CLEARWATER - The advise of Clearwater's Community Development Board (CDB) and the plea from the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce went for naught as the City Council approved amendments to the Hyatt development agreement during their January 19th meeting.
The amendments placed limitations on Hyatt's operation of a beach concession and extended the date required for commencement of construction. But the provision that received the most scrutiny was the doubling to 60 days that each condo/hotel unit could be used by its owner. 209 of the hotel's 250 rooms were gifted by the City to encourage resort development, promote Clearwater's tourism industry and provide public parking on the beach.
At a CDB hearing earlier in the week, David Little, representing the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce, recommended that the extension in allowable owner use be granted. But in exchange, he asked that the development agreement be modified to better define the Hyatt's obligation to provide public parking. The CDB agreed unanimously, and their recommendation was provided to the City Council.
Mayor Frank Hibbard clearly got the message. "I'm still somewhat concerned about this development agreement," he said, "I think we are making some concessions and I feel that there ought to be a quid pro quo."
Hibbard said that he wanted to find a way to assure that the Hyatt's public parking spaces "are, in fact, kept public." He described going from 30 to 60 days of owner-use as a "significant concession", and recognized the loss of City-owned parking and the vacation of First Street. "I'm not saying that we shouldn't approve it; I'm saying we ought to approve it, but the City also ought to get a concession in some way," Hibbard said.
The Hyatt developer Neil Rauenhorst, who was notably absent from the CDB hearing, attended the Council hearing and defended the proposed agreement. He described the extension in the number of days of owner use as a way to increase occupancy during the 30% of the year that the hotel might otherwise be vacant. "The benefit to the City that we see," he said, "is more people at the beach, particularly during periods when they might not normally be there."
Rauenhorst also defended the agreement's parking provisions. He said, " The 400 spaces plus a lot of additional spaces will be open to the public. We want anybody to park there that wants to park there. And we don't want to deal with restrictions right now on who can and can't park there."
"Why is it a problem to put language in to make certain that the parking is going to be available'" Hibbard asked of Rauenhorst. Unwilling to negotiate on his feet, Rauenhorst said, "Well, I'd have to know what specific suggestion would be on the table." City Attorney Pan Akin then put some words on the table, offering, "The public must be available on a first-come, first-served basis, and can not be reserved for a private or specific use."
Rauenhorst again refused to negotiate on his feet, claiming that he needed to discuss the issue with the eventual parking operator and Hyatt corporate. But he indicated a willingness to work with City staff to find a solution.
"The question will be 'can we accept the premise that we can work something out later and proceed with this item tonight'," said Councilmember John Doran. Rauenhorst responded that if the hotel existed today, there is nothing to prevent guests at hotel events from parking in the City's lot across the street; "We're really looking at the same situation," he said.
"You just have to understand where we are coming from," Hibbard said, "The public is concerned about how many parking spaces are being displaced due to Beach Walk. We have control of those parking spaces currently; you will have control of them in the future. We are accountable to the public; you are not."
Hibbard's concern was not shared by his colleagues. Councilmember Hoyt Hamilton minimized potential parking conflicts, claiming that the Hyatt had sufficient capacity for both guests and the public, and that the parking need for hotel events would be largely at night when beach demand is low.
Councilmember Carlen Petersen was pleased to be getting the 400 parking spots, and was unconcerned with how they would be managed. "It's a little ironic to be sitting here and listening to us nit picking the parking that we are getting from this developer," she said.
Councilmember Bill Jonson did not believe that the Hyatt would discriminate among users of its garage; "I'm just not convinced that the parking is a big enough issue to say no tonight on," he said.
The Council approved the amended development agreement, sans any clarification of its parking provisions, by a vote of 4-1, Mayor Hibbard casting the only opposing vote.
David Little was unhappy with the outcome. He said, "It's very disappointing that the majority of our Council did not protect the public interest in beach parking, especially since the City gave the developer extensive density and development rights."
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