CLEARWATER — Traffic slowly churns in the roundabout at the Memorial Causeway entrance to Clearwater Beach.
Motorists stalk the Pier 60 parking lot, driving up and down, waiting for a precious space to open up.
Farther north, a cul-de-sac at the foot of the Sandpearl condominiums fills with parked vans and cars unloading beach chairs, umbrellas, coolers and people at a narrow beach access point.
The scene is familiar — and not just during spring break or on holiday weekends — in what a USA Today poll last year concluded is “Florida’s best beach town.”
With a record number of visitors and an improving economy pushing new restaurants, hotels and stores out of the ground, parking has come to the fore in many area tourist communities.
In some cases, though, city governments have concluded big spikes in demand during special events and peak weekends don’t justify spending millions of dollars for parking lots that won’t see much use the remainder of the year.
Clearwater Beach appears to have reached a tipping point.
A recent parking study showed most of the more than 2,000 public spaces along the main drag of the beach are filled to capacity on a increasing number of days, justifying an agreement between the city and developers to build a seven-story parking garage.
If built, the proposed Pelican Walk garage behind the bustling retail center on Mandalay Avenue would add more than 600 parking spaces on the north end of the beach for customers, employees, beachgoers and others.
Business owners in the shopping plaza say they need the extra parking now, especially for workers who compete with visitors for spaces and often are forced to pay high hourly rates.
A half-dozen shovel-ready development projects at the beach also means the city may need hundreds of additional spaces in the near future.
“It has grown a lot. On the north side of the beach, from the roundabout going up, more restaurants have been opened, more bars have been opened,” said Dee Aguasvivas, owner of the Fusion Cigar Lounge at 483 Mandalay Ave.
Employees in the Pelican Walk plaza frequently must contend with feeding the meter at nearby surface parking lots if the spaces behind the shopping center are full.
The proposed parking garage would be a “blessing,” Aguasvivas said, but it probably wouldn’t be enough to meet the demand. “I believe that’s just the beginning as far as solving the parking problem.”
City leaders saw it coming years ago in their forward-looking Beach by Design master plan.
More tourists, more hotels, more redevelopment pushing north and east toward the Intracoastal Waterway eventually would drive the need for more parking.
The topic has been on Clearwater City Council agendas for years, and more than once has stirred up controversy among the beach’s permanent residents, many of whom weren’t thrilled a decade ago with how many people were clogging up their roads and sand.
A somewhat softer chorus of opposition arose as Safety Harbor-based Paradise Group proposed a multistory garage on the back side of Pelican Walk.
Some residents in the adjacent Sandpearl condominiums wrote letters against the plan, citing worries about added traffic congestion, more beach visitors overwhelming limited beach access spots and even violent crime similar to shootings at beach parking garages on Memorial Day weekend.
When city officials got ready to vote this month, though, more supporters than protesters showed up, and even the critics conceded more parking is needed — but someplace else, perhaps.
“We know the beach absolutely needs parking for the businesses,” Sandpearl resident William Salvidge said at a recent council meeting before voicing concerns about the growing number of people who overwhelm the 12-foot-wide beach access next to his building.
The council voted unanimously in favor of an agreement to pay $11.3 million to lease 450 spaces in the planned garage — about $25,000 per space — while the remaining spots will be reserved for adjacent businesses, lodgings and other private uses.
City council member Hoyt Hamilton, whose family has operated the Palm Pavilion hotel at the beach for decades, said a new garage is unavoidable with the large volume of vehicles that only will continue to grow.
“What is the magic number for the needed number of parking spaces out on the beach right now? I couldn’t begin to tell you,” he said at the meeting. “All I can tell you is there are certain days in the year that we could build 10,000 more parking spaces and it might not be enough, and there are a number of days when we absolutely have much more parking than we need.”
The enormous cost of building such parking structures makes them impractical for many communities.
Treasure Island last fall conducted a feasibility study for building a 350-space parking garage near the beach to alleviate the need to park on the sand during concerts, carnivals and other festivities held throughout the year.
The study concluded it would be a long time before the city recovered its $6 million investment because many of the existing surface lots consistently have open spots during long stretches of the year.
As farmers markets and art festivals have begun drawing thousands of people to tiny downtown Dunedin on weekends, traffic has been diverted to empty lots to contend with the overflow.
However, these vacant parcels have been targeted for redevelopment, so the city has been forced to come up with a plan for adding spaces within a few years.
This summer, Dunedin will lease about 45 spaces at two locations along its Main Street corridor, but it’s only a temporary solution.
“We’re using other sites for overflow parking, especially during special events, and they’re planned for development. That’s what’s bringing on the development,” said Bob Ironsmith, Dunedin’s economic and housing development director.
“It’s like we’re already short and now we could lose more, so how are we going to deal with it?”
Clearwater Beach faces the same challenge with approved construction projects that will eliminate hundreds of surface parking spaces and add more hotel rooms and retail into an already crowded urban mix.
A spot near Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill is one possibility for accommodating more vehicles north of the overcrowded Pier 60 area, said Bob Clifford, president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“The construction that is underway on the beach is going to impact the availability of parking, and that construction is not going to go away for some time,” Clifford said.
A parking study by consultants at Miami-based Timothy Haahs & Associates showed most of the beach’s parking facilities at full capacity on an average Saturday in mid-May, though occupancy varied on weekdays throughout the spring.
Parking revenue steadily has risen in the past three years at the city’s main beach lots, and the study estimates a new garage would generate a net operating income of nearly $800,000 during its first full year, planned for 2017.
Meanwhile, the chamber is working on plans to alleviate the high parking costs for hotel and restaurant workers on the beach.
Officials with the chamber and Jolley Trolley are discussing the possibility of low- to no-cost parking elsewhere in Clearwater for workers who would catch a ride to the beach.
“Many of those folks are very limited in their income ability,” Clifford said, “and to be paying $3 an hour for parking is really not realistic.”