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Downtown Tarpon Springs dilemma: park or parking?

TARPON SPRINGS — When the city was contemplating more downtown parking a decade ago, the thought was to build a link from Tarpon Avenue to a new lot a block away.

The parking lot with more than 40 spaces, on the corners of East Orange Street and Safford Avenue, was completed in 2003. But the connection between it and Tarpon Avenue merchants was never built.

Now some downtown business owners are asking the city to finish it. But there is a new complication — a group looking to beautify the city has plans for the same sliver of land.

The Garden Fairies, who have donated their energies to such things as hospitals, community centers and public works projects, want to paint a mural on a building and construct a small park on the land. The group would pay for the project.

"We approached the Chamber of Commerce looking for a place for a mural, and Sue Thomas came up with the spot on Tarpon Avenue," said Siobhan Nehin, who is with the Garden Fairies.

"We looked at the space and said we are going to have this beautiful mural, but then there was this vacant lot. We should do something with the lot."

Nehin said she and Thomas, president of the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce, and City Manager Mark LeCouris and several merchants started working toward a park there.

"Everybody was on board, Nehin said. "The city, the chamber, we were moving forward."

Everyone, that is, but some of the city's downtown property owners. They were stunned that the city wasn't going to complete the connector instead.

The link would add eight more spaces and make the larger lot more visible to customers.

LeCouris "stated to the commission that he has been in contact with the property owners and merchants, and I don't know what property owner he was in contact with," said John Tarapani, whose family has owned land and run a business in downtown Tarpon Springs since 1911.

"For the long-term goal of the city, the parking connection meets the goals and objectives of redevelopment. I can name lots of businesses that would think that parking is important."

LeCouris said the city likely would have to take property for the connector by eminent domain — something he opposes.

He believes the idea is being revived by only a few downtown property owners with their own agenda. "I believe they are trying to use government for their own gain and I don't think that's right," LeCouris said. "These are people who for a long time were very strong property-rights people. My biggest problem with them is the taking of someone's property for this. I just think it's fundamentally wrong and that's my biggest problem."

But eminent domain isn't the only solution, Tarapani said. The city could make a purchase offer.

The city took two pieces of property by eminent domain to build the Orange Street parking lot. A third land owner sold.

Irene Weissenborn, 79, of Naples, owns the property needed for the connector. She said her older brothers, whom she now cares for, used the proceeds from sponge diving to purchase the downtown property.

Weissenborn filed site plans for developing the property during the earlier discussions for a parking lot that slowed city efforts to take the land then.

Weissenborn said she has been working with the Garden Fairies, the Chamber of Commerce and LeCouris for more than a year to build the park. She said she hasn't had any conversations recently with the city about purchasing the property.

In addition, a lease has recently been signed for a restaurant to come to the building that she also owns on the land.

Mayor Beverley Billiris, who was a commissioner when the connector was first discussed, is not convinced of her intentions.

"Ten years after her first site plans were submitted, the property has sat empty with vagrants living on it," Billiris said. "There's been no movement in all those years. Now, we are talking of the parking again and now we have a potential development. We haven't seen anything in writing and quite frankly, I think it's another ruse."

All the commissioners have said they need to hear more before making a decision. They will discuss it at their regular meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

The Garden Fairies say they are not trying to get caught in a political fight. Thomas agreed and said the park is on hold.

Commissioner Susan Slattery said common ground should be sought.

"We can do a joint effort," Slattery said. "We just have to get everybody on the same page."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes.com or 445-4174.

Downtown Tarpon Springs dilemma: park or parking? 10/16/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 16, 2009 10:51pm]

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