CLEARWATER - An entertainment draw in downtown Clearwater has long been a priority for the City Council. In 2004, the City solicited proposals from developers for a downtown multiplex movie theater, and the City Council chose to begin negotiations with Clearwater Development, LLC, owner of the Am South building and surrounding properties bounded by Fort Harrison Avenue, Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue.
The Council was presented with the preliminary result of those negotiations during their Work Session on Monday, the long-sought theater the apparent seed from which a stunning 377-foot tall residential condominium tower is planned to sprout.
The proposed 32-story development, named Acqua, would consist of:
Acqua plans to provide 560 public parking spaces, 200 reserved for the office building during the business day and operated by Acqua, and 360 spaces that the City is being asked to purchase for an estimated $9 million.
Parking is always problematic in Clearwater, and the cost of the proposed 360 public parking spaces became an issue during Council discussion. Council Member Hamilton questioned the price per space; he said, "$25,000 per space to me is very, very expensive." Recent cost estimates for a parking garage on Clearwater Beach assumed a construction cost of only $16,200 per space.
Tax Increment Financing will fund the City's purchase of the parking spaces. Acqua will be developed on land within Clearwater's Downtown CRA; the additional property tax revenue generated by the project through the year 2019 must be reinvested in downtown. Acqua representatives estimate that the project's tax increment for the duration of the CRA will amount to exactly the $9 million being asked from the City to buy the parking spaces.
Council Member Bill Jonson questioned spending all of the Acqua's TIF revenue within the project itself. He said, "In essence we're investing the $9 million in a theater; we're doing it by supporting the parking element of that." Jonson asked, "How do we want to invest the TIF? Do we want to put all the revenue from this project right back into this project?" He warned that if incremental taxes are reinvested only in the "ribbon" of most valuable downtown properties, there's a risk that the City would later run out of money to improve the rest of downtown.
The Council also had concerns about the 377-foot height of the condo tower. Hamilton said, "Talk about the elephant in the room - the height ... for some reason the people in this city have an affinity to 150 feet, anything above 150 feet is absolutely taboo." Mayor Frank Hibbard cited the 250-foot of two other proposed downtown towers, but said, "377 feet is a change for Clearwater, one that I don't know is going to be welcomed."
Although Acqua's height may not be welcomed, it is critical to the project's success. Acqua's spokesperson Kevin Burke said that if too much is stripped away from the condominium, TIF revenue would decline to "where the City can't afford the parking structure at that point and it becomes an entirely different development without the movie theater and without the parking."
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