CLEARWATER — Bigger Clearwater Beach hotels? Maybe. More rooms? Most likely.
City leaders are considering a proposal that would allow beach hotel developers to add more units to their projects than what is allowed now, a move they hope will boost tourism.
Pinellas County passed its own density measure last year, which all cities can adopt. But Clearwater's plan for the beach, while increasing current density levels, is more restrictive.
The city's plan would allow developers planning to build hotels on the beach to draw units from a pool of 1,385 rooms. Once depleted, that's it.
City leaders say they hope the proposed density pool will encourage the development of much needed mid-priced hotel rooms on the beach. They also see higher density levels as a way to build back some of the inventory the hotel industry lost during the condo boom.
Officials estimate Pinellas lost roughly 5,000 of its 40,000 rental rooms in four years, including some 1,200 on Clearwater Beach.
Statewide, tourism dropped in 2007, the first year-to-year decline since 2001, the state's tourism marketing agency said last month.
"We certainly need more updated rooms, and we'd like to have more moderately priced rooms," said Mayor Frank Hibbard. "But we also want people to understand that there is an end in sight for construction."
A condo development is more profitable for a developer than building a hotel under the beach's current density limits.
On Clearwater Beach, where existing regulations allow developers to build up to 50 hotel rooms or 30 condos per acre, the profit margin on one condo is about the same as six hotel rooms, say city planners.
The city decided to cap its proposed density pool at 1,385 units because the resulting new traffic would be all the beach could accommodate, said city planner Gina Clayton.
Here's how the pool would work: Beach hotel developers still would get up to 50 units per acre, as allowed now. But projects on 0.75 to 2.5 acres would be able to draw up to 100 more units from the pool.
Hotels being built on more than 2.5 acres could reach a density of 90 units per acre, including the 50 units permitted currently. That means a 3-acre project could have 270 hotel rooms — 120 drawn from the pool. Currently that same hotel would be capped at 150 units.
Once the 1,385 units are drawn from the pool, no more will be added, city leaders say.
For a hotel developer to draw from the pool, the project must meet certain parking and design guidelines, then go before the Community Development Board and the City Council for final approval.
The idea, Clayton said, is to encourage owners of smaller hotel properties to add rooms and to entice developers envisioning larger projects to buy properties and convert them to hotels. Right now, owners of some of the so-called mom and pop motels with 20 or fewer rooms say they are losing money.
The City Council is expected to discuss the proposal Thursday.
Not everyone agrees with the plan. Opinions were mixed at a public meeting the city convened on the beach a few weeks ago to gauge reaction. Some residents said the added density would create horrendous traffic problems. Others, though, said it would help the economy.
Sheila Cole, executive director of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce, said she thinks the council is moving too fast and property owners with land parcels of less than 0.75 acres won't benefit. She said the city should hold more meetings, particularly with local business owners as well as the beach chamber.
She added she doesn't believe the 1,385-room pool is large enough because some small-motel owners will eventually close and nonhotel projects will gobble up even more overnight rooms.
Under the county's plan, which the City Council is expected to put in effect citywide except on the beach, hotel developers can build 75 units on parcels less than an acre; 100 units an acre on 1- to 3-acre parcels and 125 units an acre on parcels larger than 3 acres.
Clayton said the city's proposal is smarter for Clearwater Beach because it allows greater density on smaller parcels, an important consideration where assembling parcels is expensive.