CLEARWATER — For at least a decade, the city has sought to build a public parking garage on south Clearwater Beach. That effort has been stymied because beach landowners have understandably been asking for a king's ransom for their property.
But now that land prices are dropping and financial markets are in turmoil, property owners are suddenly eager to make a deal. The city is engaged in intense negotiations with the owners of two prime spots where a 300-space garage would fit nicely.
"Right now, we actually have a competition going on. Competition drives down prices," City Council member Paul Gibson said at Thursday night's council meeting. "I never would have believed this six months ago."
The city will build one garage, not two. So the council took the opportunity Thursday to spur those negotiations along, informing both landowners that they're now in a race to get a deal done.
"Time is your enemy," Gibson warned.
One potential location is an acre owned by Lucca Development a couple of blocks from the beach on Fifth Street between Hamden and Coronado drives.
The city tried last year to put a garage there, but the deal fell through. Now that the property is going into foreclosure, Lucca's lender is offering it to the city for $4.9-million.
Thursday night, Assistant City Manager Rod Irwin told the council that negotiations with that lender, iStar Financial, had essentially stalled.
But then a local consultant for iStar, Arden Dittmer, popped up and said, "They're definitely interested. They want to make this deal happen. … They're still willing to negotiate on the number."
The other potential deal is with developer Avi Ovaknin of Surf Style Retail Management, who would build a six-story garage on land he owns just south of the Hyatt Aqualea condo-hotel.
Thursday night, the developer described how his location right on BeachWalk would give beachgoers a convenient place to park.
"We are very motivated to work with the city," Ovaknin said.
But the council is balking at the cost of $16.6-million the city would pay over 20 years for that land and a garage. The city had been considering spending roughly $13-million for a garage at two less convenient locations.
"The big barrier for us with your location is price," said Mayor Frank Hibbard.
"We can work on that," Ovaknin said.
"I hoped that you could," Hibbard deadpanned, prompting laughter from the audience.
The delays in building a garage are prompting officials to keep pondering other options.
Council member John Doran asked city staffers how much it would cost to construct one-level parking decks on city-owned land at the Pier 60 parking lot, the S Gulfview parking lot next to the old Adam's Mark Hotel property and the Rockaway lot.
The answer was that it would be a lot cheaper and would create about 335 spaces. Doran mused that this idea had "some possibilities," but he acknowledged that a lot of people would be upset with parking structures at those spots.
Sheila Cole, executive director of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce, confirmed that.
"How tall is a deck?" Cole asked. "Could I see through that to the water or would my view be blocked? I thought we were trying to protect that view."
In the end, the council told city staffers to keep negotiating with both property owners.
"I don't think this is cooked yet," said Council member Carlen Petersen. "There's way too many questions."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.