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You can almost smell that theater popcorn

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A Times Editorial Published November 17, 2005

CLEARWATER – With Tuesday’s approval by the Clearwater Community Development Board, the massive Acqua at the Downtown Plaza project is a big step closer to getting built. No wonder members of the Acqua team were high-fiving and hugging each other after the unanimous vote. With that approval alone, the developers could proceed to build their project, as long as they didn’t vary from the plan presented to the Community Development Board. However, they hopefully are just as eager to complete a second big step they have been working on: inking a development agreement with the city.

The city and the Acqua team have been negotiating the terms of such an agreement for months. While rumors have circulated that the two sides are far from a consensus, City Attorney Pam Akin reports they “are not apart at all; we just are not finished.” Akin said they are merely resolving language issues and “refining some things” and hope to have the document finished before Christmas. It likely would show up on the City Council agenda in January or February, Akin said. The development agreement is a critical piece. It binds both sides to deliver on some promises, one of them especially important to Clearwater residents. Elias Jafif has promised to include a first-run movie theater in his mixed-use project planned for four downtown acres at Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue, across the street from the Harborview Center.

City officials have been working for several years to attract a theater developer to Clearwater, which now has no first-run movie theater. They want to make sure that Jafif delivers on his promise, and neither the letter of intent Jafif has from a theater operator nor the verbal assurances of that operator at Tuesday’s development board meeting are considered sufficient guarantees. The development agreement is the vehicle to do that. If Jafif builds the theater, the city promises to give him the extra tax revenue generated by his project to offset the cost of building the movie theater parking. That could amount to millions of dollars. Also, the city is requiring Jafif to have an actual contract with a theater operator before the City Council votes on the development agreement.

Those are smart moves by the city government on behalf of Clearwater residents tired of driving miles to see a newly released movie. Jafif, for his part, is not only interested in getting paid back for some of the 1,223 parking spaces he will build for his theater and 33-story condominium tower, he also wants to be reimbursed for some of the streetscaping he will do around the borders of his property to match a planned city project. Without an approved development agreement, Jafif won’t get those goodies. Though the Acqua tower will be the tallest building in Clearwater, there has been little opposition to the height. There certainly was none Tuesday from the development board members, with member J.B. Johnson declaring, “Clearwater’s changing. We’re in a different era.

The days of one-story and two-story buildings are over. We can’t spread out; we need to go up.” Height has traditionally been a big issue for Clearwater residents, but the project’s location in the heart of downtown along with the promise of a movie theater seem to have quieted any opposition. A movieplex, new restaurants, new condominiums – all are on the drawing boards from multiple developers. And now Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard is carefully reviving the idea, nixed by voters in a previous referendum, of a city-owned marina in Clearwater Harbor off Coachman Park. Maybe downtown Clearwater has a future after all.


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