It may seem that the Clearwater City Council has made no progress toward building a long-promised public parking garage to serve the south end of Clearwater Beach. But important decisions were made in the past two weeks that could help the city achieve that goal.
First, the City Council decided the city would consider buying private property for a garage only if the land could be purchased for no more than $5-million per acre.
And second, a majority of council members decided that if the city is forced to build the garage on city-owned land, it will not be on a current city parking lot on the west side of S Gulfview Boulevard. That piece of land now is blessedly off the table, and the open view of the Gulf of Mexico along that stretch of S Gulfview Boulevard will be maintained.
While both decisions are important steps, the hours of discussion that preceded them revealed that the city lacks key information it needs to make a smart, long-term decision about building a garage. That information gap contributed to council members' uncertainty about how to proceed.
At council meetings July 14 and July 17, it seemed clearer than ever that private property may be too expensive for the city to buy. Real estate agent Mark Searcy was hired by the city to try to assemble an acre of land off, but close to, the beachfront. Searcy reported that he had worked with property owners to put together nine potential assemblages along Coronado Drive, but the prices were roughly $7-million and up.
That wasn't the deal, council members told Searcy, and they decided to extend Searcy's contract one more month to see if he can bring them an acre at under $5-million. Searcy, who lives and works on Clearwater Beach, has already told council members that $5-million an acre "will not exist south of the roundabout. Lakeland maybe, not here."
Perhaps council members know that, too, because at both meetings there was considerable debate about which pieces of public land could be used to build a 300-space parking garage that could be expanded upward over time. The city owns several potential properties: the Pier 60 parking lot, the S Gulfview parking lot next to the old Adam's Mark Hotel property, the City Marina property, the Clearwater Beach Recreation Center parking lot, and the Rockaway parking lot and park.
A majority of council members concluded, and we agree, that the recreation center and Rockaway, both on the north end of the island, are too far away to adequately serve south beach tourists and visitors to the new Beach Walk. The S Gulfview lot, a favorite of council member Paul Gibson, was removed from consideration after Mayor Frank Hibbard and council member Carlen Petersen declared they would never vote to build a parking garage there on the beach side of S Gulfview.
"The marina is looking more attractive by the minute," Hibbard finally said, and council members Petersen and John Doran agreed.
The marina has great potential as a garage location. It isn't on the beachfront and the view of the gulf would not be disrupted by a tall building there. But council members have no idea if a garage at that location could be designed so that entering and exiting traffic would not disrupt the nearby roundabout. Isn't it time the city hired a consulting firm — preferably one with a national reputation — to provide a studied opinion on that issue?
There was little discussion of the Pier 60 property as a garage site, except that three council members refused to take that location out of consideration. As council member George Cretekos noted, cars and structures already block any view of the gulf there, and the site couldn't be more convenient to Beach Walk.
Missing from the parking discussions was a reliable estimate of the cost of building a 300-space garage. City staff has used a figure of $23,000 per parking space, but City Council members wanted to know how Tampa International Airport built a garage for half that amount. The city staff said Clearwater's stringent code requirements raise the costs, but the council instructed the staff to come back with a better estimate.
The progress made in the past two weeks was incremental, but it was progress, and council members just need to keep moving doggedly forward.