Gulf Boulevard safety

Officials from Forward Pinellas, the county planning organization that has spent months finding out what the residents want from their city in the years ahead, say the future of development along Gulf Boulevard hinges on parking.

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — It appears the issue of parking might be the breaking point for the future of the city.

Residents and commissioners got that message from Forward Pinellas, the county planning organization that has spent months finding out what the residents want from their city in the years ahead.

At a special commission meeting Feb. 13, Forward Pinellas Executive Director Whit Blanton presented a draft copy of the final report after more than six months of research involving residents, business owners and city leaders through interviews and public information sessions.

Among the results was the issue of parking and how it could impact things as the city tries to move ahead.

“This has been a six-month effort and it is this city’s vision,” Blanton said. “We have listened and we have come into a lot of clarity. This is not something to be put away on a shelf where you can say, ‘There, we did it.’ This is an actionable, living document which will be around for years to come.

“This isn’t something that has to be done overnight, it can be phased in over time,” he added.

The focus of the study was on Gulf Boulevard and how residents want it to look in the future.

Christina Mendoza, who headed up the project for Forward Pinellas, got right to the point about the parking issue when she used an example of how development might look in the future.

Her mock development centered on Crabby Bill’s and how in the future that property could be turned into a mixed-use development with housing built on top of retail space, or a restaurant, on the main level.

“A development such as that would require 202 parking spaces,” she said. “Right now, there are only 83 spaces, so off-site parking would have to be used. In order to do that you would need an updated land development code.”

One resident asked if the parking restrictions in the city are any more restrictive or punitive than in neighboring towns.

Blanton said he wasn’t sure, but that the parking issue is a difficult one for the city.

“There is ambiguity in the code,” he said. Developers face opposition if too little parking is proposed and a high cost if too much is proposed.

“Your code as it is now will preclude any new development,” he said.

Shopping for a supermarket

There was more than just parking discussed at the meeting. During the previous sessions, another recurring theme was the need for a supermarket in the city.

Caitlin Johnson, of SB Friedman Development, said the consulting firm discovered that more than $16 million is spent on food annually by city residents. That amount of money would suggest there is demand in the city for a small supermarket. However, finding that supermarket won’t be an easy task.

“Studies have shown that a large supermarket would typically require 2 acres of land,” she said. “A small supermarket, something less than 20,000 square feet, would require 1 acre.”

She said to build a small supermarket would rule out a major chain, and finding an independent firm to build a supermarket that size would be financially difficult.

The same is true she said of attracting a national chain restaurant that requires busier traffic than is available in Indian Rocks Beach.

Mendoza pointed out that to move forward on those or any other suggestions in the report will need discussion by the City Commission, and made it clear the suggestions are options for the commission to accept or reject as it sees fit.

Several residents at the meeting had their say once the report was presented.

Julie Hoofnagle said she was concerned over the talk of short-term rentals.

“I heard VRBO far too much,” she said. “Has this study been done for them? We have to make sure the plan is for the residents of the city.”

Blanton responded that references to VRBO — Vacation Rentals By Owner — were only examples to make a point.

“This report was not VRBO-centered, but resident-centered,” he said.

Former Commissioner Jim Labadie, who owns a rental property on the beach, lamented how his expenses are going up.

“Word from our customers is that this is a charming town, but the cost of doing business keeps going up,” he said. “Property is too expensive and taxes are too high.”

Mendoza responded that the study provides suggestions for small business to obtain grants and get financial help.

Residents can see the Forward Pinellas presentation on that organization’s website and soon the entire report will be on the city’s website.

The final report will come back to the commission in May.