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    The people have spoken: Keep our gulf view!

    By DIANE STEINLE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001


    I always suspected that Clearwater residents felt an affinity for the Gulf of Mexico, even if their busy lives left them little time to relax at the beach. Now I am awash in opinions that prove it.

    Last Sunday I wrote about a proposal to close a portion of S Gulfview Boulevard in Clearwater Beach. The proposal was floated by two would-be developers who say they will build resort hotels if the city will close the portion of S Gulfview in front of their properties, thereby allowing them to build what will pass for true oceanfront resorts.

    Motorists would no longer be able to drive between the hotels and the beach. Only a pedestrian walkway and bike path would pass in front of the hotels.

    A potential problem with that idea, it seemed to me, is this: The only place in Clearwater Beach where you can get a broad view of the beach and the Gulf of Mexico while driving your car is from S Gulfview Boulevard along a half-mile window between two tall hotels, the Hilton and the Adam's Mark Caribbean Resort. If the developers' proposal were accepted by the city of Clearwater, roughly half of that view corridor would close to motorists, blocked by the new high-rise hotels.

    I wondered whether that would bother people, especially because it is generally accepted that Clearwater Beach would benefit from some new development to replace aging, rundown commercial areas. So last Sunday on this page I asked: How important is it to you to be able to drive past that open vista of the gulf? Would you be willing to give up part of it if you would get two new resorts to spur further redevelopment of Clearwater Beach?

    Responses began rolling in as steadily as the tide.

    And kept coming.

    By Monday evening, about 50 e-mails had arrived and more were landing in my computer files at the rate of one every 15 or 20 minutes on Tuesday. Letters sent by U.S. mail started arriving Tuesday. That is a larger and faster response than I have seen to anything previously printed in the local news sections.

    So what do people think? Do they mind if a portion of S Gulfview is closed?

    Counting e-mails only (I frankly haven't had time yet to open, much less read, all the letters sent by U.S. mail), here was the tally as of late Wednesday: 69 against closing S Gulfview, 5 in favor.

    Many opponents were incensed that the proposal was being given even a minute's consideration by city officials. They spoke up loud and clear: If that's what these developers demand, tell them to get lost -- we want our view.

    Elsewhere on this page today, you can read many of the comments of both opponents and proponents of closing S Gulfview. More letters on the subject will be printed in future editions.

    First, let me clear up a misunderstanding a few readers had about the proposal. They thought the developers had asked the city to turn over to them ownership of the land between their hotel sites and the water. That isn't the case. The land would remain public, but there would be no vehicle access to it as there is today. Only bikers or walkers would be able to pass in front of the hotels.

    I was struck by several things as I read the e-mails.

    First, just like me, lots of people get a good feeling when they drive those few blocks along S Gulfview and look toward the gulf. Sure, the motels on the east side of the road look dilapidated. Yes, there are city parking lots on the west side of the road that detract from the view. But for just a minute or two as you drive along, you can see the blue water, the brightly colored beach umbrellas stuck in the sand, maybe a sailboat gliding along, children in the surf, sand dunes. It feels, for a moment, as if you, too, are a tourist having a nice day at the beach.

    Second, the special feeling about that view passes down through generations. I heard from people who are retirement age, or who are 30-something adults, or who are students who remember as young children eagerly watching for that first glimpse of the gulf from the car.

    I learned that the emotion about that view isn't exclusive to people who live in Clearwater. E-mails came from cities all over north Pinellas, from other states and even from out of the country. People who don't live here but only vacation here heard about what was proposed and wanted to get in their 2 cents' worth.

    I also noticed that this proposal seems to have killed some of the public goodwill that had been enjoyed by a local development group planning to build a Marriott resort on S Gulfview. Clearwater lawyer Bill Kimpton, Dunedin planner Richard Gehring and their partners already had won city approval to build their resort on the east side of S Gulfview. But they were sued by an adjoining property owner, Tony Markopoulos, who claimed the Marriott would hurt his plans to develop a resort hotel on his own Days Inn property on the east side of S Gulfview, just south of the Pier 60 parking lot.

    Markopoulos' lawsuit promised to delay or even kill development of the Marriott, so city commissioners urged Kimpton, Gehring and Markopoulos to sit down and talk. They did, but Markopoulos said he would drop his lawsuits only if the city closed S Gulfview to reduce the traffic noise around his property and to allow him to advertise his new resort as oceanfront.

    Kimpton and Gehring went along with Markopoulos' idea and took it to the City Commission. The proposal shows S Gulfview no longer existing in front of either of the resort properties and traffic rerouted onto a much-widened Coronado Drive behind the two hotels. A new street would be built just south of the Marriott to tie Coronado traffic back into the remaining portion of S Gulfview, which would be redesigned to a more narrow, serpentine street.

    The current public parking lots on S Gulfview and at Pier 60 would be torn up, replaced by something the developers call a "beach park." A wide pedestrian walkway and a bike path would meander through the park, past the front of the resorts and on down the new portion of S Gulfview.

    The few people who wrote in support of the proposal to close S Gulfview seemed to like that more of the beachfront would be automobile-free. Cars wouldn't be parked along S Gulfview or at Pier 60 and people could walk freely between the beach and the retail/hotel strip without worrying about crossing S Gulfview. They also felt that the city should do whatever it needed to to encourage beach redevelopment.

    Whichever side people are on, the message is clear: Clearwater Beach is a special place. And they want the city to take care of it.

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