CLEARWATER — The city’s Community Development Board on Tuesday unanimously approved a 60-unit townhouse and condo project on 2 acres of mostly vacant land and empty buildings in an area just north of downtown -city.
The project is one of the first major developments to occur in the 13-block North Marina area since July 2019, when limited liability companies linked to the Church of Scientology began purchasing land in the district.
During this period, the companies purchased at least 51 plots using $14.2 million in cash.
The project approved Tuesday will include a four- and five-story building spanning nearly the entire city block on the southwest corner of Palm Bluff Street and Blanche B. Littlejohn Trail near the Pinellas Trail. The 10 plots are owned by a limited liability company run by Norm Novitsky, a businessman and Scientology parishioner who has donated at least $5 million to the church.
Robert Pergolizzi, the project’s planning and engineering consultant, said one building will have 5,000 square feet of ground floor retail on the east side facing the Pinellas Trail. He said it would mainly contain professional offices and possibly a store that would serve people using the trail.
“We think this will be a great catalyst for the region,” said Pergolizzi, director of Gulf Coast Consulting.
Anchored by the city’s Seminole boat launch, the North Marina area is a neighborhood of mostly undeveloped land and century-old bungalows overlooking Clearwater Harbor. City officials have long hoped that private investment will transform the neighborhood.
It’s unclear what’s next for the other 41 mostly vacant plots that have been purchased from North Marina since July 2019. Steven Hayes, an attorney who has done legal work on behalf of church-linked organizations during more than two decades, manages the companies. who owns the remaining plots and did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The acquisitions mirror the pattern that played out downtown between 2017 and 2019, when Scientology-linked businesses purchased 100 properties within walking distance of the church’s waterfront and international spiritual headquarters, then left many of these buildings vacant and land undeveloped.
A year before the series of purchases at North Marina began in July 2019, developer and longtime Scientology member Brian Andrus bought the private marina next to the Seminole boat launch from the city. In September, Andrus completed construction there on Marina Bay 880, two towers that surround the marina with 87 luxury condos and amenities like an Olympic-size swimming pool and sauna.
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Construction on eight townhouses at the south end of the marina began Oct. 1, county records show.
Last fall, the city-owned North Ward Elementary School building on North Fort Harrison Avenue in the district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. City officials have discussed partnering with a developer on ways to adapt the red brick school, like turning it into a hub for restaurants, shops or apartments.
On Tuesday, the Community Development Board approved the project on Palm Bluff with little discussion. It does not require City Council approval as it does not involve land use or zoning changes.
The board granted flexibility for requested height increases for “increased unit size and better views of Clearwater Harbour,” according to the application. The footprint falls within two separate zoning districts. A building will be 55 feet tall, 30 feet above the maximum commercial district boundary. The other will be 45 feet tall, 10 feet above the boundary of the Old Bay character district.
Because Blanche B. Littlejohn Trail on the east side of the property is a one-lane road, the developer will also have to widen the road to meet fire standards, said Pergolizzi, the consultant.
The council also awarded the project three units from the Public Amenity Incentive Pool, which gives developers additional density in exchange for improvements related to downtown revitalization.
“It’s a fabulous project,” said Community Development Council member Mike Flanery.