Project may bring new bus terminal

A developer plans to buy the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority property in Clearwater and help pay to build a new terminal.

St. Petersburg Times/March 9, 2006
By Aaron Sharockman

Clearwater -- The developer who plans to build hundreds of condominiums just north of the Church of Scientology's Sandcastle retreat is now acquiring land next to the church's new Flag Building.

Triangle Development has an agreement to purchase the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus terminal property on Park Street for a residential development that might include a hotel, Clearwater city officials said.

A new bus terminal would be built as part of the agreement on land the developer owns near Belleair Road and S Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. The developer would pay for much of the construction of the new terminal, said Bill Jonson, a Clearwater City Council member and the city's representative on the PSTA board.

Bus service would continue in downtown Clearwater, but the transfer points for journeys north and south would be moved to the new location accessed off Missouri Avenue.

The agreement, which was approved by the PSTA board 8-2, is contingent on the county's approving a zoning change for the new bus site, which abuts residential property and is outside Clearwater city limits.

Details of Triangle's plan for the Park Street site were not released by company executives. Triangle president Ben Kugler was on the Freewinds, a Scientology cruise ship and retreat, and could not be reached, executives said.

If the deal goes through, it would increase the investment in downtown by private Scientologists, who already own more than 200 shops, restaurants, service outlets and small businesses in the area and have proposed building at least 900 condos and townhomes.

Triangle is planning a massive residential complex for north downtown called Harrison Village and Island View. It would add nearly 350 condominiums near the Sandcastle between N Fort Harrison Avenue and the Intracoastal Waterway.

Clearwater officials also said Triangle wants to purchase a parking lot along S Fort Harrison that is owned by the county adjacent to the Park Street terminal. That lot would be folded into the bus terminal redevelopment.

But this week, Assistant County Administrator Keith Wicks said he had not heard Triangle was interested in the property.

Further, he said, the land could be used as part of a city-county government complex, though those discussions are very preliminary.

"We're a long way from making any decisions about that" piece of property, Wicks said.

Ed Armstrong, a Clearwater land use lawyer who represents Triangle, said the company decided to pursue one piece of property at a time. Developers still may open negotiations for the county property at a later date.

He said no firm decisions on how the property would be redeveloped have been made.

"We've not talked about the ultimate build-out plan for months and months," Armstrong said.

Jonson, who was one of the two PSTA votes against the agreement, said too much remained unclear for him to support the deal. Board members received the agreement just minutes before their meeting last month, he said.

Other Clearwater officials also expressed concern, saying a bus terminal is part of a vibrant downtown.

"It would be an opportunity lost," said city planning director Michael Delk.

PSTA executive director Roger Sweeney did not return calls seeking comment.

The transportation agency for years has said it needs new larger facilities to serve its buses in downtown Clearwater, but at least two expansion options have been rejected by Clearwater leaders. Instead, the city had hoped to create a new facility near the foot of the Clearwater Memorial Causeway bridge. That facility also could serve as the terminus for a monorail to Clearwater Beach.

"That's our dream," said City Manager Bill Horne.

Triangle officials have marketed their Island View and Harrison Village condominiums to Scientologists, playing off the project's proximity to the Sandcastle retreat. The new Park Street project would be built across the street from the Mediterranean Revival Flag Building, 215 S Fort Harrison Ave., which will feature a ground-floor Scientology museum open to the public and 300 rooms for Scientology's core practice of auditing.

More important is the "location right in the downtown core," Armstrong said. "It's a very critical piece of downtown property."

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