CLEARWATER —City leaders discussed building a parking structure on north Clearwater Beach for more than 15 years before the seven-story Pelican Walk Parking Garage finally opened at the start of 2017.
The city paid $11.3 million to own 450 of the developer’s 702 spaces in the public-private partnership. Consultants the city hired in 2014 to analyze the investment predicted the garage would bring $800,000 in profits the first year.
But in its first 12 months of operation the Pelican garage has bled money instead, drastically blowing expectations and ending the year at a loss of $52,000. Pitched as a necessary step to provide parking relief on the congested, internationally renowned Clearwater Beach, the garage has sat under-capacity most days of the year.
So what happened?
"It’s like anything, there are times when we will never have enough parking on the beach, and there are times when we have too much parking on the beach," Mayor George Cretekos said. "You can’t build for peak demand, but you have to have a good supply available."
Clearwater Beach gridlock has always been inconsistent, with congestion at its worst during Spring Break months and easing up the rest of the year. The more residential north beach, where the Pelican garage is located on Poinsettia Avenue, also has different flows than the more hotel-heavy south end.
But between June and December, there were only nine days where cars filled all of the city’s 450 spaces, housed on floors three through six, according to data provided by Engineering Director Scott Rice. City spaces reached halfway utilized only 23 days during those seven months. The city could not provide usage data for January through May because license plate readers were not fully functioning, Rice said.
Drivers are directed to fill the first two floors, owned by developer Paradise Group, first before moving on to city spaces.
With parking rates at $2 per hour, payments show the first five months of 2017, which covers Spring Break, brought in $226,481 — more than half of the year’s $365,663 total revenue.
But expenses outpaced revenues almost every month. As part of the development agreement with Paradise Group, the city pays monthly fees to cover day to day expenses like labor and benefits, operating supplies, telephone, and bank fees for credit cards. The city also makes monthly payments for its share of the structure, which includes electricity, elevator costs, trash, and reserve contributions for repairs, Rice said.
Paradise Group President Mike Connor said the biggest barrier to the garage’s success has been exposure. The seven-story, salmon colored structure was designed to be aesthetically pleasing and look more like a condo than a garage, a gesture that has apparently backfired and camouflaged it instead. There’s also not much prominent signage in the vicinity inviting drivers to park there.
"It’s definitely taken time for the locals to figure out, and as far as visitors here for a week or a day, it’s somewhat problematic," Connor said.
So last March, Paradise Group printed a 40-foot long banner that screamed "Hourly Parking" and hung it across the top of the seventh floor, large enough for visitors to see when they drove across the Memorial Causeway bridge.
City officials made Connor take it down because the banner was a code violation. Assistant Planning Director Gina Clayton said in order for the garage to erect more signage, the developer would have to apply for an amendment to its original "comprehensive signage program."
Connor said his firm is working to better promote the garage to beach hotels and restaurants in hopes more will purchase parking passes for employees. Rice said the city sold 88 spaces for the $40-a-month employee parking pass offer.
City Council member Doreen Caudell said despite the poor first-year performance, it wasn’t a mistake to build the Pelican garage. But she does hope it is the last parking structure to go up on Clearwater Beach.
She said the beach has more of a congestion problem than a parking problem, which must be addressed by keeping cars off the beach — not creating more spaces to put them.
Caudell said there’s a need for alternative modes of transit, like an elevated railway system to bring people from downtown, over the Intracoastal and to the beach without their cars. Several versions have been pitched to city officials, like a gondola cable car like those in ski resorts and a magnetic levitation system, which does not exist anywhere in the world.
"Whoever comes up with the first one that can prove ridership and construct it and work together with (the state) should be the product," she said.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.