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NEXT BEACH GARAGE PUSHED

A council member's suggestion for a site near his family business draws criticism.

Now that Clearwater has decided to put a seven-story parking garage north of the Clearwater Beach Roundabout, some elected officials are already talking about where the next public parking garage on the beach should go.

Looking ahead, they're thinking a garage closer to the water, perhaps at the small Mandalay Park in the Rockaway area where Clearwater Beach's fire station is located.

The City Council member who's pushing for this is Hoyt Hamilton, whose family owns the well-known Palm Pavilion restaurant next to that location.

Hamilton is well aware that some Clearwater residents will view this as a conflict of interest. He argues that it's not.

"How is that not a conflict of interest when you're serving on a board and you're voting on something to better your business that's two steps away?" said Wendy Hutkin, president of the Clearwater Beach Association.

Hamilton insists that a public parking garage in that spot wouldn't make any difference to his family's restaurant, as the existing Rockaway parking lot and foot traffic supply all the customers it can handle.

"If we don't add one more parking space to Clearwater Beach than the number that exists today, Frenchy's and the Palm Pavilion on Friday night and Saturday night in peak season will be on an hour to an hour-and-a-half wait," he said. "Building more parking there is not going to bring specific businesses more business. It's providing parking for the people that want to park their cars and get their feet in the sand."

Mandalay Park is a little-used patch of green space along Mandalay Avenue, next to the beachfront Rockaway parking lot, the Palm Pavilion and Frenchy's Rockaway Grill. Taking up half a city block, the park is studded with palm trees and oaks.

For legal and financial reasons, the city is years away from being able to construct a parking garage there. There's also no guarantee that a majority of Clearwater's elected officials will even want to. But a chain reaction of events is leading Hamilton to pitch this idea now.

For starters, the city is about to renovate the Barefoot Beach House snack shop and rest area on south Clearwater Beach. This will include a much-needed expansion of the public restrooms there, where long lines of beachgoers can be found waiting during peak beach season.

Expanding those bathrooms means the city will lose a small garage where it stores and maintains beach cleaning equipment. To store that stuff, the city plans to construct a maintenance building in Mandalay Park next to the beach fire station.

Instead of building a permanent structure there, Hamilton suggests that the city build a cheaper, more temporary structure because it would eventually have to be torn down if a parking garage is built later.

And why build another parking garage there? The City Council just recently approved the upcoming construction of a 642-space garage not far away at the Pelican Walk Plaza shopping center.

Hamilton says the Pelican Walk garage will primarily serve businesses in the Mandalay Avenue retail district. He thinks a garage closer to the sand would be more useful for beachgoers.

There are two reasons why Clearwater wouldn't be able to carry out Hamilton's plan anytime soon. First, its agreement with the company that will build and operate the Pelican Walk garage forbids the city from adding another parking garage to the beach for at least two years.

Second, Clearwater pays for parking garages with money from parking meters and parking tickets. For now, that money is being used to pay for the Pelican Walk garage.

Another factor is that a new parking garage on the north end of Clearwater Beach would draw opposition from beach residents.

"A high-rise parking lot in that park is not going to be welcomed by the neighbors," said Hutkin of the Beach Association. "It's not attractive or necessary."

Contact Mike Brassfield at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.

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