CLEARWATER - With the City of Clearwater gearing-up for a likely November referendum that will seek voter approval for selling part of the City Hall property to Opus Corp., Save the Bayfront has announced its position on the issue. During the April 21 City Council meeting, Anne Garris, spokesperson for Save the Bayfront, said, "We are enthusiastically in favor of the use of the Baptist Church as a City Hall." Garris also invited the public to visit the organization's web site, www.savethebayfront.com, where they can read information about the bayfront and bluff, and discuss their own opinion about what is going on.
Save the Bayfront has long been involved with preserving the free public use of the City-owned recreation/open space land on the downtown waterfront. According to Garris, Save the Bayfront was active in creating and promoting the amendments to the City Charter that currently protect the bayfront.
The organization was also instrumental in defeating two recent referenda that would have resulted changes to the Bayfront's uses and appearance. The group opposed the De Guardiola proposal in 2000 because they claimed that it would have turned Coachman Part into a commercial entertainment venue. In 2004, Save the Bayfront opposed Charter amendments that they claim would have opened the door to too many activities that weren't being specifically disclosed.
Garris said that Save the Bayfront is appalled that City code allows 250-foot high buildings on the bluff, but they are aware that the Calvary property is private and not covered by the City Charter, and they agree that the owners should be able to develop the property within the limits of the code.
But Garris said, "If the City feels that there must be a different City Hall, we are in favor of swapping the Baptist Church property for the City Hall property and would support a referendum to that effect."
Save the Bayfront views the Baptist Church as capable of containing City Hall functions, and providing Clearwater's citizens with "an excellent Civic Auditorium with incredible acoustics plus space for other civic and social activities." The land swap would also preserve one of Clearwater's signature structures; "This would avoid the tragedy of tearing down one of Clearwater's most historic buildings, and save the cost of building a new City Hall. It also leaves the same amount of irreplaceable waterfront property in the hands of the people of Clearwater," Garris said.
But Bill West, Real Estate Manager for Opus Corporation, does not think that the land swap is feasible. "We looked at it very hard'" he said, "but it is not feasible financially, because of the project's time-line, and from a construction standpoint."
West said that the Calvary site is simply too small to build around the domed sanctuary. He said that Opus is evaluating the feasibility of moving it, and perhaps donating it to the City for relocation to Coachman Park.
Regarding the details of Opus' development plan, West said, "My goal is to get out to the public sooner rather than later, and explain the compelling aspects of the project." One of those aspects, West said, is producing a tax increment that would be reinvested in Clearwater's downtown.
Garris said, "We would like to see the City finally get serious about making the peoples bayfront park a thing of beauty and usefulness, a family park that it was originally intended to be with flowering plants, trees, playgrounds and an interactive water feature, boardwalks and benches, and small free concerts with no fences." But those improvements take money, a resource that seems to be in short supply despite the rising tide of City property tax revenues in recent years.
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