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    Outcry may doom plan to close Gulfview

    Public reaction to the developers' proposal has been largely negative. City leaders say they have gotten the message.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- After public complaints about a plan to close 750 feet of S Gulfview Boulevard to allow two large resorts on the beachfront, the City Commission is leaning toward rejecting the idea.

    Residents have protested the road's closure in the past two weeks in a flood of letters and e-mail, as well as at two public meetings this week where the majority of about 200 people who attended opposed removing part of one of the few remaining stretches of beachfront road in the county.

    The majority of commissioners said they are likely to follow the public's opinion when they pass judgment on the idea at their Thursday meeting.

    "It's not positive stuff that we've been hearing," said Mayor Brian Aungst, who wants the commission to decide the issue promptly. "I'm not at all optimistic now that (the road closure) can go anywhere. . . . I certainly respect the public and I think that they've been heard."

    Several commissioners echoed Aungst's view of the public's negative verdict.

    "All the feedback that I have seen and heard has been really negative," Whitney Gray said. "Not only 'No,' but 'Hell, no!' And that's something that must be very strongly weighed."

    Aungst emphasized that closing part of Gulfview was not the city's idea, but was proposed by two teams of developers:

    One team led by Dunedin developer Richard Gehring and Clearwater attorney Bill Kimpton has planned a 250-room Marriott resort on the 200 and 300 blocks of S Gulfview, including building over a segment of Third Street.

    That project was approved, along with a plan to make Gulfview a landscaped, curvy road moved closer to the beach to show drivers the view, while adding wider sidewalks for pedestrians, bicyclists and skaters. The change in the character of the roadway was seen as key to preserving the area for the public, in addition to making Gulfview an attractive area for new resorts.

    But just to the north of the proposed Marriott, hotel owner Tony Markopoulos wants to build a resort almost twice as big, as well as one condominium tower. His attorneys have filed multiple lawsuits to prevent the rival Marriott from being built.

    The proposal to close part of Gulfview to cars evolved as part of a proposed legal settlement between the development groups. Markopoulos had long wanted the closure for his property to be redeveloped.

    Both Markopoulos and Kimpton said Tuesday night that they don't know what their next step would be if the commission rejects the idea of closing the portion of Gulfview that fronts their properties.

    Gehring said he felt as though he was catching javelins as residents lambasted the idea of the road closure, complained about increased traffic from the proposed resorts and even told him he came off as condescending, using fancy words to try to make his ideas sound good.

    Gehring tried to explain why the resorts would add parking spaces to the beach. He said that taxes from the developments would finance numerous beachfront improvements such as interactive fountains and landscaping where there is now parking.

    But many residents contended that without a road to separate the city's beach park from the resorts, such improvements wouldn't feel like they belonged to the public.

    "The perception would be that it was not the public's beach, that it would belong to the tourists staying in the resorts," said Wesley Vassar, who goes to the beach a few times weekly to walk and relax with his wife, Patricia.

    Lisa Chandler, who runs Pier 60 Concessions with her husband, said that closing any portion of Gulfview would lead to all of Gulfview eventually being closed. "I'm concerned that you may be starting a ripple effect here -- a negative effect," Chandler told Gehring.

    But several owners of small hotels in the area said that they needed to see the new resorts go forward to stimulate business on the beach.

    Sheila Cole, a former leader of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce and a spokeswoman for Markopoulos, also argued for removing part of Gulfview and replacing the area with pedestrian promenades.

    "We are not taking away the public beach," Cole said. "It's being improved for all of us."

    Charlie Siemon, the Boca Raton-based consultant who is advising the city on beach redevelopment, was not surprised by the negative reaction. He said he recognized the idea of closing Gulfview could be a "non-starter" so he left it out of his Beach by Design plan approved by the commission this year.

    "I know a lot of people who believe that (Gulfview) is a cherished resource," Siemon said. "I think there is a value of being able to drive up to see the beach, and I have to confess that I have done that."

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