Clearwater OKs first condo in $1B North Marina plan, but questions remain

City officials remain skeptical about the rest of Rodney Riley’s plans, which are deemed too intense.

Tampa Bay Times/July 20, 2023

By Tracey McManus

Clearwater — The city’s Community Development Board has approved a 64-unit luxury condo on Osceola Avenue, the first of roughly 15 projects that developer Rodney Riley is planning for the North Marina Area near downtown.

The board’s approval on Tuesday was the only vote needed for the 66-foot-tall condo on vacant land just south of the entrance to the city’s popular Seminole Boat Ramp. But the remaining projects in what Riley recently described as his $1 billion Clearwater Marina District depend on a more complicated process to change the downtown plan and code to allow for more density and increased heights.

And it’s increasingly unclear whether city officials would approve those changes.

City planning staff is pushing back on the intensity of Riley’s proposal, which features residential, hotel, retail and office projects on 12 blocks surrounding the boat ramp. They noted in a May 24 memo that several structures call for more than double the density and building mass than what is currently allowed. He also proposes heights and configurations that don’t fit the city’s development vision for the district, the report states.

Riley declined to answer a series of questions about his plans from the Tampa Bay Times, including whether he will build the Osceola Avenue condo approved Tuesday if he does not get the code changes needed for his other developments.

The development board granted Riley’s request for a two-year deadline to break ground on the Osceola Avenue condo, up from the standard one year.

On March 2, Clearwater Planning Director Gina Clayton wrote in a memo that, while the city wants to foster development in the largely vacant North Marina Area, Riley’s plan was too intense. She said it would turn a charming district that connects downtown with the residential area into a high-rise tourism district.

Riley then submitted a master plan with more detail on the configuration for each block. On May 24, Clayton wrote the second memo stating the planning department still does not support most of the plan. With several 100-foot buildings, she said, it “sets a new vision and character for this area and creates in essence a new downtown core.”

The proposal also includes 256,000 square feet of office space, and Clayton said that real estate analysts predict no demand for more downtown offices for the next four years.

On Monday, Clayton and City Manager Jennifer Poirrier are scheduled to meet with Riley’s development team to discuss next steps. Any changes to the downtown plan and code to accommodate Riley’s project would require a lengthy process of city staff agreeing to draft amendments and present them to the City Council and Pinellas County Commission for votes.

Most of the properties for Riley’s projects are currently owned by limited liability companies controlled by Church of Scientology members, who have kept them vacant since they began buying in North Marina in 2019.

When Riley unveiled his plan to build the 15 projects in July 2022, he said he had secured the options to buy the 55 mostly vacant parcels from the Scientology-tied entities.

So far, the site of the approved condo, 708 N Osceola Ave., is the only property that has been sold to a company in Riley’s control, according to property records.

Riley is not a member of Scientology, and he said he has his own investors backing the $1 billion development, whom he has declined to name.

However, an email obtained by the Tampa Bay Times lays out in detail that wealthy members of Scientology are behind the project and they recruited Riley to act as their public face. It states Riley would receive 20% of profits plus a $250,000 annual salary from a parishioner’s company for handling day-to-day work, planning, lobbying and interactions with the public.

The email, first reported by the Times in April, names the author as Stephen Epstein, a Scientology parishioner and advisor for a Nashville-based real estate firm. The email explains that Riley was needed to avoid questions about the motives of the parishioners involved.

The recipient of the email, titled “Structure (email to Rod)” is named as Edward Tinsley, a former employee of Epstein’s real estate firm.

Riley adamantly rejected these portrayals, saying he did not receive the email and never agreed to the terms it describes. Epstein said the email was “inaccurate” and Tinsley declined to comment.

Although Riley has worked in sales and development for real estate companies in Florida beginning in the 1980s, he declined to identify any projects that he or his company, RSR Capital Advisers, had completed as a lead developer.

Before Riley moved to Clearwater in January 2022, he managed the purchase and redevelopment of buildings in Mesa, Arizona, for Caliber, an asset management firm. He spent 2016 to 2018 as southwest regional sales director for the real estate company CBRE.

When he filed for bankruptcy in 2011, he had $12,500 in income and $1.7 million in debt, and the court filings do not reflect any substantial real estate businesses.

When Riley unveiled the North Marina proposal last year, he described it as a $350 million development. During an interview in May with a local radio program, the Kelly Kelly Show, he said his plan was “closer to $1 billion.”

Riley has promoted Clearwater Marina District as the catalyst to funnel much-needed tax revenue into the area.

Together, his proposed projects take up about 18 of the 840 acres where the city this year created a special taxing district to benefit the North Greenwood neighborhood. The designation will allow the city to spend property tax revenues collected within those boundaries on business, housing and quality of life initiatives for the historically Black area.

If $100 million of development is constructed in the taxing district in the first six years, city staff projected it would generate $28 million in tax revenue for North Greenwood.

At the Community Development Board meeting on Tuesday, Brian Aungst Jr., Riley’s land use attorney, said the $80 million Osceola Avenue condo could achieve much of that goal on its own.

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