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Big plans at Belcher Road/Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard crossroads raise traffic fears

Owners are planning to develop 30 vacant acres at Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road with a mix of retail, offices and residential. A Walmart Neighborhood Market is part of the plan. Lakeside Mobile Home Park had been on the site.

JIM DAMASKE | Times (2009)

Owners are planning to develop 30 vacant acres at Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road with a mix of retail, offices and residential. A Walmart Neighborhood Market is part of the plan. Lakeside Mobile Home Park had been on the site.

CLEARWATER — Plans are under way to build a Walmart Neighborhood Market grocery store at Belcher Road and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, one of Clearwater's biggest empty lots on one of its busiest intersections.

The supermarket would join an unnamed restaurant, an auto service station, a bank and two fast-food restaurants in a sprawling shopping center next to a planned apartment complex, tentatively named Lakeside Clearwater.

If approved by the City Council and other officials in coming months, the project would drastically change the corner's look and set off a grocery grappling match among neighbors Publix, Albertsons and CVS Pharmacy.

But some neighboring residents worry that the new businesses could also lead to crippling congestion at one of Pinellas County's most dangerous intersections, slowing the city's main east-west roadway to a standstill.

"This area can only accommodate so much traffic," said Robert Hassall, a retired Clearwater High School teacher who lives nearby. "In a few years people will say, 'Gee, this is gridlock.' "

In 2007, the Lakeside Mobile Home Park on the intersection's southwest corner closed, leaving 30 open acres now ringed with chain-link fence.

Nickel Plate Properties, which has owned the land for three decades, unveiled plans in 2009 to build 240 upscale apartments, arranged across a series of three-story towers. The City Council approved the gated complex last year.

The city's Community Development Board on Tuesday reviewed plans for the project's retail half, including the 40,000-square-foot market. Board members approved of the plan, which the council will review next month.

No construction timeline has been submitted to the city, and it will likely take months before the center is open for business. But that hasn't stopped some from questioning how the roadway will handle the extra traffic.

In 2009, the intersection had 88 crashes, making it the seventh-worst intersection in Pinellas County, traffic records show. More than 80,000 vehicles pass the intersection every day. The owner of the nearby Publix wrote the city last year that traffic from Nickel Plate's plan could make the intersection unsafe.

The developers have agreed to spend nearly $1 million on road work, such as right-turn-only lanes into the shopping center, that could smooth out traffic. City planning and development director Michael Delk said traffic studies show the project would have only a "marginal impact" on the intersection.

Nickel Plate president Andrew Ingersoll did not respond to requests Wednesday afternoon for comment.

Clustered primarily in the South, the Neighborhood Markets serve as some of Walmart's smaller storefronts. The 24-7 shops are tailored more to quick trips and short grocery lists more than to the big-box blowouts of the chain's supercenters.

The corner is three miles from the nearest Neighborhood Market, which opened in 2009 on Highland Avenue. The nearest supercenter is even closer, just two miles north on U.S. 19.

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Big plans at Belcher Road/Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard crossroads raise traffic fears 07/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 7:57pm]
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