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Planners lament ugly buildings on the beach

Members of Clearwater's Community Development Board said this week that they have regularly voted to support buildings that they call "dead ugly" because city codes gave them no way to say no.

Speaking at a lunchtime summit with the City Council on Monday, planning board members said they are hamstrung by overly pliable planning standards that developers can manipulate to meet their needs.

Consequently, Clearwater Beach is turning into one giant concrete slab, as one building after another is approved, board members say.

"It's a disaster," said planning board member Alex Plisko, who finishes his term on the board this month. "It's very difficult to say no. And even though I (want to) say no, the attorney says I can't say it.

City codes say board members must have factual evidence to deny a developer's request, and whether a building's design is pleasing is a highly subjective matter.

The board's revelations, which mimic public consternation over Clearwater's redevelopment program, come as City Council members are set to enact a series of code changes to a northern neighborhood on Clearwater Beach.

But board members said Monday that broader changes are needed to a code that is 7 years old and cost nearly $700,000 in consultant fees to craft.

The lively discussion, which ended after two hours without any official action, will surely ignite another planning policy discussion. The city has tried for years to balance the style and pace of its redevelopment in the downtown and on the beach.

"We're not sure we got the product we envisioned," said David Gildersleeve, the board chairman. "I've seen a number of buildings that are dead ugly, but how do you deny that project? Sometimes you cannot legislate an ugly building up or down."

At least four of the seven planning board members said they have voted to approve the construction of buildings they thought were "ugly" or "awful," only because the rules provided them no other option.

Plisko said the city needs to make its code more restrictive in order to better predict the outcomes of redevelopment.

Specifically, members of the board said the city needs to increase setbacks, or the space between buildings, in order to create airy, open corridors - even if that means allowing builders some additional height.

Board members used Brightwater Drive, a street now redeveloped almost entirely with townhomes, as a prime example of planning gone wrong.

And they believed in 10 years Clearwater Beach might be considered uglier than the high-rise redevelopment of Sand Key, an island community built out almost exclusively with condominium towers.

"Good setbacks," said board member Nick Fritsch, "make good neighborhoods."

Board members also suggested increased landscape requirements and more detailed, undulating, building facades. Too often, developers propose boxy structures with small amounts of landscaping that are never maintained, board members said.

"It's too easy now," Plisko said. "Staff still gets so much pressure from the developers that they bend a lot of times. What (the staff is) bringing to us is not what the code intended to do."

City Manager Bill Horne, who appeared surprised by the comments of the planning board, said members were attempting to shift their responsibilities to someone else.

Why couldn't the board, which is composed of a mix of lay people and development professionals, be empowered to reject poor design? he asked.

"I would challenge the board. Why can't you say it doesn't look good?" Horne asked. "If your gut tells you this doesn't look good, don't approve it."

The city paid a Miami consultant nearly $700,000 starting in 1998 to rewrite Clearwater's land development code and draft specific plans for the downtown and for Clearwater Beach, where the plan is known as Beach by Design.

The changes were meant to help encourage redevelopment, but city officials now question if further encouragement is needed.

Already, more than $1-billion in development is planned for the beach, and several major projects are coming together downtown.

"Some of the buildings are some of the ugliest things I've ever seen," Plisko said. "Unless we put something back in the code that gives us a little more restriction, it's just going to keep going."

Council member Bill Jonson, a critic of the current system, said something needs to change. He started the meeting with a slide show presentation showing how the beach has been redeveloped so far.

Later, he said, "I'm amazed some of this stuff gets through."