CLEARWATER — Clogged intersections, gridlock, more accidents. Despite an array of concerns, city leaders this week unanimously backed a project that would replace a vacant 30-acre lot with apartments, restaurants and shops.
The site at the southwest corner of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road was the home of Lakeside Mobile Home Park, which closed in 2007.
A chain-link fence now surrounds the lot, which is basically barren except for a scattering of trees and a network of streets that once led to nearly 300 mobile homes.
"Driving that intersection for years, it has been an eyesore," said City Council member George Cretekos at Thursday's council meeting.
Replacing the blight will increase traffic, but there's really no better alternative, officials said.
"People have property rights," Vice Mayor Paul Gibson said. "We either buy it or allow development."
The commercial part of the project proposed by Nickel Plate Properties and Lakeside Enterprises would have two entrances, one on Gulf-to-Bay and one on Belcher.
The residential portion would have three driveways on Druid Road. All would be gated. Residents would be able to access the commercial part of the development, but other motorists couldn't cut through the residential portion to exit on Druid.
A traffic study commissioned by the owners says the project would add 236 new peak-hour vehicle trips.
A few nearby residents who spoke at the meeting questioned the owners' findings. But most council members said they generally trusted the owners' research and their plans to ease traffic as much as possible.
The owners have agreed to spend nearly $1 million to incorporate various elements, including:
• An eastbound right-turn-only lane on Gulf-to-Bay.
• A driveway on Gulf-to-Bay at S Main Street. It would allow right turns in and out of the commercial section. A median would also be installed on Gulf-to-Bay to allow left turns into the development.
• A southbound right-turn-only lane on Belcher Road approaching the project entrance across from the Publix entrance. New traffic signals would also be installed.
Before approving the development agreement and land use changes, several council members asked how the development would affect already problematic portions of Gulf-to-Bay and Belcher.
Cretekos expressed concern about the westbound left turn lane the developer plans to install on Gulf-to-Bay at Main Street, just west of the Albertsons store. He asked when officials would step in if traffic jammed up there.
"Are we going to have to wait for X-number of accidents? Are we going to have to wait for a catastrophic accident or just a few fender benders?" Cretekos asked.
Traffic operations manager Paul Bertels said the area would be monitored closely by the city, the county and the state Department of Transportation, and the median would be closed if there were any major problems.
Resident Mark Quinzi, who lives in the Druid Park neighborhood west of the project, questioned how adding more than 240 apartments and a retail center could have a minimal effect on the area.
"We don't like their math," said Quinzi, who told officials he represented about 70 homeowners in his subdivision and the nearby Canterbury neighborhood.
Residents of the former mobile home park were mostly seniors and didn't drive during rush hour, he said. New residents would probably be working families with more than one car. Plus, he said, no one at the meeting was discussing the intersection at Hercules Avenue and Druid, which backs up now because of nearby Clearwater High School.
"We're worried about being blocked into our neighborhood," Quinzi, 45, said.
Ed Armstrong, land use attorney for Nickel Plate Properties, said the property owners spent hours with city staffers and other agencies, and traffic experts did not disagree with the owners' conclusions.
There may have been anecdotal evidence to the contrary, he said.
"But it simply doesn't pass the test of scientific scrutiny that every unbiased agency has come to when reviewing this project," Armstrong said.
A few city leaders pointed out that the project is much less intense than it could be.
Council member John Doran said the owners' proposal limits commercial development to less than half of what the code would allow and limits residential development to less than 90 percent of what the code would permit.
City leaders also discounted a letter from a lawyer for the owner of the Publix shopping center. He urged city leaders to oppose Nickel Plate's plan to align its entrance with the shopping center's, saying the development would make the intersection unsafe.
Because the project involves large scale land use amendments, it requires the okay of the Pinellas County Commission and the Florida Department of Community Affairs. If the amendments are approved by those bodies, they probably will come back to the council by May or June, said Gina Clayton, the city's assistant planning and development director.
Despite the lagging economy, Andrew Ingersoll, president of Nickel Plate Properties, said he's optimistic about the project.
"We consider it an A location and, in any economy, good locations do thrive," Ingersoll said.
If the approval process goes smoothly, Nickel Plate plans to break ground later this year.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155.