
Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard“I think we are going to get interest from developers we have not seen in Clearwater before,” Mayor Frank Hibbard says. “I think we are going to have some excellent choices.”

Building a reputation for music, performing arts

Years, even decades, in the making, Clearwater’s ambitious vision for its waterfront has precedent in the region. Across the bay, the Tampa Riverwalk and a renovated Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park breathed new life into downtown Tampa. Farther south in Pinellas County, the new St. Pete Pier and its linear park have continued downtown St. Petersburg’s momentum.
Looking at the other large cities in the Tampa Bay region, Hibbard says each has carved out a distinct identity. 

Downtown St. Petersburg, with its renowned museums (Dali, MFA, James, Woodson, Great Explorations, Florida Holocaust, Imagine) and abundance of eclectic art galleries, studios, and collections, is increasingly becoming known for fine arts. 

Tampa, the region's center of commerce driven by Port Tampa Bay and bolstered by the Bucs and the Lightning, has a long reputation as more of a working-class sports town but is increasingly seen as a vibrant reflection of the state's rich diversity of research and higher education, techies, creatives, food, and culture.

Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre, and waterfront shows at Coachman Park have helped Clearwater carve out a reputation for live music and the performing arts, Hibbard says.

Coachman, the sun-soaked waterfront location, with its cool breezes, sunset views, and proximity to the beaches, attracts large crowds and world-class musicians to outdoor entertainment at events like the long-running Clearwater Jazz Holiday, the Clearwater Sea-Blues Festival, and the Fun N’ Sun concerts.

The facilities are, to say the least, minimal.

“When they bring in concerts, we have to bring in all the infrastructure -- a stage, seating, port-o-potties. Vendors have to bring in their booths. It’s not covered,” Hibbard says. “We are going to have a much nicer venue. It will be covered. There will be permanent seating instead of folding chairs sinking into the dirt. There are going to be regular bathrooms with running water instead of port-o-potties.”

There will be upgrades for the musicians as well. Permanent green rooms with a view of the water will replace the double wide trailers used as dressing rooms and backstage areas.

“It will make it the kind of place where, as an entertainer, they will say, ‘The next time we swing through Florida, I want to play there,’” Hibbard says.
He says the lawn behind the amphitheater seating will allow the new Coachman venue to accommodate crowds up 15,000 (when COVID is no longer a concern). But Hibbard, who served as chairman of the board of Ruth Eckerd Hall during the time span between his three terms on the City Council and his election as mayor in 2020, says the “sweet spot” for the outdoor amphitheater market is a crowd in the 4,000-to-5,000 range.

He says the canopy roof over the amphitheater will attract more concerts and allow for events such as weekend art shows, theatrical plays, and performances by the Florida Orchestra. Hibbard says the goal is to create a “virtuous circle” where additional activities and events at CoachmanPark draw more visitors, who bring more business to downtown restaurants and shops and, in turn, draw more restaurants and shops to downtown.

A destination park

While events like the jazz and blues festivals draw crowds in the thousands to downtown and the waterfront, Coachman Park remains near empty on most days, falling short of its potential as a prime location.

“It’s been underutilized for decades,” Hibbard says. “You have an asphalt parking lot and four tennis courts. No one looks at the water while they’re playing tennis. We have greenspace, but it’s not in very good shape. This will remedy that.”

Beyond the amphitheater, the upgrades to the remaining two-thirds of the park will focus on bringing people to Coachman on a daily basis. The improvements will include a walking trail, lake, garden, a large open lawn, public art installations, a playground and play area for children, restrooms, and newly planted landscaping and trees.
“There will be two to three times more greenspace,” says Assistant City Manager Michael Delk. “There will be activity on city-owned property along the waterfront from Pierce Street to Drew Street. It will be a destination.”

Stockholm-based global development company Skanska is the construction firm for the park and amphitheater. Skanska’s other major waterfront projects in Tampa Bay include the St. Pete Pier and Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park along the Hillsborough River in Tampa.

The local office of Edmonton-based Stantec is the design firm. Stantec’s portfolio in the region includes the Water Street Tampa development, the master plan for the SkyCenter area at Tampa International Airport, and the site civil engineering for the new USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute in Downtown Tampa.

The Bluff

For decades, Clearwater hoped to attract development interest to the city-owned properties on the bluff, with a frustrating lack of results. But with a premier park and concert venue taking shape next door, the waterfront view, the short car or bike ride to the beach, the influx of restaurants to downtown, and an uptick in development that includes The Nolen and 1100 APEX mixed-use developments, city officials think the time has arrived.

The city’s current request for proposals from developers is looking for additional mixed-use development. Community Redevelopment Agency Director Amanda Thompson says for each property the city would like to see a retail, restaurant, cultural, or art-related component on the ground floor that attracts pedestrians, with apartments above it. She says the goal is at least 150 apartments across the three properties.

Thompson says the bluff development and the rebuilt Coachman Park should complement one another. Crowds descending on the park for a concert or other event will head to restaurants or shops on the bluff. Likewise, residents who move into the new buildings will venture down to the park to walk the dog, exercise, attend an event, or just enjoy the weather and the view.

Thompson says the CRA is working with a digital marketing firm to publicize the fact that the city is actively soliciting development proposals.

“We want to make sure as many developers as possible know about it,” she says. “This is the most important, most significant development opportunity the CRA has ever had.”

The city also has skin in the game. Clearwater has pledged to use up to $5 million from its CRA fund -- payable over four years -- to help fund workforce housing and public or cultural amenities, including performance venues, galleries, museums, or theaters.

The city will also pay up to $25,000 from its parking fund for each public-use parking space included in a development, with a total cap of 100 spaces or $2.5 million. 

Developers can also receive bonus points in the evaluation of their application for the inclusion of cultural amenities, a commitment to build more than 200 apartments on any single parcel, a pledge to fund some of the planned improvements to Coachman Park not currently included in the city’s construction budget, and the achievement of certain wellness and sustainability standards.

Next steps

Clearwater Parks and Recreation Director Jim Halios says the City Council will likely have a discussion in March about potential sponsorship or conservancy options where a private nonprofit could help market and promote the park, raise funds for operation and maintenance and possibly operate some portion of it, such as the amphitheater.  

Private developers have until April 12 to submit proposals to the city. Staff will then evaluate the proposals, with the review and negotiation process stretching into the summer. The current timeline has a City Council vote on an agreement with the developer or developers selected coming in August.
The city’s plan is to sell or lease the three properties to developers, a move that will require a voter referendum for the former City Hall and Harborview Center sites.

Right now, work crews are clearing Coachman Park and removing existing utilities. Delk says reconstruction of the park could begin in April. The projected completion date is 2023.

Here is a link to download the City of Clearwater's RFP for the downtown waterfront.

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.