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A huge draw, and a huge drawback

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Designed to stimulate Clearwater’s downtown, Acqua at the Downtown Plaza would include a movie theater and a tower almost as tall as St. Petersburg’s Bank of America building. By AARON SHAROCKMAN Published July 19, 2005 CLEARWATER – It’s envisioned as the spark plug to stimulate downtown. A prime but underutilized downtown address would get a movie theater, fine restaurants, office space, retail shops and luxury condominiums. The $125-million proposal, called Acqua at the Downtown Plaza, would also include a new tower – 377 feet tall. At 32 stories high, the skyscraper would be the icon of the proposed development, 200 feet taller than anything downtown. An eight- to 12-screen movie theater – Clearwater has no first-run theater now – would front Cleveland Street, replacing vacant storefronts. Three to four destination restaurants would mingle between the theater and condominium building. One would overlook Osceola Avenue from a semicircular building. Three hundred sixty public parking spaces would be included on the 4-acre site, subsidized by $9-million in tax revenue generated by the project. After a year of guarded talks, details of Mexican-born developer Elias Jafif’s plan for a key downtown block emerged Monday. The highlight was the height. At 377 feet, Jafif’s tower would be almost as tall as St. Petersburg’s Bank of America building. It also would signal a departure for Clearwater, which has been adverse to taller towers. There’s no code limiting how high a developer can go in downtown, but city officials express a different political reality. They started to wrestle with it Monday. Jafif, who discovered the property while visiting Clearwater for Scientology course work, said if the he can’t build up, he’ll scratch the 55,000-square-foot theater to recover the economic losses of a lower height. A theater is a money loser for developers, Jafif said, but a key for Clearwater officials hoping to bring people back to its sluggish city center. The back and forth is the first of what is sure to be several discussions surrounding Jafif’s Acqua at the Downtown Plaza project. At the end of the first round, no one was sure where things stood. “This project and the details of this project are not fully baked yet,” said Mayor Frank Hibbard, after a two-hour discussion at a Monday City Council work session. “It is taller than I would like it to be. It would be a departure from anything we have.” Jafif expected a deal to be struck during Monday’s meeting. He was surprised he’d have to wait again after several rounds of closed door talks. After the new Clearwater Memorial Causeway opens in September and traffic is moved out of downtown, Jafif said downtown “becomes a ghost town.” His plan, he said, can change that. He hopes to break ground early next year before it’s too late, he said. “How do you resuscitate something that’s already died?” he said. The 32-story tower, which includes a six-level parking garage, pairs the more contemporary look of the new Clearwater Main Library across Osceola Avenue. A bending glass structure, the tower would include a distinctive top with finishes accentuating the building’s nautical-themed vision, said the project’s architect, Tim Baker, of Orlando. Lower levels and the theater itself were designed to better match the existing character of Cleveland Street and its early 20th century facades. “It could become a landmark which will start to create a new image for Clearwater,” said Baker, principal in Baker Barrios Architects, a firm specializing in urban renewal projects. “This will set the bar for the future.” City officials are still looking for more, including a firm commitment on the number of movie theaters and that it will remain a first-run theater. It’s the reason negotiations are even taking place, they say. Then there’s the 377-foot-tall building, which council member Hoyt Hamilton called the giant elephant in the room. “I’m probably the least vertically challenged person in this room,” Hamilton said. “But for some reason, for people in this city … anything above 150 feet is taboo.” Council member Carlen Petersen said with a theater and parking and restaurants, the height may be more digestable. “People have to realize, if we want to have the parking we need downtown, the retail we need downtown, the amenities we need downtown, then we have to go up,” said council member Carlen Petersen. “That’s the only way it’s going to work. We may be asking a lot out of this piece of property and height may be the only answer.” Source:
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