One of the biggest vacant lots in the city is sitting right alongside one of Clearwater's busiest intersections. Narrow streets crisscrossing the 30-acre plot of land are the last remaining trace of a mobile home park that closed in 2007.
For two years, there's been speculation about what will replace Lakeside Mobile Home Park at the southwest corner of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road.
Now the property's owners are unveiling plans to build the first major new apartment complex in Clearwater in nearly a decade. It would be coupled with a shopping center that might include a grocery store, a bank and a restaurant or two.
In today's shaky economy, some might ask: Are they crazy?
But the owners sound confident. They say they've got the financial backing to build this, and they believe the local rental market will support a high-end apartment complex.
"We've studied the market. There is no new supply of apartments here," said Andrew Ingersoll, president of Nickel Plate Properties, which has owned the land since 1978.
They're also undaunted by the empty storefronts along Gulf-to-Bay because they think their prime location will attract retail tenants. "We believe this is a good corner," Ingersoll said.
Now they're unveiling their plan to the surrounding neighbors, some of whom are skeptical. They're also preparing to jump through regulatory hoops with the city, county and state governments, which will be concerned about more traffic in this congested intersection.
At this point, the development is called Lakeside Clearwater. The northern third of it, fronting on Gulf-to-Bay and Belcher, would have 90,000 square feet of commercial space.
Although there have been rumors of a Walmart Supercenter coming to this site, none of the buildings will be that large, said project planner Cyndi Tarapani. One building that's tentatively slated for a grocery store is no larger than neighboring supermarkets like Publix or Albertsons.
An acre of open space at the southwest corner of Gulf-to-Bay and Belcher would serve as a passive park, she said.
The southernmost two-thirds of the property would have 240 upscale apartments in a series of three-story buildings. Ingersoll envisions a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units with high-end amenities and monthly rents ranging from $800 to $1,300.
The main entrance to the apartments would be to the south, along Druid Road.
The property's 2-acre stormwater pond would be moved farther south and expanded to a more scenic 3 1/2-acre pond. It and the entire 19-acre apartment complex would be ringed with landscaping and a walking and biking trail.
"It'll be family- and pet-friendly," Ingersoll said. "We're focusing on a community environment, which lends itself to larger units."
The property owners and their representatives fielded a lot of questions Thursday night at an informational meeting for the surrounding neighborhoods. Reactions were mixed.
Marilou Konen, president of the Oak Grove Neighborhood Association, thinks three-story buildings on that property would be too high. She worries about the impact that 240 apartments would have on traffic. She feels there are enough supermarkets at that intersection already.
However, Ed Armstrong, land use attorney for Nickel Plate Properties, notes that the other three corners of Gulf-to-Bay and Belcher are all intensely commercial. To remain consistent with those corners, Armstrong says the Lakeside property could potentially be developed far more intensely than the current plan calls for.
He said the landscaping that rings the apartment complex is heavier than what's required.
Also, the mobile home park that this development is replacing had more than 300 homes.
"We think this fits the community better," said Armstrong, who added that the development team has been talking with government regulators to get an idea of what can realistically get approved at the site. The plan must be okayed by Clearwater's Community Development Board and its City Council, the Pinellas County Commission and the Florida Department of Community Affairs.
One other issue: The intersection of Gulf-to-Bay and Belcher is one of the county's most congested, rated an "F" for traffic flow. More than 50,000 cars travel east-west along Gulf-to-Bay every day; another 30,000 move north-south on four-lane Belcher.
Traffic concerns thwarted past redevelopment plans there and remain a key issue for what's coming.
To mitigate those concerns, Nickel Plate is proposing to add two turn lanes. One would take cars from eastbound Gulf-to-Bay to southbound Belcher. The other would take vehicles from southbound Belcher into the shopping center.
If things go the property owner's way, bulldozers could be turning dirt by fall.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.