CLEARWATER - Members of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce, "stakeholders" as the City referred to them, were presented with an update on Clearwater's Beach Walk plan on Tuesday, and it was not a comforting story.
City Public Communications Director Doug Mathews kicked the session off with, "The dates seem to be moving on us a little bit", a message not unfamiliar to Clearwater taxpayers.
Public Works Administrator Mahshid Arasteh explained the delay in starting the massive construction project that will revamp the public infrastructure on much of South Clearwater Beach; city staff needed time to react to bids that far exceeded cost estimates for the project.
Westra Construction submitted the low bid, $25.7 million, according to Arasteh. The original engineering estimate was $15 million, with $4 million later added for additional work on underground utilities according to City Engineer Mike Quillen; Westra's proposal exceeded the total estimate of $19 million by nearly $6 million.
To make financial matters worse, the Federal government has placed a moratorium on the issuance of Local Agency Program (LAP) grants by the Florida Department of Transportation; the City was relying on a $5 million LAP grant to partially fund Beach Walk. According to Mathews, the grant requires the completion of certain environmental studies that the City plans to conduct, but it is uncertain when those funds might become available.
City staff are seeking additional funds for the project. In addition, they are considering re-bidding each of the project's three phases independently, allowing Phase I of construction to begin using available funding sources. But re-bidding brings its own risks; according to Public Services Director Gary Johnson, shortages of concrete and steel and increasing energy costs will have an unfavorable impact on the price tags of any new proposals.
The current project timetable calls for City Council award of the construction contract in October, with Phase I construction on Coronado Blvd. beginning in January 2006 and lasting one year. Phase II, affecting the northern area of South Gulfview, would begin in January 2007, and complete in January 2008; construction phase III, affecting the southern part of South Gulfview, would run from January 2008 to January 2009. Phase IV, consisting primarily of cleanup, will last for six months, concluding in July 2009.
As reported in the February 10, 2005, edition of the Gazette, Beach Walk will reduce the number of beach parking spaces available to the public. According to Tim Kurts, the Beach Walk Project Manager, today's 797 spaces on South Beach will be cut to 721 in construction Phase I, and to 424 in Phase II. Phase III should offer some relief; although more beachfront parking will be removed, the planned completion of the Hyatt hotel and its 400 public parking spaces should result in the availability of 698 total spaces. The conclusion of Phase IV is expected to coincide with the completion of the so-called Patel resort and its 15 public spaces, bringing the post-Beach Walk parking capacity to 713, 84 spaces fewer than today. "These numbers," said Kurts, "are subject to change."
But those numbers do not account for the loss of approximately 200 back-out parking spaces on Coronado that have been managed by small motel owners to serve their guests and day visitors to the beach. By the end of construction, a total of 284 city and privately managed parking spaces will have been lost on South Clearwater Beach.
The use of the words "Parking" and "Beach" in a City meeting is sure to provoke pointed questions and defensive answers; Tuesday's "Stakeholder" meeting was no exception.
Lisa Chandler, proprietor of the Barefoot Beach House and Pier 60 Pavilion asked, "Are any dollars budgeted in 2006 for beach parking?" Public Communications Director Doug Mathews explained that there was no public consensus for a garage location and that parking studies failed to identify a demand that would justify building a garage. Mathews failed to provide a direct answer, but when pressed later in the meeting, he replied, "The short answer to the question is No."
A comment was made that the City has no direction for beach parking, and that when questions are asked, "We get absolutely no answer." Mathews replied that the location of a beach garage is not a staff decision, and that the people should "bring a consensus to the Council" on where to locate a garage.
Chandler was having none of that; she said, "I'm a business owner, a wife and a mother. If I wanted to build a consensus, I'd run for office."
Regarding the additional $6 million price tag for Beach Walk, she asked, "Where is this money coming from?", and suggested that a decision on parking should be made before spending the $24 million for Beach Walk.
Make no mistake - Chandler is a supporter of the Beach Walk project, but believes that the City should place a higher priority on resolving the beach parking issue. "We (the City) have invested. We have a bridge, we have a roundabout and potentially a $24 million promenade. We don't have what people have been requesting for many years," she said. "Who is Beach Walk serving", she asked, and opined, "People who live here will be denied access to that attraction because of the lack of parking."
Councilman Bill Jonson attended the "Stakeholder" meeting, and agreed to participate in a subsequent question/answer session:
Gazette: How did you determine that the investment of the (then) $15 million in Beach Walk was better than investing in a beach-parking garage?
Jonson: Beach Walk will change the character of the public area of the beach to create a wonderful public place for our citizens and visitors, and to compete in Florida's tourism market. A parking garage, which needs additional ongoing subsidies, does not accomplish that and it serves a peak demand for parking that exists only for a portion of the year.
Gazette: If there is no place to park, what is the point of creating this attraction?
Jonson: There should be alternate ways to get to the beach.
Gazette: What has been budgeted in 2006 for alternate ways to get to the beach?
Jonson: A public transit study (approximately $60,000) and the Jolley Trolley subsidy (approximately $180,000).
Gazette: That's $240,000, or about 1% of what is planned for Beach Walk. Is that adequate?
Jonson: We may need to beef that up.
Editors note: Jonson has long been a proponent of alternative transportation to Clearwater Beach, but, with the exception of the Jolley Trolley, the Council has failed to establish or fund any beach public transportation initiatives.
Jonson later said that Clearwater's Development agreement with the planned Hyatt Hotel requires that the City complete the portion of Beach Walk adjacent to that property.
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