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New restaurant building proposed for Ocean Drive would compound parking woes

Photo: Where will additional cars park? A crowded late-afternoon scene on Ocean Drive last Friday. Restaurant to go between the two buildings.

At 1:30 p.m. today, the Vero Beach Planning and Zoning Board will consider a site plan submitted by a local construction company on behalf of a Miami-area investment group for an upscale restaurant with outdoor seating on Ocean Drive.

Sounds at first blush like a great addition to Ocean Drive, right?  But then you learn they are proposing to build this restaurant in what is now the street-front parking lot sandwiched between the Cooper & Company and M Maison boutiques, across from Bobby’s Restaurant & Lounge.

According to the schematic drawing presented to neighboring merchants by Parent Construction, the 2,685-square-foot restaurant would seat 143 customers, 42 of them on a covered outdoor patio that runs along Ocean Drive.

And very strong rumor has it this building is not going to house a new addition to the local restaurant scene, but be a new home for a long-time island favorite, The Tides. Neither owner and chef Leanne Kelleher nor her partner Claudia Arens returned calls or email messages.

If the restaurant is built, most if not all of those customers will travel to the location in vehicles that need to be parked in an area that already lacks the spaces needed to accommodate the growing number of shoppers, diners and others who come to the Central Beach business district to socialize, especially during our busy season.

Yet, despite the fact that Vero Beach officials still have no answer for Ocean Drive’s existing parking challenges, which seem to increase each year, and despite the fact the restaurant would eliminate a dozen and a half parking places, city planners have recommended the board approve the project.

“I don’t know what they’re thinking,” said Caesar Mistretta, owner of the J.M. Stringer Gallery, located in the building immediately north of the proposed restaurant.

“Where are these people going to park? There’s not enough parking now,” asked Mistretta, who is president Vero’s Beachside Retailers Association. “The city needs to address the parking situation before they approve something like this.”

Actually, Vero Beach Planning Director Tim McGarry said his department did analyze the proposed restaurant’s impact on the Ocean Drive parking situation and found no reason to oppose the project.

McGarry said planners used something called a “shared parking calculation matrix” that factors in the business hours of the tenants who occupy the adjacent buildings and allows their parking spaces to count towards the number needed by the restaurant.

The property owner – a Coral Gables-based firm known as Sony Investments Real Estate Inc., which lists Jose Valle as its president – also owns the buildings immediately north and south of the proposed restaurant site.

Mistretta, one of Sony’s tenants, said the firm bought the building that houses his gallery about a year ago and recently purchased the building on the south side of the lot, “so they have a right to build in between.”

Probably, that’s why Sony bought the second building.

By owning both buildings, Sony also owns the parking lots behind them – and the 87 spaces needed to meet the city’s parking requirements, which are based on the proposed restaurant’s square footage, not including the 380-square-foot outdoor dining area.

Apparently, the shared-parking matrix also allowed the city to include, at least on a percentage basis, the on-street spaces immediately in front of the buildings Sony owns.

“They’re counting the parking lots behind the two buildings and the spaces on the street in front of them, but the tenants use those spaces, too,” said Melinda Cooper, owner of Cooper & Company. “How many times are they going to count them?”

Certainly, there will be some overlap, especially during the late-afternoon hours when early-bird diners arrive. Also, some of these boutiques and galleries hold special events.

And what if the new restaurant owner can’t pay the hefty rent Sony likely will be seeking for such a prime location simply by serving dinner and drinks, and needs to open for lunch? The city won’t be able to prevent it.

That’s the problem with formulas and matrixes. Too often, they work only in theory, under fixed conditions. They don’t take into account human behavior.

If it’s more convenient to park on the street, that’s what people will do – no matter how many spaces might be available behind the building, where, unless the restaurant provides an alternative, employees’ cars will occupy spots.

The city failed to sufficiently address parking issues when the Vero Beach Hotel & Spa opened – nobody anticipated employees parking on the streets, taking up precious spaces needed by the nearby merchants.

But why does the city use square footage – and not seating capacity – in its formula to determine a restaurant’s parking requirements?

“It’s kind of crazy,” said Ana Ismael, owner of M Maison. “They’re going to add all these cars and there’s no place to put them. Can you imagine another 70 or 80 cars out there?

“We rented these places knowing we had the parking lot in the back,” she added. “Now, we don’t know if we’ll still have those spaces, or for how long.”

Ismael and other tenants also are concerned that traffic and parking spaces will be blocked by trucks delivering food and beverages to the restaurant throughout the work day.

They also wonder whether the restaurant will cook with gas, which would require the installation of a tank, which could impact their insurances rates.

Then there’s the daily impact of being next door to a restaurant that will dispose of its trash in a dumpster that would emit odors and attract rodents.

“There are many issues to talk about,” Ismael said. “Parking is just the most obvious one.”

The tenants say they want to be fair to their landlord, who, by building a restaurant, probably would increase foot traffic in the area which theoretically might boost their businesses. They don’t want to go to war with Sony.

But they don’t want an already bad parking problem to be made worse.

“We’re very upset about this, but we’re not opposed to a restaurant,” Mistretta said. “The construction could be a problem for a while, but it’s the parking situation that needs to be addressed.

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time and nobody seems to know how to solve the problem.”

As you might expect, many of the nearby business owners were planning to attend today’s meeting to express their concerns and challenge the planners’ recommendation.

McGarry said he’s expecting some fireworks, which is why he put the matter before the board rather than simply approve the site-plan amendment “administratively,” as he otherwise would’ve done.

“I’ve been through a couple of these parking things before,” he said. “Unless we can find a way to create more parking over there – and that means somebody’s got to pay for it – it’s going to remain an issue for us.

“But this application meets all of our criteria,” he added. “That’s why we’re recommending the board approve it.”

City Manager Jim O’Connor said he, too, will attend the meeting, so he will be prepared to advise the City Council in the likely event that someone appeals the board’s decision.

It’s somewhat ironic, he said, that this matter has come up at a time when the city is revising its vision plan, which includes a greater effort to attract and encourage more dining and entertainment establishments along Ocean Drive.

“Under our vision plan, we can make some concessions to parking requirements, and even waive them,” O’Connor said. “So you’ve got the vision plan on one side and the parking issue on the other. It’s going to be interesting.”

For the record: Paul Parent, owner of Parent Construction, refused to comment on the project. Valle, whose name appeared as the property owner on the original application filed in November, could not be reached, though he owns a home on South Beach.

However, the man who could be most affected by Sony’s plan, Bobby McCarthy, said the city would be “short-sighted” if it permits the construction of the new restaurant without first providing a solution to the Ocean Drive parking shortage.

McCarthy is the longtime owner of Bobby’s, the popular local restaurant and bar that would compete with the new place for diners and especially parking.

“We’re not talking about adding another small boutique or gallery that would have two or three employees,” McCarthy said. “We’re talking about a mega-anchor with 25 to 30 employees for every shift, plus the customers. It’s going to be a nightmare.

“They let the hotel be built without sufficient parking,” he continued. “Now they’re doing it again. I’ve been here for 35 years, watching the landscape along Ocean Drive change, and the parking problem has only gotten worse.

“It’s definitely going to impact me, because I don’t have enough parking for my restaurant now,” he added. “I hear it from my customers all the time, and the city knows there’s a problem, but nobody does anything about it.”

That’s because there is no easy fix.

A free, park-and-ride shuttle from Riverside Park that ceased operation in January attracted too few riders to justify the cost. There’s no room to build municipal lots. There’s no reasonably priced real estate the city could buy and build a parking garage.

And, for years, the City Council has rejected the idea of installing street-side meters and requiring people to pay to park.

“It has come up in the past,” McGarry said, “but they say it’s not ‘Vero’ to have parking meters.”

Is it “Vero” to not offer convenient places to park – especially in the Central Beach business district, particularly along Ocean Drive – so that residents and visitors can fully enjoy our seaside slice of paradise?

Maybe the time has come.

There are now convenient on-street parking systems that allow people to use credit and debit cards. Perhaps the city, even the county, could devise special cards for residents, who would get a hometown discount. There are plenty of pay-to-park options to consider.

But logic suggests the cost to park must be high enough to discourage hotel and restaurant workers, as well as all-day beachgoers, from taking up the spaces needed for daytime commerce.

Is $5 per hour – for non-residents – too high? How about $2 per hour for those of us who live here? Parking after 6 p.m., when most of the shops along Ocean Drive are closed, would remain free.

“I think most of the merchants would be OK with metered parking,” Cooper said. “What have we got to lose? People aren’t able to park here now.”

Forget what the city’s matrix says and use your common sense. There’s already a severe, in-season parking shortage along Ocean Drive. How can adding a new, 143-seat restaurant not make spaces tougher to find?

Do the math.

Those numbers don’t lie.