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CODE FOR BEACH HOTELS MAY NEED SOME TWEAKS

When Clearwater city officials set out to create an environment for successful redevelopment of Clearwater Beach's aging tourist areas, they did so with some basic principles in mind.

First, they wanted a workable plan. It is called, appropriately, Beach By Design.

They wanted to inspire high-end resort development, which Clearwater Beach had never been able to attract.

And they wanted beauty - buildings with appealing architecture and grounds that reflected an appreciation for the sand, sun and sea environment. Officials decided that tall, thin buildings were better than short, fat buildings because they preserved view corridors between buildings. They decided new developments should have open space and plentiful landscaping. They built into the code provisions that would prevent plain, boxy architecture.

Despite the sputtering economy, the city's approach has led to success. One large resort hotel is in operation and a second will open soon. Plans for a couple more remain on the table.

But there is evidence that the city now has strayed from the original principles that set it on the path to success. That evidence is the plan for a Holiday Inn Express.

The Holiday Inn Express will be built on the east side of Coronado Drive south of the roundabout. It will have 108 rooms and 10 stories, and drawings show it has the customary boxy appearance of that chain's express hotels. It will be built on only 0.72 of an acre, and it will fill that property so thoroughly that one part of the hotel will be only a little more than 2 feet from the property line, according to the city. Yet the hotel was approved by the city's Community Development Board because it meets minimal requirements of the city code.

The City Council, at its work session Monday, will talk about whether that is good enough. Clearly, it is not. The city's codes and plan need some tweaking.

In what could be referred to as Clearwater Beach Redevelopment Part 2, the city previously decided that its effort to attract big, high-end resorts had gone well and it needed to turn its attention to attracting mid-price, mid-size hotels that could fill the need for modern family accommodations. But because those rooms would rent for less than resort rooms, and because land prices on the beach were exorbitantly high, developers wouldn't be interested in mid-range projects without some incentive. The incentive the city created was a density pool of 1,385 units - extra hotel rooms that developers could apply for if their projects met certain guidelines.

The Holiday Inn Express qualified for 72 units from the pool, giving it 108 rooms.

"This is too large a building to be on this lot," City Council member Paul Gibson said. He and other council members decided it was time to discuss potential changes in the code.

It is important to make changes now, because several developers, attracted by the density pool, are preparing to bring plans for hotels to the city for approval. Several council members fear a canyon effect on streets such as Coronado and Hamden drives, with hotels such as Ramadas, Hampton Inns and Courtyards lined up side by side, each an unadorned structure bulging to the property lines. That would be a far cry from the airy, lush environment officials originally envisioned for the new Clearwater Beach.

However, city officials who want to change the code confront some thorny problems. They need to create an economically viable situation for developers, which means awarding extra units, but the public has opposed tall hotels on the east side of the island. If buildings can't go higher, they must go wider, which seals off sunlight, breezes and the view of the sky and leaves little space for landscaping.

The challenge for the council is finding the happy medium, where developers get enough units but not too many, and where the code is strict enough to prevent unattractive buildings that fill the property envelope but is not so strict that developers can't achieve a desirable profit margin. The Holiday Inn Express project indicates that the design guidelines to qualify for units should be tougher to get a more attractive result, that more height may be necessary, and that the density pool not only may be a bit too generous, but also should have an expiration date.

Officials' original vision for a redeveloped Clearwater Beach by design was the right one. City Council members should not be afraid to make adjustments to keep the bar set high.

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