Anyone who regularly has to navigate the jam-packed intersection of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road in Clearwater should pay attention to plans for a major development on the intersection's southwest corner. Traffic is bound to be worsened by the project. The question that confronts the Clearwater City Council, which is scheduled to vote on the project Thursday night, is how much worsening of traffic should they tolerate in exchange for desirable new development.
The 30-acre property is now vacant, but it previously was occupied by just under 300 mobile homes, some of them in poor condition. Lakeside Mobile Home Park residents were moved out and the property was cleared when owner Nickel Plate Properties Inc. decided to develop the land.
On Thursday night the developer will ask the City Council to approve land use and zoning changes that would allow construction of a 90,000-square-foot shopping center, possibly including a grocery store and restaurants, on the north end of the property, and 243 upscale apartments on the south end. A pond now located on the north portion would be moved south, to the corner of Belcher and Druid roads.
The main entrance to the developed property would be on Belcher Road, immediately opposite the entrance into a busy Publix shopping center on the east side of Belcher. Other entrances would be on Gulf-to-Bay and on Druid Road, a two-lane street on the south side of the property.
A traffic study done by the developer claims the project would add only 236 new peak-hour vehicle trips. At a work session Monday, City Council members seemed skeptical about the traffic study — an entirely justified reaction. The addition of a shopping center and 243 apartment homes, many of which probably will have more than one occupant, certainly will create more traffic than a mobile home park that was occupied mostly by senior citizens, and much more traffic than is now generated by 30 empty acres.
City Council members spent a lot of time Monday worrying about traffic impacts. Observers might ask, why worry? Why not just turn down the project if it is going to worsen an already congested traffic situation, or insist that the developer pay for road improvements to lessen the effects?
As is often the case, this problem doesn't have any simple solutions. The land owner has protected rights to use his property, which is zoned for a mobile home park. But Pinellas local governments are discouraging new construction of mobile home parks, so what should go there instead?
The land is not environmentally sensitive and is an eyesore in its current state. The city can't afford to buy it for a park. The property is completely surrounded by retail stores, offices and homes, so the owner's requested land use and zoning changes are appropriate. New construction could bring jobs and tax dollars to the city and could promote much-needed redevelopment westward on Gulf-to-Bay.
Wary of the traffic issues, Nickle Plate isn't even asking to develop the land to its full legal potential, which would permit 200,000 square feet of commercial space and 295 apartments.
The developer has offered to add a right-turn lane into the property on Belcher Road and dedicate land for another turn lane on Gulf-to-Bay. But the work that would help the most — an expansion of the intersection of the two major roads to add lanes — can't be done because the state doesn't own any right of way on some corners. Ten years ago the state estimated it would cost $30 million to acquire right of way on just the two northern corners. The idea quickly was abandoned.
City officials should approach the Florida Department of Transportation to try to renew interest in improving the intersection, not just because of the Nickle Plate project, but primarily because the Gulf-to-Bay/Belcher intersection isn't safe. There are frequent accidents in the intersection, and pedestrians, including children and teens, regularly cross there at risk to life and limb.
Because the Nickel Plate project is so large, the Florida Department of Community Affairs will get to weigh in on it. But first, City Council members must decide whether they approve. It won't be an easy decision either way.