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Talk of hotel on Clearwater Marine Aquarium garage muddies waters

CLEARWATER — Massive downtown parking garage? How about a hotel on top?

That prospect, raised by former Mayor Frank Hibbard among others, has spooked the Church of Scientology, which owns land the city wants for a garage to hold the cars of hundreds of thousands of visitors to a downtown aquarium.

In November, city voters approved a proposal for the city to negotiate a 60-year lease with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which wants to build a 200,000-square-foot downtown facility. But a lease between CMA and the city has yet to be finalized.

Wishing to hammer out the lease on waterfront bluff land where City Hall now stands by early fall, City Manager Bill Horne said he'd prefer to concentrate on location for a garage, not bells and whistles.

Talk of a hotel just gums up the works, he said.

"It's getting in the way of our singular focus about where to site a parking garage," Horne said.

Church leaders oppose a garage with a hotel on top at any of the top three sites in contention — Drew Street across from the library, a county-owned lot next to the church's Flag Building or a CMA-owned parcel next to the church-owned Oak Cove building, Horne said.

They worry that a high-rise multiuse building would overshadow — perhaps literally— important church properties, Horne said.

Hibbard said he agrees finding the right spot for a garage comes first. But, he said, all three choices are prime downtown real estate. And none of them have height restrictions. So getting "highest and best use" for a property just makes sense, he said. A parking garage without a retail and, possibly, a hotel component, doesn't meet that standard, he said.

"To build a one-trick pony is not the best use," Hibbard said.

And an unnamed hotelier has approached the aquarium and expressed interest in building, Hibbard said.

Michael Delk, the city's planning director, said his department hasn't studied the properties individually, but, generally, he said mixed-use downtown is a good thing.

"Generally speaking, that is something we would promote," Delk said.

The church didn't respond to requests for comment.

For months, the saga of where to build a parking garage for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's proposed downtown facility has consumed city planners, aquarium officials, Scientologists and business interests.

The city and aquarium's first choice is a parcel at Drew Street and N Osceola Avenue bought last year by the Church of Scientology.

Efforts by the city to acquire that property peaked in March when church leader David Miscavige called Horne and Mayor George Cretekos to an impromptu meeting at the Fort Harrison Hotel to discuss the garage.

Since then, negotiations have stalled. A suggestion by church representatives that a garage be built on N Garden Avenue across the street from the Bank of America went nowhere.

And, at least from the city's perspective, the clock is ticking. Horne said he would like to start negotiating the lease with the aquarium as soon as possible with the goal of a final agreement by September.

He is losing patience with the slow pace of negotiations with the church over the Drew Street property.

"I've told Ben Shaw (the church representative) that we can't wait until the last minute," Horne said. "I'm going to move."

And moving would likely mean starting more serious talks with the county and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority over the parking lot and bus transfer station across from the Flag Building.

Miscavige has told Horne he didn't want the city to build a garage at that site.

Or it could mean building on the lot owned by CMA next to City Hall, which would throw some serious shade on the Oak Cove building, also an anathema to the church.

Frank Dame, the aquarium's executive vice president, said CMA is open to negotiation on the parcel it owns adjacent to the Oak Cove.

Last fall, when the church bought the Drew Street property for more than $3 million, many observers thought it was a bargaining chip for the Oak Cove land.

But the aquarium is also willing to build a parking garage on its land or sell it off to a developer. With those waterfront views west of Osceola Avenue, a hotel could be an outcome, Dame said.

All of these options strike some as akin to a chess game, but Cretekos has tired of the intrigue.

"Games can be fun, but when it comes to our tax dollars and our public, all of us should sit down and talk to each other, not one up each other," he said.

But Cretekos said the church hasn't reached out to him, which makes it difficult for him to comment on its motives.

"For whatever reason, the church has decided the mayor's opinion isn't important," Cretekos said.

Whether or not a hotel is part of a parking garage, the city and aquarium remain on the same page, Hibbard said.

"There's no rift," he said.

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago

Talk of hotel on Clearwater Marine Aquarium garage muddies waters 05/22/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 22, 2014 12:36pm]

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