City-county complex not thought through
A Times Editorial
Published November 19, 2006
Governments in Pinellas County don't always find it easy to cooperate - as the recent bruising battle over the county charter proved - so it was refreshing when the governments of Pinellas County and Clearwater decided that their separate needs for more space could perhaps be met by constructing one joint government center.
Clearwater City Hall and the Pinellas County Courthouse are just a block from each other in downtown Clearwater. Each was looking around for a likely site for new offices.
When they finally got together, their focus fell on a downtown city block bordered by Fort Harrison Avenue, Garden Avenue, Park Street and Pierce Street. The block contains the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus depot, located on a 0.9-acre parcel owned by PSTA, and a larger county-owned parking lot. The two properties together could be used as part of a city-county government complex with good visibility on busy Fort Harrison Avenue.
Officials also believed that PSTA's need for more space could be solved by the idea. The transit authority has wanted to build a new bus depot on a larger property for years, but has been stymied by government disapprovals or neighborhood objections. City officials theorized that the new depot could be located on the ground floor of the proposed county-city government complex, thus keeping the bus depot downtown and reducing the cost of the project to all three entities because the land already is publicly owned.
But PSTA has thrown a monkey wrench into those plans. At a recent meeting where the PSTA board was supposed to vote on joining a feasibility study with the county and city, the board instead voted to pursue a land swap with a private developer, believing that would be quicker than waiting on the city and county.
PSTA would swap its 0.9-acre bus depot property for a 2.5-acre parcel on Drew Street that a company called Triangle Development is trying to acquire.
This swap has given Clearwater officials a case of high anxiety. Why? Because Triangle Development is owned by Scientologists. And the PSTA bus depot property that Triangle wants is right next door to the Church of Scientology's new Superpower building. It is an easy stone's throw from the Scientology-owned Fort Harrison Hotel and Coachman Building.
City officials wonder if Triangle wants the land to give it to the church or make it a part of a Scientology campus. Triangle says it just wants to acquire the land for future development.
Triangle's interest in the land is curious. Triangle already owns a large amount of land along the waterfront and Fort Harrison Avenue north of downtown that it has not developed. Why is the company banking so much land at what must be a great expense?
Also, why does Triangle have so much interest in a 0.9-acre sliver of land so narrow it barely holds a bus depot - interested enough to trade a property more than twice as large for it?
And there's another oddity that should grab the PSTA board's attention: Triangle doesn't own the Drew Street property, which actually involves two parcels, one a warehouse and the other the former Clearwater ice plant. The old ice plant property has been the subject of city code enforcement action for more than a decade and its current owner claims to have plans to use the property. What's up with that?
Also, the Drew Street property borders the Pinellas Trail. Is that the best spot for heavy bus traffic? How much would it cost to demolish the existing structures and prepare the site for depot construction? What permits would be required? What would be the annual cost to PSTA of operating the Drew Street property, compared with being part of the government complex?
One thing is clear: The city, county and PSTA board have a duty to thoroughly study this situation and make the decision that is in the public's best interest, taking into account the future savings that would be realized by a consolidation of facilities. It appears that not enough research has been done on either scenario to make a decision.
[Last modified November 18, 2006, 20:37:37]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]