Clearwater and Scientology wrangle over parking for new aquarium

Tampa Bay Times/March 7, 2014

By Charlie Fargo

Clearwater -- As the Clearwater Marine Aquarium unveils a long-awaited study on the feasibility of a new downtown aquarium today, a plan for a parking garage for the anticipated rush of visitors is taking shape.

The aquarium and the city had wanted to build a garage on a site on the northern edge of the downtown core. But last fall, the Church of Scientology paid $3 million to purchase that site.

After voters approved a plan in November to allow the city to lease waterfront land to the aquarium, city officials began talking with the church about a possible land swap so it could get back the parking site it wanted.

But last week, the church told the city that it was keeping the property.

"We have always been, from our perspective, supportive in helping the church achieve its goals for its institutional uses. I'm a little disappointed they weren't willing to help us," said City Manager Bill Horne.

As a result, the city isn't going to rush to swap any city-owned property that could help the church cobble together enough land for a new church concert hall.

"It's not our focus. It's not a priority for us right now," Horne said.

With its first parking choice gone, the city has its eye on another site for a 1,000-space garage: a county-owned parking lot along Fort Harrison Avenue beside the church's massive Flag Building, which opened in November.

With no downtown height restrictions, "We could build it as high as we want," Horne said.

The church didn't respond to a request for comment. Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala confirmed that Horne had approached him about the idea.

Former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who led the effort to win voter approval for the new aquarium, said the county parking lot location would be more feasible if the adjoining Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus transfer station property could also be used. PSTA has been looking to move that station for a while, he said.

Horne suggested a new bus station could be located on the lower level of the new garage. However, PSTA CEO Brad Miller said he hasn't had any discussions with the city about that idea.

Despite Clearwater's reputation for having a desolate downtown, some anticipate a parking crunch when the aquarium is built. Already, the newly opened Capitol Theatre has increased parking demand, and several developers have balked at investing downtown because of a lack of parking, said Bill Sturtevant, chairman of the Clearwater Downtown Partnership.

Also, the city recently announced a plan to raise parking rates and eliminate free parking on Clearwater Beach. The city will need to develop a satellite area for beachgoers to park and then catch a bus or trolley to the beach, Sturtevant said.

The county's Fort Harrison property "is the most centrally located site and it would accommodate whatever we need," he said.

As the city prepares to enter lease negotiations with the aquarium, which is slated to open its new facility in 2017, the parking garage is the biggest unsettled item. The city hopes to resolve that issue within two months, Horne said.

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