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Banking on Old Bay’s promise

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Two developers say their projects will draw middle-income home buyers, many of them Scientologists, to the area north of downtown Clearwater. By ROBERT FARLEY Published January 24, 2005 CLEARWATER – Two developers are proposing multifamily projects in a struggling Old Bay area immediately north of downtown, hoping to start a transformation that will rely heavily on Scientologists buying in. Together, the projects promise to bring some 250 new residences to the area. And both developers say they are just getting started. “We really think in five years, you won’t recognize this place,” said Peter Leach, one of three partners who last month submitted site plans for Garden Trail, a project that includes 60 townhouses and condominiums off N Garden Avenue. “We’re 10 years behind Dunedin,” Leach said. “We can have everything Dunedin has in spades if we do it right.” Leach moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1997, and recently he built a home in the Old Bay neighborhood off Sunset Drive. “This place has won my heart,” he said. Leach envisions his $10.2-million project along the Pinellas Trail sparking a revitalization for a declining neighborhood. His plan is to try to integrate the development into the neighborhood. So it will not be gated, to avoid the impression of a “bastion or a compound and separate from the rest of the community.” All ground floor units in the condos will have an entryway from the street, and upstairs units will sport large verandas. There will be a community room and a pool. A public space connected to the Pinellas Trail will be decorated with $60,000 worth of public outdoor art. Leach is not a Scientologist, but he and business partner David Page of Southport Financial Services brought in Realtor Bill Witter, who is. Leach said Clearwater has four primary sellable assets: the Pinellas Trail, the beaches, an active and energetic community and Scientology. “What Bill (Witter) and I tried to do is take into account the Scientologists,” Leach said. “We understood these things have to be developed in partnerships.” The same development group will begin construction soon on Ewing Place, 10 townhouses on the eastern edge of the downtown core. All 10 are presold, half to Scientologists. Leach and Witter expect about the same ratio with their 60-unit project north of downtown. The second major project in the Old Bay neighborhood – proposed by Ben Kugler of Triangle Development – will probably get an even larger percentage of Scientology buyers, Witter said. The nearly 200-unit project is situated immediately north of the Church of Scientology’s Osceola Inn, a luxury hotel for visiting church members that is just steps from the church’s Sandcastle retreat. Kugler’s project includes Island View, a tower with 50 two- and three-bedroom luxury residences; and Harrison Village, a 141-condominium and retail complex on the Salvation Army site along Fort Harrison Avenue. The project will have 22,000 square feet of office and retail space, including a Haagen-Dazs ice cream shop and a small bookstore. Last week, Kugler received final site plan approval from the city. The city also approved plans for the 133-unit Clearwater Bay Marina plan nearby on N Osceola Avenue. Earlier this month, Kugler also purchased an acre of property on the east side of Fort Harrison Avenue directly across from Harrison Village. Kugler said he is holding the property for now, although he plans to soon demolish nine aging homes on the properties, which are now broken into several apartments each. The residents, all on month-to-month leases, already have gotten notice to vacate. Like Leach and his group, Kugler sees opportunity in a neighborhood that has been in decline for decades. He’s convinced home buyers are starting to see that opportunity too, and “they want to jump on board.” Kugler would not be specific about his development plans in the area, or which other properties he is targeting. But he said, “Let’s put it this way, we’re not done.” Kugler said he has no idea what percentage of buyers might be Scientologists because he doesn’t ask. City leaders say residential development downtown is exactly the jump start the downtown needs, regardless of whether it’s largely Scientologists who move in. Mayor Frank Hibbard applauds the developers for taking a risk where others have shied away. “There have been some issues up in that North Fort Harrison area,” Hibbard said. Some of the small, old motels had become havens for prostitution, drugs and homeless people, he said. “These are all things that detract from property value,” Hibbard said. “Developers are fairly risk-aversive. They are not going to jump into an area with those kinds of hurdles.” But with the opening of a new police substation downtown, the establishment of a Neighborhood Watch program and the recent redevelopment of some residential properties, he said, “that area has started to turn the corner and developers see value there.” And as opposed to large price tag sites in the downtown core or the more upscale residential neighborhoods to the south, there are still sizeable chunks of land available at much lower cost just north of downtown. Hibbard said he’s glad to see some development in what has been a “pretty tired” area of the city. “That all fits in with our desire to add more roofs to downtown Clearwater,” Hibbard said. “It certainly will add to the tax base.” And new residences are sure to create opportunities for retail stores and restaurants, he said. “Every city you see that has had a successful redevelopment in their downtown has added residential units,” Hibbard said. “Those that haven’t are struggling.” Hibbard said Scientologists are the ones who have seen and seized upon the business opportunities. Witter said it only takes a drive south on Alt. U.S. 19 from Dunedin to downtown Clearwater to see the potential. “It just sort of dies away south when you get to Clearwater. It’s like, what?” Witter said. “There is opportunity here, to put it bluntly. “We’re thinking futures,” Witter said. “The herd (of major developers) is on the beach. It’s a war over there. … They don’t see the jewel sitting over here on the bluff.” Leach also sees their project as a middle-of-the-road alternative to the high-price condominiums proposed downtown. Their condominiums – at 1,500- to 2,300-square-feet apiece – will sell in the $260,000 to $350,000 range. They hope to begin presales in March and have it 75 percent sold before they start construction in October. While Leach sees a rebirth for the Old Bay area, he says he hopes that doesn’t mean bulldozing a historically low-income area. “It’s important to do this right,” Leach said. “We run a danger of displacement. This is largely a minority community. We have to treat that with sensitivity. If it’s all middle- to high-income properties, people will be displaced.” Future projects will have affordable housing components, he said. “Five years from now, this area is going to be a very vibrant residential area for downtown Clearwater,” Leach said. Source:
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