Fresh eyes reveal Clearwater Beach's tired side
By DIANE STEINLE
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 2000
There is something that happens to our eyes when we live in a place every day. We stop seeing it the way it really is.
Consider what we overlook in our homes. From day to day we don't see the paint starting to chip on the eaves, the worn spot in the carpet in the hallway, the rust stains under the water heater.
We notice those things only when we tour the house looking for items to put on the to-do list, or when we do the spring cleaning, or when we are preparing to sell our home. Then we see our surroundings as if with new eyes.
So it is, I believe, with Clearwater Beach.
I took a walk along the barrier island's streets the other day, trying to see Clearwater Beach with new eyes. And I spotted things I had not seen on my regular visits there to walk on the beach or have lunch at one of the restaurants or get ice cream with the children in the evening.
It was a beautiful, balmy Tuesday morning, but I tried not to get distracted by the weather. The gulf water sparkled and the sand was white and the colorful beach umbrellas winked at me, but I tried not to be seduced. Everyone knows that the weather and sand and water are the glory of Clearwater Beach. I wasn't there to see the glory.
"DANGER-DANGER-DANGER" blared black letters on yellow tape draped carelessly around collapsed portions of pool deck railing at a Gulfview Boulevard motel. But, "Check out our rates," the sign out front said. Hmmm.
As I strolled along Gulfview, I had to watch my feet. The sidewalk was cracked and poorly patched in places. Because I was looking down, I noticed all the trash discarded in the sand beside the sidewalks. No wonder -- I walked three blocks without finding a trash can where I could discard the napkin from my ice cream cone. I stuffed it in a pocket and kept going.
The motels and some of the businesses I passed along this stretch of Gulfview looked like they were built in the '60s or '70s and had not aged well. There was virtually no green space around these buildings. There wasn't much landscaping anywhere. Newcomers to our beach who came off the lushly landscaped Memorial Causeway would be struck by the lack of flowers and trees along Gulfview. They instead would notice the preponderance of worn concrete and asphalt.
On the north side of the island, I walked down Eastshore Drive, which borders the bay. Walking here was harder. The street is narrow and lined by pastel-colored mom-and-pop motels, some more carefully tended than others. The patrons of these establishments must park on the edge of the street, so there is nowhere for a pedestrian to walk except in the street. On this morning I must share the road with delivery trucks, which are parked right in the traffic lane because there is nowhere else for them to unload.
Again, there is virtually no green space around the motels and small cottages that line this street. Some of the motels have stored old appliances or rusty equipment outside where it is visible. Some of the buildings are shabby -- I'm being kind here.
There are other areas like these on Clearwater Beach, and there are some areas that are much nicer. I focus on the Gulfview and Eastshore areas because those are the sections potentially most affected by three proposals from private groups to build large-scale, resort-style projects on Clearwater Beach.
Some people who live on the beach or elsewhere in Clearwater say the beach doesn't need such developments. I say, oh please. Go take a walk down just those two streets, Gulfview and Eastshore, and look at them with new eyes.
Much of Clearwater Beach has been in a sad state of decline for years. There are many reasons.
Parts of the island were developed when people could build big buildings on small lots, without setbacks, parking or landscaping. Modern development rules don't allow that, fortunately, but many beach landowners found they couldn't rebuild on their properties and meet the current codes. As properties fell into decline, they were purchased by people with less financial wherewithal to maintain them. Few tourists were interested in staying in such places, so some converted to long-term rentals, further depressing the property value and appearance.
Some city policies and some city officials through the years discouraged proposals to invigorate the beach, often influenced by longtime beach residents who had grown comfortable with the appearance and the increasing quiet and saw no reason for anything to change.
And for a long time, the city government did not invest enough in the beach infrastructure and appearance, allowing public areas also to become rundown.
Everyone seemed to think that the glory of the sun and sand and water would be enough to keep the cash registers ringing on Clearwater Beach. Now some acknowledge that thinking was naive.
Today, some codes that prevented redevelopment of the beach have been changed, attitudes at City Hall are different, the national economy is robust, and the city has held out a density "pool" of some 400 resort-hotel units as a carrot to lure developers. All that has done the trick.
One group of developers has proposed a Marriott resort with a public/private parking garage on Gulfview Boulevard. Another has proposed a resort hotel with a parking garage on Gulfview closer to Pier 60. The third group has proposed a bayside hotel, hundreds of condominiums and a parking garage in the Eastshore area, along with a garage and retail center on the south side of the roundabout.
City commissioners and city staffers have an exhausting amount of study to do before they can say yea or nay to those complex proposals, and they can't afford to overlook anything. A couple of the groups have imposed deadlines of early February on the city because they say they have property purchase options and earnest money that could be lost if a decision isn't made by then. If the loss of earnest money would lead these development groups to walk away from the fortune they stand to make with their projects on Clearwater Beach, maybe their pockets aren't as deep as they've implied.
Many details of the proposals will emerge during the coming weeks, and as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. It could be that none of these projects will be built, but something else will be. Now when I walk along Clearwater Beach streets, I can picture streets with actual curbs and gutters and bike lanes, off-street parking, wide sidewalks with cafe tables on them, and new buildings surrounded by lush landscaping. It looks good.
- Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times.
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