The Will O' The Wisp Parking Garage
By Anne McKay Garris
CLEARWATER - In the beginning it was quite clear. The city had amassed $6 million to purchase land on south Clearwater Beach for a public parking garage. Officials had engaged a realtor to put together a parcel, or parcels, for no more than $5 million an acre and at least an acre in size. At Thursday night's meeting Realtor Mark Searcy surprised them by presenting two parcels very close to the right size and price. Both parcels were between Colorado and Hamden Streets, well south of the potential bottleneck of roundabout traffic.
"Mark has done an incredible job," said Mayor Frank Hibbard, "I'm tired of deals that fall apart. At the end of the day we've wasted a lot of time and money on them."
"I want to get it done and get it done now," contributed Councilmember George Cretekos, who began asking questions about pedestrian access to the beach from the proposed sites.
Searcy explained that the proposed Second Street, when it is built, would be 340 feet from the site and Fifth Street would be 584 feet. Traffic would enter the parking garage from either Coronado, or Hamden. The only traffic exit would be on Hamden which is a less traveled street than Coronado.
City staff explained that pedestrian lighted crosswalks could be placed at both Fifth and Second Streets. It was pointed out that there is currently another privately owned pedestrian access directly across Coronado from the one proposed site. The property owner there has an agreement with the City of Clearwater to allow public access through his property until Second Street is built. After that he has no obligation to continue it. If he decided to redevelop his property, now occupied by Britt's Laguna Restaurant and a Beach retail store, the access would cease to exist.
Since this property is located between Coronado and South Gulfview, pedestrians using a garage at this location would not have to cross a busy street to get to the beach.
"Does that property owner want to sell?" asked someone.
It turned out the property owner, Avi Ovaknin, was in the council chambers and he was asked to come to the microphone to answer the question himself.
He made a tentative proposal to the Council. He did not want to sell his property to the city but would be willing to build a parking garage on the site and lease it to the city for public use for thirty years. He proposed a two-story retail portion facing on South Gulfview and, behind and above that, an eight story parking garage. Council members, all of whom heard from Ovaknin's representative, Alex Plisko, before the meeting, seemed to think one of the requirements would be for the city to make available to the property owner a portion of the South Gulfview right-of-way in order for the project to work.
The Mayor suggested, "Let's not muddy the water with a joint project." Other council members showed interest. Councilmember Paul Gibson proposed that the purchase of a parking garage site be postponed for "another thirty days" while staff took a look at Ovaknin's project and made a preliminary evaluation on the suitability for the city's needs.
Staff protested that it would take more like six months just to begin the evaluation and much longer to bring the project to completion.
Pointing out that the market is currently down, the Mayor questioned out loud whether the two other sites might be snatched up and no longer available if the city decided Ovaknin's project was not feasible.
Councilmember John Doran said, "I don't think I'm being impatient about this but I believe the idea that this could be put together and accurately evaluated in six months is hopelessly optimistic. Searcy did what we asked him to. We asked him to get close to the price and he did. If we buy the land - we own the land. I'm ready to pick one of the two proposed sites."
Citizen input was less than helpful. It ranged from "do it now, it's needed badly" to "put it on East Shore Drive" to "put it on the beach, no one cares about the view" to "put it on the mainland with public transit to the beach front."
David Little, a real estate agent with long service in civic affairs on Clearwater Beach, pointed out that the South Beach was 1,000 spaces short of the number called for by Beach By Design. "We've been talking about this for 20 years," he said. "If you put it off now, it could take another 10 years. The people of Clearwater who spent millions for the Memorial Causeway Bridge replacement and more for the Roundabout deserve a place to park on Clearwater Beach."
When citizen input time was over it was quite clear there had been a quantum shift. "I believe this (the rented garage) is worth pursuing," stated Councilmember Carlen Petersen.
Councilmember Cretekos repeated his concern for pedestrian safety. He felt it would be preferable if pedestrians had no major streets to cross on the way to the beach.
Councilmember Gibson was pleased with the possibility of getting a suitable parking garage without having to buy the land, ". . .if it turns out to be a good financial deal for the city," he added.
At the end of the marathon discussion, all five members of the Council agreed to wait thirty days for city staff to do a preliminary evaluation of Ovaknin's project. Meantime, all of them clearly hope that Searcy's proposed sites will still be available at the same price in case the project is not feasible.
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