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Neighbors file to block construction of Ocean Drive restaurant


Longtime island restaurateur Bobby McCarthy wants the Vero Beach City Council to block, at least temporarily, a South Florida investor’s plan to build a 143-seat, Ocean Drive restaurant that would become the new home of The Tides.

Two weeks after the city's Planning & Zoning Board approved the proposed construction on a 4-1 vote,  McCarthy filed an appeal, asking the council to overturn the decision – or at least delay the project – until the Central Beach parking shortage is addressed.

Six of the seven reasons cited in McCarthy's appeal were directly or indirectly related to parking issues along Ocean Drive, where Sony Investments Real Estate Inc. hopes to build a 2,685-square-foot restaurant, across from Bobby's, in what is now a parking lot.

"The additional parking needs will cause total chaos for the existing tenants," the appeal states, "as well as surrounding businesses and residents."

Though his name is on the appeal, McCarthy said he's appealing the P&Z Board's decision on behalf of all the Ocean Drive business owners who would be negatively affected by the restaurant's impact on parking in the area.

It cost McCarthy $830 – $650 for the application plus a $180 advertising fee – to file the appeal. City Planning Director Tim McGarry said the soonest the City Council could hear the appeal is next month.

"It's not just for me; there's a group of us who are going to be affected by this," said McCarthy, who opened his restaurant in 1981 and saw it quickly become a popular spring-training hangout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. "The parking situation is bad enough. Why make it worse? The city needs to show some foresight."

McGarry, who has been working with the owner of the parking lot as well as the two buildings on either side of it and who recommended the project be approved because the plans didn't violate any city codes, said there's nothing in the appeal that wasn't addressed during the P&Z Board meeting.

McGarry had the authority to unilaterally approve the plan, but he decided to put the matter before the P&Z Board because he knew the Ocean Drive parking situation was a controversial issue. Board members heard a steady stream of complaints from more than a dozen residents and nearby business owners who voiced their opposition.

"Nothing has really changed," McGarry said. "The property owner is following the code, so there's no legal basis to deny the project. There's nothing new in the appeal.

"I suppose the council could punt it back to us and tell us they want to see something else in the plan, maybe add more conditions," he added. "You never know what's going to happen when you get into the political arena. But, usually in these cases, it's an up or down vote."

The property owner’s Vero Beach-based attorney, Bruce Barkett, could not be reached for comment.

However, McGarry warned that the owner could – and probably would – take the matter to court if the City Council overrules the board's decision. In court, the city would be placed in the awkward position of defending the rejection of a project approved by its own planning board on the recommendation of its planning director, who determined it adhered to city codes.

"These people have enough money invested in this project that we'd probably end up in court," McGarry said. "But it could end up in court either way."

In his appeal, McCarthy questioned McGarry's calculations, which found that the new restaurant would have a sufficient number of parking spaces – in the lots behind the building and on the street in front of it – to accommodate its customers.

He also requested clarification regarding the number of parking spaces that will be lost when the restaurant is built and expressed concern that the restaurant, currently expected to be open only for dinner, isn't prohibited from opening for lunch in the future, which would further compound Ocean Drive's daytime parking problems.

In addition, McCarthy raised safety issues connected to installation of gas tanks for cooking, potential health issues stemming from the additional garbage the restaurant will place in a bin shared with adjacent businesses, and  construction-related removal of trees.

Dr. Val Zudans, a local ophthalmologist who serves on the P&Z Board, said he wasn't surprised that someone filed an appeal, given the tone of last month's meeting.

In fact, he said he welcomed the controversy swirling around this project because it has brought the Central Beach business district's worsening parking situation to the forefront.

"Regardless of what the City Council decides, something needs to be done to address this problem," Zudans said. "The solution isn't to make it more difficult for businesses to operate in that area. The focus should be on finding a way to make the parking situation better for everyone.

"And we need to start before this restaurant opens."

Zudans said he'd like to see the city seriously consider a meter-less, state-of-the-art, paid-parking system – something he believes would solve the problem without damaging the aesthetics along Ocean Drive.

Past incarnations of the City Council have rejected the pay-to-park concept, but Zudans said it might be the only realistic way to ease the beachside parking challenges. He also thinks Ocean Drive business owners might support such a move.

Zudans said a paid-parking system would discourage hotel and restaurant employees from using the on-street spaces – because they wouldn't be willing or able to pay $16 or $20 per day to park – without discouraging customers who could and would pay $2-per-hour for a convenient parking spot.

With such a system in place, he said, the employees would be more likely to utilize a free shuttle, similar to the now-defunct GoLine "Beachside Circulator," which was discontinued after 18 months because of poor ridership numbers.

"Right now, because of the hotel and restaurant employees, the spaces aren't turning over," he said. "This would address that problem. It also would generate the revenue we need to add parking spaces along the middle of Cardinal Drive and, eventually, build a parking garage.

"Let's face it: There's not a pile of money sitting around to build a parking garage."

Zudans said it's possible to have an outside company install the parking system "at no cost to the city" and operate it in exchange for a percentage of the funds collected.

"The parking problem seems to be getting worse every year, so I think the business owners would support the parking-system idea," Zudans said. "And if the businesses support it, I think the City Council would, too. The time has come to take a hard look at it.

"We're not going to solve the problem without it."