Clearwater City Council members had little alternative last week to taking a detour in their effort to build a parking garage on Clearwater Beach. The new opportunity that diverted them was too enticing to ignore: the option of a new parking garage right on Beach Walk.
Avi Ovaknin owns property on Beach Walk next door to the new Hyatt that is under construction. He showed up at Thursday's City Council meeting and said he has decided to redevelop his retail property. He wants to build two floors of retail space and four or five additional floors of parking. He would lease 300 parking spaces in his building to the city for public beach parking, he said, and eventually might even sell the parking spaces to the city.
With a sigh of resignation, council members decided they had to explore it.
Why the sense of resignation?
Council members had thought they were on the verge of getting the parking monkey off their backs without any further debate or indecision. They had hired a real estate agent to try to assemble an acre of land for no more than $5-million. They were determined to buy a property and build their own blooming parking garage after years of failed efforts to reach deals with beach property owners and would-be partners in garage projects.
Real estate agent Mark Searcy actually came up with two assemblages that came close to meeting the city's requirements, and council members were debating which one to take at Thursday's meeting. But the properties were well off the beach, between Coronado and Hamden drives. People using the garage would have to walk to the nearest side streets — more than a football field's length away — to get to a pedestrian crossing, cross Coronado, walk a block to S Gulfview, and cross S Gulfview to get to the beach.
Council members were not only worried about how the public would feel about such a long walk to the sand, they also were afraid garage users would just dart across Coronado in front of the garage — a hazard, for sure, when beach traffic is heavy. Trying to get them to go to a traffic light instead would be "like herding cats," traffic operations manager Paul Bertels told council members.
In the midst of their deliberations, Avi Ovaknin rose from the audience with his proposal. Mayor Frank Hibbard, the longest serving council member, seemed almost reluctant to open the door to Ovaknin's idea.
"We are tired of deals that fall apart and developers who are fake," Hibbard said, speaking of past history. "We've gone to the altar so many times with people who wanted to do a deal on a parking garage, and at the end of the day, all we've done is waste a lot of time and raise expectations for the citizens that we don't fulfill."
Yet then he conceded that Ovaknin's property was a "far superior" site to the ones Searcy had found.
Council member Paul Gibson hasn't endured the years of parking wars on the council like Hibbard has, but he said there is a difference between Ovaknin's proposal and some of the other deals the city has discussed with developers. Ovaknin already owns the land, he said, and as a retailer, Ovaknin would have as much to gain from the garage as the city. Garage users would pass his retail shops as they entered and left the building and would keep Ovaknin's cash registers ringing, Gibson said.
Council member John Doran talked about the advantage of going with the "bird in the hand," though he said he had seen Ovaknin's plan and called it "exciting."
But in the end, a majority of the council decided to give the city staff a sliver of time — 30 days — to talk with Ovaknin and see if a project like he proposed seems feasible.
If so, the council can set another deadline for a deeper examination of Ovaknin's plan and his financial wherewithal to pull it off. If the plan looks too complicated or not feasible, the city will proceed to purchase property between Coronado and Hamden.
It was a tough decision for the council to make, but refusing to consider the possibility of a convenient parking garage right on Beach Walk would have been shortsighted.