CLEARWATER – It was a long time coming, but Geographic Solutions can finally move forward with plans to construct a new office building in historical downtown Palm Harbor.
Pinellas County Commissioners voted, 5-2, Oct. 16 to approve the transfer of development rights and a setback variance from 10 feet to 5 feet so Paul Toomey and his business can consolidate its holdings in the downtown area. Commission Chair John Morroni and Commissioner Norm Roche voted no.
The decision was not without contention. Several downtown businesses along with Neil Valk, owner of one of the properties currently leased by Geographic Solutions as well as other downtown properties, continued to argue that construction of the new building and hiring of additional employees would have a negative impact on parking in the downtown area.
The debate on parking has continued throughout the lengthy approval process. An informal study by county staff shows parking is sufficient as does preliminary results from a yet-to-be completed study by a county consultant. However, a consultant hired by Valk and other Palm Harbor businesses to do an independent study says parking is a problem in parts of downtown.
Results of the county consultant’s study should be available in early November.
Commissioner Nancy Bostock objected to making a decision about Toomey’s request before getting results from the parking study. She said making decisions piecemeal was inefficient and burdensome for citizens having to attend multiple public hearings.
County Administrator Bob LaSala said nothing about the decision hinged on the parking study. He said the resolution commissioners were being asked to approve only dealt with conditional uses, the TDR and the setback variance.
In the end, Bostock said she would support the request because there wasn’t a compelling reason to vote no. Commissioner Karen Seel put aside her objections after hearing from the county’s consultant that preliminary results of the parking study were in line with county staff’s opinion.
Commissioners approved use of TDRs within Downtown Palm Harbor April 24. It was no secret that the impetus behind the decision had been Geographic Solutions need for a better business environment and construction of a new building.
Toomey’s request is the first use of the TDR provision. He requested transferring development rights from three properties to a vacant lot where he plans to build an 18,900 square foot three-story office building.
Gordon Beardslee with the Strategic Planning and Initiatives Department said Toomey’s request met all the rules for use of a TDR.
Toomey submitted a site plan, as required, and a Certificate of Appropriateness that was approved in 2009. Beardslee said changes made to the COA since it was originally approved were not substantial enough to require a new review.
The original plan called for two floors of office space with residential space on the third floor. The new plan calls for office space on all three floors.
Geographic Solutions also proposes to increase parking availability by 10 spaces, providing 42 off-street spaces as required by code.
The resolution comes with six conditions:
1 – Development of the site must be substantially in conformance with the site plan, including parking requirements
2 – Development in conformance with elevation plans
3 – Building must not exceed 18,900 square feet of office space
4 – Covered bicycle racks must be provided on the building site as well as two of the sites transferring development rights
5 – Geographic Solutions and any subsequent business located on the site where the new building is required to work with Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority’s Commuter Services to provide commute options to employees to reduce the number of vehicular trips to the surrounding roadways and reduce the demand for public parking spaces downtown.
6 – Developer must coordinate with county staff to incorporate appropriate low impact design techniques in the parking plan for the parcel.
Geographic Solutions is a privately owned company established in 1992. It is a leading provider of software solutions for workforce development, employment, and training, according to its website.
The corporate office, originally built in 1893 as the Palm Harbor General Store, was renovated in 1999. In July 2001, a new development center was opened down the street from the corporate building. Over time, additional buildings were acquired to accommodate the growing production, management, and support team.
The six-building campus is scattered throughout downtown and includes two rental properties. Toomey has said if he couldn’t find a way to build in downtown Palm Harbor and consolidate his operations, he would be forced to relocate elsewhere – maybe even out of the county. County commissioners, who put a high value on high-paying, clean jobs, didn’t want that to happen.
The Board of Directors for the Old Palm Harbor Main Street and The Greater Palm Harbor Area Chamber of Commerce also support for Toomey’s expansion.
Morroni, who was absent during previous meetings on Toomey’s request, said he was voting against the deal because after the time spent working on the deal, some are still voicing objections.
“It blows my mind that here we are in October. Mr. Toomey seems like a great guy. I can’t imagine that he’s hard to work with … he’s had a whole year to educate and sell his plan and still the people don’t buy it,” Morroni said.
He said he didn’t know what was right or wrong.
“But when in doubt, it’s best not to support it,” he said.
Roche said the problem was the parking.
“It’s been about the parking since the very beginning,” he said. “I have concerns about the TDRs and remain opposed. … It’s not about Mr. Toomey or Mr. Valk, it’s about our bureaucracy.”