Scientologists buy chunk of Clearwater's 'super block' dream

Tampa Bay Times/September 25, 2013

By Charlie Frago

Clearwater -- The Church of Scientology has bought a big chunk of downtown Clearwater's so-called "super block," a highly visible stretch near the waterfront that was long touted by city leaders and various developers as key to revitalizing downtown.

For years, plans conjuring visions of swanky offices, boutique hotels, destination restaurants and luxury condos came and went.

More recently, leaders of the nonprofit Clearwater Marine Aquarium considered the "super block" as a site for their proposed $160.5 million aquarium, but they decided the real estate was too important to take off the tax rolls. Even so, last month aquarium and city officials briefly eyed a portion of the "super block" for an aquarium parking garage.

Now, the Church of Scientology is in control of the northern third of the block, which is bordered by Drew Street on the north, Osceola Avenue on the west, Fort Harrison Avenue on the east and Laura Street on the south. It is directly across the street from the city's Main Library and waterfront Coachman Park, where the Clearwater Jazz Holiday is held each year.

The block's proximity to the water and the potential views from its high perch above the Intracoastal Waterway were two of the reasons the block earned the "super" moniker.

It isn't known what Scientology intends to do with the property. The church didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.

Lee Arnold Jr., CEO of Colliers International, and his father-in-law Herbert G. Brown sold two parcels on the north end of the "super block" to the church this week for more than $3 million. The Pinellas County property appraiser assigned a market value of just under $610,000 to the land, which totals about an acre.

The church already owned a three-story building on the block, at 118 N Fort Harrison Ave.

The property the church bought this week has seen better days. An aging five-story office building at 121 N Osceola Ave., vacant for the last five years and once used for a temporary library while the city built its signature Main Library across the street, is bordered on both sides by forlorn parking lots.

The sale also includes another parking lot on the corner of Drew Street and Fort Harrison Avenue.

With the church mum on its plans, speculation abounds. Rumors have circulated that the church may build staff housing for church workers, or maybe a retirement home for elderly Scientologists.

Or some say the property could be a bargaining chip for a parcel of land the church reportedly covets next door to Clearwater City Hall at Pierce Street and Osceola Avenue, a few blocks from the super block. The church had reportedly tried to buy that property, but it was scooped up by the aquarium last year.

"If they bought Lee Arnold's building, that means they have some plans. They don't go buy property just to buy property," said Gilbert Jannelli, a Clearwater optometrist who also owns land on the "super block."

Arnold said he has no idea what the church has planned. Church representatives didn't tell him.

In 2001, Arnold had his own plan to build a boutique hotel, luxury condos, retail stores and a destination restaurant on the property, but the economy soured.

In 2000, Clearwater voters turned down a dream-big plan to recast downtown around a gussied-up waterfront. The super block figured largely in that plan.

That was then, this is now. And now was the time to sell, Arnold said.

The offer was fair, he said. Brown, his father-in-law, is almost 90 and the deal was a good fit for estate planning purposes, Arnold said.

"It was in the best interests of our family," he said.

Arnold said he talked to briefly to aquarium leaders about their interest in the block, but they never got serious.

"If you want to buy something, you've got to make an offer," Arnold said.

The sale to the church was unexpected news to aquarium leaders and downtown aquarium supporters.

"I was surprised that they bought it. And that they bought it at that price. That's a premium," said Frank Dame, the aquarium's chief operating officer.

Mayor George Cretekos hasn't closed the door on the latest chapter of the "super block" dream: a city parking garage for aquarium and other downtown visitors.

"Whether this takes it off the table? That's up to the church."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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