Where to invest? Clearwater rezoning plan encourages redevelopment along U.S. 19

While much attention is revolving around Imagine Clearwater, a planned redevelopment of the city’s downtown and waterfront, in recent months, a separate effort to rezone a major stretch of U.S. 19 is quietly moving forward.

In fact, the same night (Feb. 2) the Clearwater City Council approved the Imagine Clearwater project, the U.S. 19 plan also met approval by council members. But Imagine Clearwater, a project that will affect about 50 acres along the city’s waterfront and reinvigorate the downtown sector, grabbed the headlines that night, says Denise Sanderson, director of economic development. “So we’re flying under the radar.”

The newly adopted U.S. 19 plan affects approximately 4,000 parcels, says Lauren Matzke, a planning manager in the city’s long-range planning division, by creating a single zoning district with three sub-districts. Previously, there were 12 separate zoning districts.

The new zoning and design standards put as-of-right development into place, making it easier for property owners to redevelop their land and build new projects. As-of-right development complies with all applicable zoning regulations and does not require any discretionary action by the city.

“This means most projects can move forward at the permit level with less impact on the property owners,” Matzke says. “It’s a straightforward approach to the zoning process.” 

This will attract more mixed-use developments with retail, residential, office, medical along U.S. 19, not just at the major intersections, but along the frontage access roads, Matzke says. This will create hubs of urban-style living where residents can live, work and shop. She stresses, though, “We’re not trying to create another downtown. That’s not feasible.”

End of construction paves way for private investments

So while Imagine Clearwater dominates conversations, Sanderson says U.S. 19 “is the next opportunity for economic growth in our community.” She anticipates that developers will flock to Clearwater from throughout the Tampa Bay area. 

“This gives us an advantage over other areas in our region. As far as major redevelopment opportunities go, this is it in the region,” she adds. “It’s exciting for us.”

The U.S. 19 plan has been in the works since 2012, when a vision plan for the corridor was adopted, says Matzke. The plan was necessary, she adds, because of long-term construction on the highway. The Florida Department of Transportation project, which recently completed the Clearwater portion, elevated the mainline highway at major intersections while creating interchanges and frontage roads for local access.

This construction had an immense negative effect on the businesses located along the highway. It blocked access to those that were once at street level and depended on drive-by traffic. Coupled with the 2008 recession that hit not long after construction began, many retailers were forced to close their doors. 

“With all that construction -- 10 years of construction -- and disruption, as well as the economic downturn, a lot of businesses struggled,” Matzke says.

Matzke began fielding calls from developers and property owners before the U.S. 19 plan was even approved by council. She’s already seeing an interest in varied projects along the highway, she says. One developer wants to upgrade their property from a gas station to a residential development. Another developer, who owns land with a hotel on it, is eyeing an outparcel on their property as a potential retail spot. Meanwhile, an owner of an apartment complex hopes to build more apartments on that property. In the past, this project would have required review by the city and could have taken as long as five months -- perhaps even longer -- before being approved, Mazke says. 

The planning and zoning department will offer courtesy reviews of concept plans to ensure they meet the new zoning and design standards, she adds. 

“With the new codes, groups want to make sure they comply,” she says.

In the hunt to attract developers, investors

Bill Mazas, founder of Mazas Holdings, LLC, a Tampa Bay-based real estate developer, is “excited the city has put more effort into rethinking the corridor of U.S. 19.” His company owns property at the intersection of 19 and Drew Street, which includes the parcel where Sports Legends Bar and Grill is located as well as the strip center behind it.

Like other property owners, he was affected by the  construction along U.S. 19 and the recession. 

“It really had a bigger impact than we would have anticipated,” he says. “We lost a lot of tenants and the tenants we do have are short-term leases. It’s really deteriorated over the past decade.”

Mazas and his team began drafting several new concepts for the property as discussion of a new zoning plan for U.S. 19 unfolded. The one that has the most promise includes residential, retail and hotel components. 

“That concept makes a lot of sense,” he says. “We just need to find the right hotel partner.”

He applauds the city’s vision for U.S. 19 as it opens up development possibilities for the area and will foster economic growth. “This will change everything,” he says. “It has a lot of promise. This will promote growth and bring in jobs to create that urban living environment.”

Read more articles by Tiffany Razzano.

Tiffany Razano is a Pinellas County-based writer and editor covering the City of Clearwater and other news and features in the Tampa Bay region for 83 Degrees.
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