CLEARWATER — Drivers competing in the Hunger Games-like spring break ritual of finding parking on Clearwater Beach can take heart: A nearly 700-car parking garage near bustling Mandalay Avenue could open by next year.
The City Council unanimously approved a letter of intent Thursday with Paradise Group LLC, a Safety Harbor developer, to cooperate on a new garage behind Pelican Walk Plaza at Mandalay Avenue and Baymont Street.
Paradise Group has been busy on the beach, recently completing a two-story Walgreens near the beach roundabout.
The city will now begin to negotiate a development agreement with Paradise. If all goes well, a 670- to 690-car garage could rise behind the Pelican Walk Plaza by next spring, said Michael P. Connor, the company's president and CEO.
The city has pledged $11.3 million for 450 public spaces in the garage, but could potentially obtain 100 more spots if needed, Connor said.
The ground floor of the seven-story garage will have 10,000 to 13,000 square feet of retail space, potentially including a "small grocery store," said Rod Irwin, assistant city manger for economic development.
Paradise Group has anchored some of its other developments around Publix grocery stores.
Some council members wanted to spend a few million dollars more to add on additional parking levels to handle future demand. Others preferred to wait and build a second garage farther north on the beach in a few years if needed.
Council member Doreen Hock-DiPolito cautioned against the city trying to build its way out of a parking crunch.
"We can't keep building parking garages," she said.
A better plan would be to develop alternate transportation to the beach, she said.
Traffic already snarls the narrow streets leading to the proposed garage — Poinsettia Avenue and Eastshore Drive. Converting those streets into one-way pairs would ease traffic congestion, suggested Mayor George Cretekos.
Connor said that plan could clog Baymont Street, the cross street just north of Pelican Walk, which contains the popular Brown Boxer Pub & Grille, Hogan's Beach Shop and other stores.
The council decided to let the city's traffic engineers study the issue before a completed development agreement returns to the council, probably this summer.
The city won't pay its share for the garage until its $9.3 million guarantee of the parking at Surfstyle garage on south beach ends in July 2016. In exchange it has tentatively agreed to guarantee $250,000 of operating losses if the garage fails to gross $1.25 million annually.
"We're sharing the risk there a little bit," Irwin said.
City leaders are confident that the garage will be a money maker and that it won't only serve to ease parking for beachgoers.
"We think it can really unlock the development potential in the marina district," Irwin said, referring to the side of the island facing the Intracoastal Waterway.
The city has eyed the lot behind Pelican Walk as a parking option for more than a decade. In 2005, the city came close to a deal to build a 300-car garage, but it fell through.
Council members applauded the chance to finally get some parking relief on a stretch of the beach that has exploded in popularity in recent years after the Sandpearl Resort was built across the street.
But Cretekos warned against the temptation add too many stories to the garage.
"I get nervous when y'all starting talking about putting more than 450 spaces in one place," he said. "I don't know who of us would want to be on the 10th floor waiting to wind down (the ramp) to get out."
Charlie Frago can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.