CLEARWATER - The seemingly eternal issue of beach parking received City Council attention during their May 31 Work Session. Tracy Bruch, the manager of Clearwater's Parking System, presented the results of a preliminary study requested by the Council during their April 18th Work Session; three alternatives for a North Beach parking garage were detailed, and the Council was asked to provide direction on which to pursue.
Option 1 involved building a 2-level, 560 space, garage on the site of what is now the Clearwater Beach Fire Station, Mandalay Park and the existing 145-space surface parking lot west of Mandalay Avenue between Bay Esplanade and Rockaway Street. This alternative requires the relocation of the Clearwater Beach Fire Station, which staff recommended building on the site of McKay Field, along with a permanent home for the Beach Library Branch.
Parking is not a lucrative business, a fact emphasized by a financial projection for the 560-space structure. The City would initially experience an annual loss of $744,900, that number including the loss of $433,000 produced annually by the current Rockaway surface lot. Bruch projected that increases in parking rates and utilization would "cash-flow" the garage in five years. However the break-even cash flow forecast did not account for the loss of current surface lot revenue, or the costs of building a new Fire Station and Library branch at McKay Field.
Option 2 would build a 3-level, 590-space garage on the same site, including space for both the Clearwater Beach Fire Station and Beach Library Branch on the first floor. For a net gain of 445 parking spaces, this alternative would produce an annual loss of $761,600; Bruch again forecast that the garage would "cash-flow" in 5 years, but that projection also failed to consider the lost parking revenue from the Rockaway surface lot or the costs of outfitting the new Fire Station and Library Branch.
Option 3 offered a 3-level, 420-space, garage over the existing Rockaway surface lot, leaving intact the Clearwater Beach Fire Station and Mandalay Park. While producing a net gain of only 275 spaces, this alternative would have resulted in the best cash flow, initially losing only $541,780 annually. Bruch forecast a break-even cash flow in two to three years, but that projection again failed to account for the lost revenue from the Rockaway surface lot.
While Bruch used cash flow with 20-year bonding as a financial measure, it didn't expose the capital cost of each option. According to Bruch, the estimates assumed a capital cost of $16,200 per parking space; the price tag for the option 1 560-space garage is about $9 million, the 590-space option 2 garage about $9.5 million, and the option 3 420-space garage about $6.8 million.
City Staff considered, but discarded, a recommendation from the Clearwater Beach Association to build a garage on Bay Esplanade between the tennis courts and Beach Recreation Center, currently a paved surface parking lot. The Beach Association had sought to preserve Mandalay Park, claiming that it "enhances the quality of life for our community." Participants in the Gazette's May 12-18 online poll agreed, favoring the Bay Esplanade site over the Rockaway/Mandalay Park location 72% to 28%. But Bruch said that the Bay Esplanade footprint is "way too narrow; we believe it would be very expensive and lose the efficiency."
Councilmember Hoyt Hamilton valued parking over green space; describing Mandalay Park, he said, "there's three homeless people that use it - that's it!" He also characterized McKay Park as "highly underutilized, probably one of the least utilized parks in our Parks and Recreation inventory," and suggested that a library and Fire Station on that site would be much better utilization of the land. While quite vocal during the discussion, Hamilton recused himself from voting because of a conflict of interest; his family owns commercial property adjacent to the proposed garage location.
Councilmember Carlen Petersen defended Mandalay Park saying, "I personally think there's a need for green space, even if there's only three people using it every day. I think it adds to the character of a city." Once you pave green space, she said, you never get it back.
Mayor Frank Hibbard pushed to eliminate the third option, the only one that would have preserved Mandalay Park. "It's small, it's narrow," he said, claiming that it was not viable. Hibbard also pointed out that option 3 didn't address the future need for a new Beach Fire Station. Councilmembers Jonson and Doran agreed with Hibbard to eliminate option 3.
By consensus, the Council asked staff to proceed with the North Beach garage study, providing more detail on a large garage at Rockaway and a separate facility for the Library and Fire Station, likely on McKay Field. But having narrowed the scope of the study, the Council stopped short of making a commitment to build the garage.
Jonson said, "I need something to figure out how we're going to finance it before we start a commitment to building something." He also questioned the use of taxpayer money to subsidize a garage that would be used primarily by non-residents.
City Finance Director Margie Simmons was also concerned with the financial impact of the proposed garage. "The problem I worry about is paying the bills ongoing," she said, "and when we put in Beach Walk and cleaned a lot of those parking spaces, I already have a problem with (funding) the beach guards and the beach cleaning and things like that." She expressed concern that the proposed garage would further pressure the City's cash flow, considering the loss of $430,000 parking revenue from the existing Rockaway lot, the garage operating costs and its principal and interest payments. "Yes, we going to own something in the end, but I have to pay the bills along the road," Simmons said.
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