City continues to grapple with beach parking problems

A proposal to build a parking garage in the Mandalay retail district is on the table, but the mayor has a lot of questions.
CLEARWATER — It's not uncommon to hear a frustrated motorist, stopped in beach traffic, tell someone on the other end of the cell phone, “I'm here, I just can't find a place to park.”
Clearwater Beach's popularity continues to test city leaders grappling with how to balance residential and beach employee parking needs with the demands of tourists, particularly during peak seasons.
For the second time since the turn of the century, the city council is reviewing a preliminary proposal that might alleviate some of the parking problems and traffic congestion in the Mandalay Avenue Retail District. The rectangular area lies north of the roundabout to Baymont Street and from Poinsettia Street west to Mandalay Avenue.
Paradise Group, LLC of Safety Harbor wants to build a parking garage along Poinsettia Street behind Pelican Walk Shopping Center, 483 Mandalay Ave.
Rod Irwin, assistant city manager for economic development, told the city council Monday during its work session that Paradise Group is negotiating to purchase the retail center and the adjacent parking lot. The company intends to build a seven-story, 600-space parking garage on the lot and hopes to garner city tax dollars to offset its costs by offering public parking.
The group's purchase option is valid until June 1.
A proposed letter of intent with Paradise specifies that the city would purchase 450 parking spaces in the proposed garage at an estimated cost of $11.3 million, or $25,144 per space. However, the deal would not go into effect until the expiration of a 2010 agreement at another parking garage that ends on June 30, 2016.
L.O.M. Inc., led by its president, Avi Ovakni, built the 750-space parking garage on Coronado Drive that also holds the Surf Style retail shop on the ground level. The city rents about 400 public parking spaces there. Under terms of the 2010 agreement, the city is obligated to buy the parking garage for $9.3 million from the lender if the developer defaults the financing agreement within five years of the project's completion on July 1, 2011.
The release of that money, along with $2 million from the city's parking fund, which has a current balance of $4 million, could cover the city's cost of acquiring parking in the proposed garage, Irwin said.
An alternative funding option for the garage project, he said, would be to issue bonds secured by projected revenue generated from parking fees.
Among other conditions in the letter of intent, Paradise Group would construct and operate the garage. The first floor would provide 11,000 square feet of retail space facing Poinsettia Street.
Irwin said the group also is negotiating a lease with Sandpearl Resort for the top floor of the garage to be used by the resort's staff.
Employees from many beach businesses, including the Sandpearl, park on small waterfront parcels along East Shore Drive.
“Other establishments might want to negotiate” for staff parking in the proposed garage, too, Irwin said.
Mayor George Cretekos said he was concerned that there's only $4 million available in the parking fund.
“There is no way that I would be able to support this garage if we were going to have to put this money upfront,” he said. “We just don't have the money available.”
Cretekos also reminded the council and city staff that on days like Monday, when strong thunderstorms produced heavy downpours, or during September, October and November, considered off-season for tourism, the garage would be nearly empty.
“As often as we hear there's no parking,” he said, “it's not the case 365 days a year.”
The mayor additionally suggested that the city look into whether East Shore Drive and Poinsettia Avenue should be converted to one-way streets to mitigate traffic gridlock to and from the proposed parking garage.
The parking lot behind the Mandalay Avenue retail center has been identified as the best of four possible locations for a public parking garage on the north end of the barrier island.
In responding to a question from Councilman Bill Jonson about a plan B for parking, city engineering director Mike Quillen said there are only three other options: the green space between Rockaway Street and the Clearwater Beach Fire Station at 534 Mandalay Ave.; McKay Field at 605 Mandalay Ave.; or the parking lot at the Clearwater Beach Library and Recreation Complex, 69 Bay Esplanade.
But those locations either would block views of the water, are too far from the Mandalay business district or are too small, he said.
The letter of intent from Paradise Group is subject to a financial feasibility study, which is expected to be available early summer.
The Paradise Group must also garner approval of the Community Development Board to build the garage. That could be problematic with the expiration of the Paradise Group's purchase option on the property looming on June 1.
Anticipating a lot of community interest, Cretekos removed the item from the consent agenda for tonight's council meeting.
“If this were a money-making project, the private sector would have already addressed this problem, instead of coming to us asking us to provide parking or to provide free parking,” he said.
The city council meets at 6 tonight in its chambers in city hall, 112 S. Osceola Ave. Citizens may address agenda items, or they may speak at the beginning of the meeting on issues not on the agenda.

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