Scientologists may join garage and terminal project
The church, which planned to build parking for its new facility, may form a partnership with Clearwater and the county on a larger garage and bus terminal.
By CHRISTINA HEADRICK
St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001
CLEARWATER -- An old idea to build a larger Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus terminal with a city and county parking garage above it is being resurrected with a new twist.
The project could include floors of parking financed by the Church of Scientology for its seven-story "Super Power" building that is under construction.
City officials think it would be the first time that Clearwater entered into such an arrangement with the Church of Scientology, and they say the idea makes sense.
The church was planning to build a separate garage southeast of its new downtown facility with more than 400 spaces. But city officials would rather see one large garage -- serving the county, city and church -- at the location of the PSTA's existing terminal at 525 Park St. and a county parking lot next door.
A garage there, with a public-transit terminal on the ground floor, would be a block from Cleveland Street, where West Palm Beach developer George de Guardiola has talked about someday putting a cinema and additional retail and restaurants.
"It's a natural location for a garage," city Planning Director Ralph Stone said.
"You've got a county parking lot there already. And if the city has some money, the PSTA is building a terminal, and the church is building parking. The combination of those things might work to create much more public parking than we could do by ourselves or in some other location."
The groups who could be involved have had several preliminary meetings in the past four weeks, and most sound optimistic about the project.
"We've finally been able to get all the parties back to the table to see if we could work something there," interim City Manager Bill Horne said. "We're focusing on today, on the future. We're not dwelling on what happened in the past."
PSTA officials have had to set aside feelings of frustration in dealings with the city to come back to the table. The PSTA has been trying to find a way to expand its cramped 1983 terminal downtown for four years.
The city first encouraged the joint garage and terminal project back in 1997, but then Clearwater commissioners balked at paying up to $3.9-million for the city's share. The deal fell apart in late 1999.
A city official suggested that the PSTA consider locating its terminal on Laura Street downtown. PSTA came up with a proposal, but it was rejected by the city last fall; officials thought the terminal would discourage townhomes from being built in the area.
PSTA officials considered filing a lawsuit against the city but decided to drop the issue. Now, it is back to the original proposal: expand the PSTA's terminal at Park Street with a new public garage above it.
"We really need to make a decision to fix the facility up there or move on," said PSTA Executive Director Roger Sweeney. "Every time we delay the decision, it not only costs us money, it's a hardship for our passengers too. I would say it's frustrating."
Calvin Harris, who leads both the County Commission and the PSTA's board, was a bit more upbeat. He said he is excited about reviving the original proposal.
"We're really pleased because we had really wanted this spot, and when the city couldn't participate, the project just really fell on its face," Harris said. "Now with the city as a partner, it makes it a great location for us."
A lot of details have to be worked out, such as how access to garage floors would be controlled, who would maintain the structure and how ownership would be arranged. The project could be owned like a condominium, with different entities owning different floors.
And the big question is still financing.
"The issues really become the financing and who's going to put up what," Sweeney said. "It's a tricky deal."
PSTA has up to $2.5-million in federal money to spend on its new terminal, although the money can only be spent on improvements to serve the transit system.
Ed Armstrong, an attorney for the Church of Scientology, said the church has budgeted about $7,000 per parking space to build a garage with about 430 spaces. The joint garage project would have to be cheaper for the church to invest in it.
"It would have to make business sense for them to be a participant in the joint garage," Armstrong said, although the church wants to help support downtown redevelopment ideas.
"We're a willing and active participant in the discussions to see if there's a way to structure the joint parking garage that works for all parties," Armstrong said.
Pinellas County's utilities department is willing to donate its parking lot for land for the project and also to finance an overpass for pedestrians above Fort Harrison Avenue. The overpass could be designed as a public art project, said Pick Talley, county utilities director.
But the county would want the city to pay for replacing about 80 to 90 ground-level county parking spaces that would be removed for the project, Talley said. So far, the city hasn't agreed to that.
Clearwater has about $1.5-million to spend, money that the Church of Scientology has paid to the city in lieu of building another 334 spaces of parking, Stone said.
Horne suggested the city might be able to dip into city parking funds if more money were needed for the city's share, whatever that might be.
Discussions will continue this spring to the sound of a ticking clock. The PSTA must decide by Oct. 1 where and how its new terminal will be built, Sweeney said, under a federal deadline.
The Church of Scientology wants to know where its garage will be built by June or July, Armstrong said, because it must be constructed by the time the "Power Center" opens in late 2002.
The structure, which is officially named the Flag Building, will be one of the largest buildings in the county. It will contain a museum to Scientology's late founder, L. Ron Hubbard, as well as theaters and classrooms for training and about 300 rooms for one-on-one counseling.