Project could recast part of Clearwater

The largest private development project planned for downtown could reshape the northwest corner with two condo towers and upscale shops.

St. Petersburg Times/June 5, 2005
By Robert Farley

Clearwater -- What started as a modest plan for 39 condominiums just north of the Church of Scientology's Sandcastle retreat has gradually blossomed into an ambitious residential and retail development plan that could dramatically reshape the long neglected northwest corner of downtown Clearwater.

Triangle Development is now proposing two 15-story condominium towers on the bluffs overlooking Clearwater Harbor. Between them will be a 5-story building with three floors of robotic parking and more condo units.

Behind them will be Harrison Village, a project that includes a row of upscale retail shops along Ft. Harrison Avenue. It calls for residential units above and behind the shops, as well as a rooftop pool.

With 6.5 acres, Triangle now boasts the largest private development project planned for downtown. Altogether, the project will have 325 condo units - a small city housing 1,000-plus people.

Who will live there?

Triangle partners Ben Kugler and Ron Pollack, for starters. Pollack has dibs on the $2.2-million, 5,000-square-foot penthouse in one of the towers.

They're counting on a lot of fellow Scientologists to join them.

With several massive luxury condo projects being planned for downtown Clearwater, Kugler is quick to note that theirs is the only one right next to the Sandcastle.

Kugler said other touches have been added to cater to Scientologists. For example, units will be nearly sound-proof - with things such as solid-core doors - to accommodate Scientologists who are performing self-auditing as part of the upper levels of religious training.

In fact, the idea for the project came to Kugler when he was sitting in the waterfront restaurant at the Sandcastle, noticed the decaying properties to the north and asked himself "Why isn't someone handling this?"

Kugler and his partners say they are motivated to help in the turnaround of downtown Clearwater, the Church of Scientology's spiritual headquarters. "We have a genuine interest to see Clearwater become the jewel of Florida," Kugler said.

Kugler is convinced non-Scientologists will be comfortable living in what may be a community heavily populated by Scientologists. The cooperation between Scientologists and non-Scientologists in Clearwater is better than it has ever been, he said.

"I want a diversity of people in this building, so long as they are good people," Kugler said. "We are not catering just to Scientologists."

Kugler said he's been coming to the church's international religious retreat in Clearwater since 1975 and "I have seen a dramatic change" in community relations.

Among the 90 people who have put down a $5,000 deposit for a unit is former Clearwater mayor Brian Aungst.

Aungst said the original plans he saw looked impressive; he hoped the project could help clean up a run-down area. But Aungst noted that he has not signed a contract and would need to see the new, expanded plans before he commits.

The Triangle project is just the kind of thing city leaders have talked about for years, Aungst said, bringing residences into the downtown to spur retail growth.

"I think that whole corridor (north of the downtown) is being looked at (by developers)," Aungst said. "That water view is what everyone seems to want."

With average condo units going for about $700,000, and maintenance fees of about $350 per month, there will be an emphasis on luxury.

There will be waterfalls in the lobbies; a 3,500-square-foot fitness center; a 5,000-square-foot residence lounge with a 500-gallon saltwater fish tank; a juice bar by the Olympic-size heated pool; and interactive fountains. The developers have found another selling point: the only white sand beach on the waterway in mainland Clearwater. And nearly 90 percent of the condos will have a water view.

Triangle's is just one of several condominium projects being considered in downtown.

Several blocks away, Elias Jafif plans to redevelop 4 acres with hundreds of high-end condominiums above a restaurant and other retail shops, as well as a 12-screen movie theater.

Just down Cleveland Street at Station Square, developers plan a 13-story condominium with 126 units and 10,000 square feet of retail space. Further down Cleveland, the new owners of the 16-story Clearwater Centre office building plan to convert the building at 1100 Cleveland St. into residential condominiums.

And Opus South plans to remake close to 6 acres along the waterfront - including City Hall - into a $250-million mixed-use neighborhood, with more than 200 lofts and condominiums, restaurants, a new City Hall and possibly a hotel.

With that kind of competition, Kugler said it's important that his project be first. The first project, he said, will grab its share and leave the rest for the next project.

His project is expected to be complete by the summer of 2007.

Jafif, who heads the proposed project several blocks away, said it's imperative the projects be staggered over time. And the condos must be offered at different prices to appeal to different buyers. Otherwise, he said, the market will not bear it.

"If we all went out at the same time, that definitely would create an over-offer," Jafif said.

It also would be a mistake to count on Scientologists snapping up a majority of the units, said Jafif, himself a Scientologist.

"My personal viewpoint is that I don't think that (Scientologists) is such a big market to absorb hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of units," Jafif said. "Not at this point in time."

The international growth of the church is impressive, he said, and that will eventually translate to future demand in Clearwater.

"In the long run, I don't have any doubt," Jafif said.

While the condo market on Clearwater Beach has been red hot, it remains to be seen how that will translate for projects in downtown Clearwater, said real estate attorney Ed Armstrong, who is representing Triangle Development.

The Bayview Condominiums, 28 luxury units built last year several blocks north of Island View, were slow to sell.

So how can the market bear the hundreds and hundreds of condo units planned in the downtown?

"That assumes all the units get built," Armstrong said. "It may or may not happen."

Assistant City Planner Gina Clayton said the Triangle plan generally meets all of the building requirements in the downtown district, including building height, and with some minor modifications should have little difficulty winning city approval.

Kugler and his partners have been amassing properties just north of Scientology's Osceola Inn since the beginning of 2004. They will close on the Salvation Army property when it moves to its new location off Highland Avenue in August.

Most recently, Triangle paid $6.5-million for 2 acres of waterfront land owned by the family of attorney George Rahdert, who represents the St. Petersburg Times . In all, Triangle has paid about $13-million for nine contiguous properties comprising 6.5 acres.

The addition of the Rahdert property allowed Triangle to develop a larger, more comprehensive project, one that Kugler believes will spark a revitalization of the area.

Kugler is convinced Clearwater will take off much like St. Petersburg and Sarasota. Eventually, he said, it will rival even swanky Naples.

"It's going to happen," Kugler said.

Kugler said his motivation - aside from creating a profitable venture - was to clean up a blighted area. The buildings on properties Triangle purchased have long been neglected. Demolition workers had to shoo a prostitute out of one of the buildings that was about to come down, he said.

"This is not just about money," Kugler said. "I have a sense of pride in cleaning up the neighborhood.

"It's our town," Kugler said. "We're not interlopers here."

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