A Times Editorial
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 18, 2002
Last December Clearwater city commissioners concluded that the terrorist attacks and the sagging economy had spoiled, at least for the foreseeable future, promising plans for resort development in Clearwater Beach and that the expected influx of private developers' money to help build parking garages and new streets on the beach would not soon materialize.
Commissioners seemed to have two options: Shelve all plans for redevelopment of Clearwater Beach (an option no one really wanted to consider) or find ways to keep some momentum going while waiting for the market to improve.
Recognizing that not much could happen on the beach unless parking problems there were solved, commissioners told the city staff to come back to them in 180 days with a strategy for providing more parking.
This week, the staff put before the commissioners three different "opportunities" for new beach parking facilities, but none of the proposals seems fully baked. Commissioners need to close the oven door, reset the timer and review the recipe. If they don't, this new commission may find its own roundabout.
Here are the three options:
Orthodontist Howard Howell says he has contracts to buy seven parcels totaling 92,400 square feet between Coronado and Hamden drives and he will sell them to the city for $10-million. The city then could demolish the aging buildings on those parcels and build a surface parking lot with 261 spaces if the city vacated Fifth Street and used that area too. In addition to the $10-million, Howell would get to take 50 percent of the development rights associated with the property and use them somewhere else.
Local lawyer Bill Kimpton, one of the principals hoping to develop an approved resort hotel called the Marriott Seashell on S Gulfview Boulevard, has proposed leasing 71,000 square feet of property he controls to the city for a surface parking lot for 150 to 160 cars until the economy improves and he can revive his resort plans. The city would pay about $3,000 per space per year to lease the lot. Kimpton would pay to demolish the two aging hotels on the property and build the parking lot. But if construction of a resort has not begun by March 1, 2006, Kimpton wants the city to buy his property at fair market value, capped at $6-million. Kimpton says that he must have the promise of the buyout in order to obtain financing to finish buying the property he has options on and to build the parking lot. The city would use Penny for Pinellas money if it had to pay the $6-million.
The city may have the opportunity to buy a surface parking lot behind the struggling Pelican Walk shopping center on Mandalay Avenue and build a 450-space parking garage on that lot. The cost of buying the land and building the garage is estimated at $7.7-million, though there is no definitive selling price from the property owner yet. The city would have to issue bonds to finance the cost of the garage.
At a meeting tonight, Clearwater commissioners are scheduled to make some decisions about these proposals. The city staff has recommended that they vote to start negotiations on the Pelican Walk garage site and that they accept Kimpton's proposal.
Each of these options has its own set of problems.
Howell's proposal would allow the demolition of several aging properties -- a plus, for sure. But the $10-million price tag is high enough to make one gasp, especially when the city would have to pay for the demolition and the parking lot and Howell would walk away with half the development rights. If commissioners go for this deal, we have a bridge to sell them.
The Kimpton proposal has raised the hackles of some who consider it a bailout for Kimpton. And in fact, the $6-million figure Kimpton is demanding isn't linked to the value of the land, but to Kimpton's costs incurred during his now two-year-long effort to develop Clearwater Beach's first true resort. City taxpayers don't owe Kimpton reimbursement for the costs of his business venture.
However, parking on the Kimpton site would be convenient for beachgoers. The city's parking rates would soon cover the lease costs. And there is something to be said for preserving the potential for this valuable real estate to be the site for a resort.
The Pelican Walk garage is seen as a potential boon to shops and restaurants nearby that lack parking. Okay, which of those will step up and partner with the city on the cost? And without a definitive price from the property seller, the city should not jump too eagerly at this, either.
The City Commission should keep in mind two questions as it ponders these proposals tonight:
What is their goal? Is it just to find enough parking spaces to replace spaces along Gulfview Boulevard that will be torn out for the new Beach Walk? Is it to reserve space for future resort or parking garage development? The commission needs to know its goal and seek deals structured specifically to satisfy that goal.
Does the city have designated and dependable funding sources for whatever projects it chooses, and has it adequately explained those to the public? Questions already are being raised about whether Penny for Pinellas dollars are legal and appropriate for purchasing the Kimpton land. Some city officials at a recent meeting seemed confused about which projects might be bonded, at what interest rates, and backed by what funds. There should be no confusion.
It is good that Clearwater commissioners are undaunted by obstacles in their determination to revitalize Clearwater Beach. But that determination needs to be tempered with practicality. There is no need to rush into decisions with numbers still changing and questions unanswered.