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Clearwater advances new City Hall after decades of debate

CLEARWATER — After more than 25 years of discussion, city leaders have advanced a plan to build a new City Hall. But not without a little more waffling first.

The city will spend $3 million for St. Petersburg-based Wannemacher Jensen Architects to design the project on a vacant city-owned site at the northwest corner of S Myrtle Avenue and Franklin Street.

Design work will take about 15 months and construction another 18 months, with estimated completion in the summer of 2025, according to city engineering director Tara Kivett.

The city has been operating out of leased space in One Clearwater Tower on Cleveland Street since January 2019, when about 50 city employees moved out of the old City Hall on the downtown bluff.

The decision to move forward came after a 4-1 City Council vote on Thursday, with Mayor Frank Hibbard voting no. Council members had already approved the location for the City Hall in March, when members unanimously voted to reallocate funds to meet the $30 million needed for the project.

At the time, City Manager Jon Jennings described the location as creating a government campus: the new City Hall site is directly south of the city’s Municipal Services Building and directly east of the Clearwater Police Department.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority also plans to build a $44.5 million modernized transit center on the parcel directly south of the new City Hall.

But before last week’s vote, Hibbard said that spending potentially $34 million on a new City Hall is “almost to the point of malpractice.” He proposed that the city should have an architect analyze the Main Library, where the City Council has its temporary chambers, and determine whether the building could accommodate permanent government offices.

“I think it’s wasteful and I think it shows a lack of creativity,” Hibbard said. “I don’t think the additional operational benefits of being next to the (Municipal Services Building) and the police station outweigh the costs.”

Council members Kathleen Beckman and Lina Teixeira said the library is no place for government offices when there is opportunity to foster more community use of the building. The library looks out onto the waterfront, which is currently undergoing an $84 million renovation to build an amphitheater, garden, playground, green space and gateway plaza.

In November, residents will also vote on a referendum asking whether the city should sell the adjacent Harborview site and the old City Hall on Osceola Avenue to build a hotel, apartments and retail.

“In thinking of this as waterfront property adjacent to a park that’s going to be programmed, having a City Hall 9-5 with employees is not what I would consider a creative solution,” Teixeira said. “I would rather it be an active building that has events in conjunction with the park.”

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Council member David Allbritton said he agreed with hiring a consultant to explore whether the library could accommodate government offices.

Jennings, who took over administration in November, noted the back and forth as a pattern.

“I think this is kind of fundamental to … some of the concerns I have here in the city is that we kind of make a decision, or at least the council made a decision, and now we’re having a conversation about having another study done,” Jennings said.

Allbritton clarified that he would have liked to examine the viability of the library for City Hall, but that it’s too late for such a study.

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