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Meres Crossing developer drops garage from project

TARPON SPRINGS — The City Commission will have to revisit its recent site plan approval for a portion of the Meres Crossing development. A parking garage the developer agreed to build in exchange for a sliver of public land has been dropped from the latest plan.

"The City Commission will have to revisit the issue," said John Hubbard, Tarpon's assistant city attorney. Hubbard wrote a memo to city officials detailing his concerns.

"The site plan that was approved does not show a parking garage that was required as a condition of voter approval," Hubbard later said.

Last month, John Heuer of AG Armstrong Development asked the city to approve a 60,000-square-foot medical office building along with a surface parking lot on the Meres Crossing property adjacent to Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital.

The commission unanimously approved the request at its April 19 meeting. But the plan included a .62-acre sliver of city-owned land that Tarpon residents decided in a March 2008 referendum could be sold only if a parking garage with 100 spaces for the hospital's use were built.

The Tarpon Springs Hospital Foundation leases the .62 acre from the city.

"I'm letting the city know that we have an equitable interest in the property," Hubbard said. "Should the lease come to an end, the city would get that land.

"What I'm trying to work out is that when that .62 is gone and in the hands of a private party, there is something (for the public) to replace it."

Hubbard said he sees three options:

1. The developer could build the parking garage as originally planned.

2. The .62 acres could be removed from the site plan and an amended plan approved by the commission.

3. Another referendum could be held that would change the parking garage agreement.

"We don't want to do anything as a city that would deviate from the spirit of what the voters approved," Mayor David Archie said after Hubbard sent his memo to city officials. "I think there is a compromise that could be made that would not hold the project up. It's going to have to come back to us (the commission) and I don't think it will be able to move forward unless it does."

Commissioner Townsend Tarapani agreed.

"Without a doubt it's a very complex issue and I fully intend to have it placed on the next agenda for discussion," he said.

The Meres Crossing project is a mixed-use development originally proposed to have a shopping center anchored by a Sweetbay supermarket, a medical office building, a 120-unit assisted living facility, a parking garage and 263 apartments.

The project encompasses about 16 acres along Alt. U.S. 19 just north of the hospital.

While the Sweetbay-anchored shopping center has opened, a sour economy has forced drastic reductions in the remainder of the Meres Crossing plan.

The medical office building was initially proposed as two six-story buildings with a combined 195,000 square feet of office space. That has been reduced to one 60,000-square-foot building with four floors.

The plan called for a parking garage. Now, the plan calls for only surface parking.

But city officials are pleased that there is still movement on the project. Joseph DiPasqua, the city's development services director, said the next phase is putting in roads and other infrastructure that will make the property more marketable.

"They have kept the project moving forward in a tough economic time," DiPasqua said.

Heuer, the developer, touted the advantages of the project despite its reduced scope. He told the commission that once the medical office building is completed, it will bring 180 jobs to the town. He also mentioned enhancements to the Pinellas Trail, which runs behind the property, and proper treatment for stormwater.

But because of a city requirement, the office building can open only if AG Armstrong completes construction of Meres Boulevard, which will run east-west from Alt. U.S. 19 to U.S. 19. The street will become a new evacuation route for the city.

The first two sections of Meres Boulevard have been completed. The third and final section, from Safford to Disston avenues, could be completed in 2012.

Citing future development opportunities, Tarapani questioned why Lincoln and Grosse avenues were not connected to Meres Boulevard in the construction plan. The city agreed to discuss those connections in the future.

Contact Demorris A. Lee at dalee@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4174

Meres Crossing developer drops garage from project 05/21/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 21, 2011 1:07pm]
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