CLEARWATER – Despite the rigorous recommendations of the city’s planning team to say no, City Council members voted 3-2 on Oct. 18 to say yes to the idea of allowing a self-storage business into the northern part of the U.S. 19 corridor.
It’s in an area just south of Countryside Boulevard where the vision is “a dynamic mixed use” that is home to a regional center and a place for people, Gina Clayton, the city’s assistant director of planning, said.
A self-storage isn’t a good fit for an area consisting mostly of offices, retail and restaurants, she said, and would create “an economic dead zone.”
“A warehouse isn’t a place for people,” Clayton said. “There would be no activity there. There are commercial uses that are much more viable.”
Still, council members David Allbritton, Doreen Caudell and Hoyt Hamilton approved the plan, which would require an amendment to the community development code as it pertains to that portion of the U.S. 19 corridor, which is divided into three sub-districts as far as planning is concerned. The plan covers 7 miles of U.S. 19 in whole.
Mayor George Cretekos and council member Bob Cundiff cast dissenting votes.
The proposed indoor, air-conditioned storage facility is 88,000 square feet in size and would feature 800 units. Its address is 26489 U.S. 19, sitting on the east-side frontage road.
The storage-business plan is being presented by Tampa-based Broom Capital, which wants to buy the three-quarter-acre property from Savelle Clearwater Countryside LLC, owners of the Denny’s restaurant that was built there in 1976 and closed three years ago.
Hamilton said the owners have worked to find a buyer to run a similar operation, but there have been no takers.
“If it was a month ago, I’d say it was too soon,” he said. “But they’ve been looking for three years.”
Hamilton said the location, both small and away from exits and entrances to U.S. 19, was hurting recruitment efforts.
“Given the failure of that property, this is the best option that’s come forward,” he said. “It’s an isolated, unique, singular property. That’s why this is a reasonable go.”
Although he would vote against the proposal, Cundiff agreed it was undesirable.
“What would you expect to be built there?” he asked. “It’s not a corridor, it’s a back yard (to other businesses). It’s an alley.”
Denise Sanderson, the city’s economic development and housing director, argued that businesses can build taller buildings along the corridor and will benefit from being seen by U.S. 19 travelers. Therefore, the location is attractive.
Clayton said a storage facility would draw only 6 percent of the traffic of what a similarly sized retail development could draw, and reminded the council that people don’t take the bus or walk to their storage unit.
The current plan for the corridor was 12 years in the making, getting its final fine-tuning in 2017, and Cretekos felt it needs to evolve.
“Just this year, we changed it so a Wawa could be built at a key intersection (at Countryside Boulevard and U.S. 19) and now this,” he said. “We haven’t given this plan enough time to work yet, because we had some people who want to do something right away who didn’t want to work with us to create jobs, but wanted a building there right away.”
Clayton agreed, reminding council members that the current plan was the result of their wishes – not that of the staff, who was only trying to uphold the intent.
Sanderson echoed that, saying she hoped the council would take a long view and not go with a “something’s better than nothing” approach.
Hamilton remained unconvinced. He said there’s plenty of vacant office space in the area, and wondered why someone would build more.
“If there’s potential for something major there, wouldn’t someone have already moved on it? He asked. “I’m not sure a three-quarter-of-an-acre property is going to destroy the U.S. 19 corridor.”
Brian Aungst Jr., the attorney representing Savelle and Capital, said the area showed an office-space vacancy rate of nearly 15 percent, saying it was the highest in greater Tampa Bay.
He warned the location could stay a dead zone for another 30 years if the council didn’t adjust and noted that the small lot would unlikely become a larger, more attractive parcel thanks to a neighbor selling its land.
He showed the council an email from a representative of Centennial Bank, the property’s neighbor, which has been in business there since it built in 1975. Just last year, it bought its land for $3.2 million and this year completed $200,000 in upgrades, the email said, and had no interest in either expanding or selling.
“They’re not going anywhere,” said Hamilton, again resulting in the existence of a small lot that’s unlikely to attract a substantial commercial project.
Regarding staff concerns that the storage facility’s designs may not be aesthetically pleasing, suggesting that it may feature faux windows, Aungst assured the council that they’d be real.
Michael Delk, the city’s planning director, used findings from a consulting firm the city hired to highlight the economic shortcomings of the move.
First, instead of collecting $271,000 in taxes over 10 years that the storage unit would bring, a retail operation of similar size would bring in $1.5 million.
Regarding earnings, storage employees would make about $5 million while the retail employees would make about $100 million. That calculation came from an estimate that a storage facility of that size would create 9.9 full-time workers, while a retail counterpart would create 191.
Added Clayton, “It would remove the opportunity for job creation the city is targeting.”
Those numbers swayed Cundiff’s opinion, he said, as did what he considered inadequate parking. The developers are proposing only five parking spots to service the 88,000 square feet of warehouse, Clayton reported, while the 3,200 square feet of retail/office/restaurant space would require 12. That would mean 17 in total.
Aungst said a business of a similar size, other than self-storage, would require 352 parking spots.
“The alternative is totally unrealistic,” he said.
The amendment is limited to properties of 0.75 to 0.9 acres, which are uncommonly small in the corridor.
“That protects you,” Aungst said. “You’re not setting a precedent. This isn’t a slippery slope.
“Anyone who wants to make an additional change isn’t going to be allowed to just amend their property and make it small enough to fit into that requirement. They’ll have to come back and prove to you that this is a good plan that complies with the goals and objectives of the city of Clearwater, and is worth doing, which I believe our client was able to do with some members of the council over the course of our 20- or-so meetings.”
The developer’s plans were rejected by the city’s Community Development Board back in September, but it came back with a revision that calls for 3,200 square feet of retail or office space on the first floor, known as “active space,” utilizing all 80 feet of the proposed building’s road frontage for such.
Clayton said that only represented 3.5 percent of the square footage where people would exist. “The rest would be boxes,” she said. “That doesn’t fit the profile we want.”
Delk said the idea of only 3,200 square feet housing a legitimate retail business was not realistic, noting a recent Walgreen’s approved by the city housed about 12,000 square feet.
“Carve about 24 percent of that floor space out, that’s what we’re looking at,” he said.
Hamilton said a high-end self-storage facility could actually be of service to not only other businesses but residents in that area.
Mike Meidel, Pinellas County’s economic development director, agreed. He said the county is being inundated with self-storage businesses because people are constantly moving here, the millennials here are often moving between apartments as they advance in their careers, and those who already have homes in built-out Pinellas County need a place to store their furniture during renovations.
“There are few attics and no basements here,” he said.
He also noted that studies show there’s demand here. The average storage need per person in the country is 7 square feet, except for Florida, where it’s estimated to double that, he said.
Meanwhile, average rent is $97 per unit per month elsewhere, but in Florida it’s between $150 and $200, he added.
“There’s money to be made,” Meidel said. “They can afford the best retail corner in the entire county.”
Aungst noted that self-storage facilities have been allowed in many regional centers, including Tampa’s WestShore Plaza.
But Meidel said most of the self-storage money goes out of the area to large institutional investors, while the workers earn what is typically minimum wage.
“Build it cheap, low maintenance costs, few employees, low wages. It’s a cash flow,” he said. “It’s also considered recession-proof – even in a recession, people are downsizing, so the churn is always there.
“You’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. You’re going to get a lot of requests for that.”
The only economic benefit to Clearwater, he said, other than taxes, is almost zero.
“Just a few minimum-wage employees,” he said.
Therefore, Meidel agreed with city staff that storage is not the best use for that portion of U.S. 19.
“The opportunity for job creation and the benefit to the society as a whole is so much higher,” he said of other ventures. “I would caution you, when these prime locations at your best intersections, with the most accessibility, for people want to move in and out of here, don’t give away those limited opportunities to a use that just doesn’t benefit the economy as a whole – especially when there are so many other opportunities for public storage, by right, throughout the county.”
Clayton said 430 acres of land to the south along U.S. 19 are already permissible for such a use, and five self-storage units currently exist in that region and two more are seeking approval.
In the end, Delk told the council that the city had spent $853,000 on studies, consultants, designers and other resources in shaping the U.S. 19 corridor plan.
“We did not get here in a cavalier matter,” he said.