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The Clearwater City Commission appears in danger of losing its sense of direction on the issue of redeveloping Clearwater Beach, and all because of parking.
Until October, this commission had firmly taken control of a problem that had flummoxed previous city commissions: the steady decline of the tourist sections of Clearwater Beach.
The results of that leadership were already showing up. With the passage of a revitalization plan for the beach tourist area called Beach by Design, with final design of a new fixed bridge to the beach, and with approval of Beach Walk, a new pedestrian/bike path for the gulf front, investors and developers were taking notice.
And not only were they interested in making a private investment in the beach, they also were willing to contribute money toward needed public improvements such as streets, parking garages, sidewalks and landscaping -- improvements taxpayers would otherwise have to fund.
It was a sweet song they were singing, one Clearwater has waited a long time to hear.
But since October, city commissioners have muddied the melody. That's when they saw a drawing of a proposed 465-room resort on a Gulfview Boulevard property owned by beach hotelier Tony Markopoulos and were alarmed by the massive appearance of the project. Contributing to that mass was not just the huge number of rooms, but the interior parking garage that would provide hotel parking plus 400 public parking spaces. Like the developers of another proposed resort nearby, Markopoulos was being required to provide public parking spaces in his garage.
Commissioners seemed to conclude that no public beach parking could be put inside the resorts without making them ugly and massive -- a conclusion that should be questioned -- and sent the city staff off on a hunt for a place and a way to build standalone public garages.
The degree to which the parking issue has sidetracked the discussion of beach redevelopment was apparent at a City Commission work session Monday. The city staff begged commissioners to give them some direction and not allow parking to hijack other beach plans.
In response, commissioners set off on a parking discussion that wandered all over the place, included such irrelevant items as the need to fix up curbs and gutters, and ended unbelievably with some commissioners raising again the discarded idea of building a parking garage beside Pier 60, smack in the middle of the most popular public area of the beach.
It is this kind of city indecision and detouring, year after year, that led to the decline of Clearwater Beach in the first place.
Admittedly, the City Commission faces some tough decisions. Parking is an important issue in Clearwater Beach, and commissioners are concerned about what the public reaction will be if they rip out the parking lots on S Gulfview Boulevard to build the Beach Walk and don't immediately replace that parking nearby. In addition, the city has little money to build garages or other public improvements on its own. And the downturn in the economy has implications for the city budget and could discourage potential developers.
That's why a set of suggestions made Monday by Assistant City Manager Ralph Stone and city planning consultant Charlie Siemon ought to gain the City Commission's favor at its meeting tonight. Stone and Siemon asked the commission to:
Approve funding to design the Beach Walk. Later, when economic trends are clearer, the commission can decide when and how to build it.
Ask the private sector to assemble land between Coronado and Hamden drives that the city can purchase and use, first for surface parking to replace the S Gulfview parking lots, and later for a parking garage site.
Allow the city staff to study ways to build a small, 450-space parking garage behind the Pelican Walk shopping plaza on Mandalay Avenue to provide parking for current and new retailers.
"You need to take control of the situation," Siemon told commissioners Monday. "Now is the time for you to set the economic table for when this recession is over."
Residents as well as private investors need to see tonight that this City Commission can keep its eye on the ball when it comes to beach revitalization.