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    Does Clearwater need to keep ocean vista?

    By DIANE STEINLE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


    How important is it to you to be able get in your car, go to Clearwater Beach and drive past an open vista of the Gulf of Mexico?

    If you do that from time to time, you know that the only place on the island where you can get an expansive view of the water while driving your car is along S Gulfview Boulevard in a half-mile window between the Hilton Hotel and the Adam's Mark Caribbean Gulf Resort. Elsewhere on the island, buildings between the beach roads and the gulf block motorists from any view of the water.

    For many people, that open area between the Hilton and the Adam's Mark is the heart of Clearwater Beach. It is where most of the parking for the beach is located, where the largest crowds of swimsuit-clad visitors gather, where there are sand volleyball courts and concession stands and a music pavilion. The city's Pier 60 is there along with a popular children's playground.

    And best of all, there is that open window on the sand and the gulf.

    That window exists because most of the beachfront there is controlled by the city and because for decades, the government officials who make decisions about development of Clearwater Beach have believed it was a view worth preserving.

    So how much is it worth to you?

    Would you be willing to give up part of it if you knew that Clearwater Beach would get two swanky resorts as a result?

    Last week, two development groups that previously had competed and feuded joined forces and said they are ready to build two high-rise resorts on S Gulfview Boulevard overlooking the gulf. Each hotel project would include a parking garage with hundreds of much-needed public parking spaces.

    But in exchange, the developers want the city to eliminate S Gulfview in front of their properties and re-route the traffic onto a widened Coronado Drive behind their resorts, so they can build true oceanfront hotels.

    If you are confused that this idea has surfaced, it might be because you know that in February, after many months of debate and public input, the Clearwater City Commission approved a sweeping beach redevelopment plan called Beach by Design. A newly designed S Gulfview was part of that plan.

    The new S Gulfview would have only two lanes instead of the current three, and it would be moved westward to where parking lots now line the beach, thereby greatly improving the view of the water for motorists. The road would be serpentine to slow down traffic, and would have lush landscaping along its gentle curves. Beside the road would be a wide beach walk for pedestrians, a wide path for bicycles, and a skate path.

    In March, the City Commission approved a plan for a new resort, the 250-room Marriott Seashell Resort, to be built across the new S Gulfview from the water on property where old, shabby motels now stand. The resort's lead developer, Clearwater attorney Bill Kimpton, was content to be across S Gulfview from the water. Everyone in City Hall and lots of people around town were excited that Clearwater Beach was going to get its first truly high-end resort.

    So what happened?

    Lawsuits, of course.

    Tony Markopoulos, who owns the Days Inn on S Gulfview near Pier 60, filed suit, saying the Marriott Seashell project would negatively impact his plans to develop a resort on his Days Inn parcel and several other parcels he owns that bump up against the Seashell site.

    The city was faced with the prospect of Markopoulos using litigation to tie up the Marriott Seashell project until it was dead, so city commissioners urged the developers on both sides to sit down and talk. They did, and what emerged a week or so later was the new proposal to eliminate S Gulfview so both resorts would have direct access to dry sand -- an amenity that enormously increases the value and marketability of their properties. It was Markopoulos' idea, but Kimpton, no doubt desperate to see his Marriott project survive, went along.

    Markopoulos previously had demanded that the city vacate heavily traveled S Gulfview around his Days Inn property so he could have beach access and his customers could sleep better at night. The city always said no.

    But at Thursday's City Commission meeting, commissioners looked at the developers' proposal and directed them to draw up more detailed plans and drawings and then shop the idea to the public in community meetings.

    All we have to look at now is a doctored aerial photograph of the beach that shows S Gulfview gone in front of the two resorts. Traffic would instead travel on a pumped-up four- or five-lane Coronado Drive behind the resorts. Then, at the south end of the Seashell resort, a new east-west street would be built to tie Coronado back into the remaining piece of S Gulfview.

    The pedestrian walkway and bicycle and skate paths proposed in Beach by Design still would traverse the beach in front of the resorts, but there would be no automobile access. The Pier 60 parking lot also would disappear, replaced by open space that might be a park or a playground or a concert venue. Out on the public beach, the developers envision planting lots of palm trees in the sand and perhaps even stringing up hammocks. They call the whole area Beach Central Park. The developers would pay for or finance the park, the widened Coronado Drive and the public parking within their hotel parking decks.

    That is the gist of it for now, though more details should emerge soon. Markopoulos has agreed to suspend his lawsuits temporarily while the city and the public consider the new proposal.

    If the new proposal were accepted, roughly half of the gulf view corridor that now exists between Pier 60 and the Adam's Mark would be blocked from motorists' view by the new resorts. Automobiles would be confined to Coronado Drive, and drivers who looked westward would see buildings.

    Is that okay with you?

    I am interested in your opinions. Please send an e-mail to npletters@sptimes.com. Or send a letter to Letters to the Editor, 710 Court St., Clearwater, FL 33756. Please include your name, address and phone number if you would like your opinion published on the editorial page.

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