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Time to get serious about parking problems

Photo: Cars circle Sexton Plaza in the frustrating daily search for beachside business district parking spots.

What happened across four hours at the Vero Beach Planning & Zoning Board meeting last week was an embarrassment to our community, and city leaders should be ashamed of themselves for putting us in such an unseemly predicament.

The often-hostile, sometimes-condescending tone, feelings of mistrust and sense of desperation that filled the room was unbecoming of a place that prides itself on its small-town charm, old-school manners and neighborly demeanor. We’re supposed to be better than that, especially in how we treat each other.

The proposed construction of a new restaurant on Ocean Drive, where in-season parking is already scarce, seems to have brought out the worst in some of us, though. And the bulk of the blame lies with our elected officials, who've done nothing to address the parking problem.

How many more incarnations of our City Council are going to continue to punt this problem – a parking shortage in the Central Beach business district, particularly along Ocean Drive, especially during our busy season – to the next bunch, hoping we'll not notice or at least grin and bear it?

When will we get the leadership we need and deserve – a group that possesses the courage to confront the challenge head-on, and the grit to make the tough decisions necessary to address a difficult issue?

"I find the whole thing very frustrating," said board member Dr. Val Zudans, a local ophthalmologist who could see where last Thursday's marathon session was headed. "I hear everything the public is saying – that they don't want this – but there's nothing we can do. We can't vote the way you want.”

Zudans said the developers are following the rules and adhering to city codes in their proposal.

That's what Vero Beach Planning Director Tim McGarry found after his department studied the site-plan application submitted by Sony Investments Real Estate Inc., the Miami-based firm eager to build a 143-seat restaurant – across from Bobby's, on what is now a parking lot on the west side of Ocean Drive – that is expected to become the new home of The Tides.

That's why the P&Z board, which voted 4-1 to approve the project, had no real choice, despite hearing a steady stream of complaints from more than a dozen residents and nearby business owners who, citing the already-problematic parking shortage in the area, voiced their opposition.

Before giving their blessing, in fact, some board members expressed their trepidation, all but apologizing for their ensuing vote and explaining that they were duty-bound to abide by the law, even though they, too, had serious concerns about the restaurant's impact on Ocean Drive's parking dilemma and the residential neighborhood to the immediate west.

"If I lived in that neighborhood adjacent to the property, I'd be sitting with you," board member Lawrence Lauffer told the gathering at City Hall. "But I sit on this board, and we're going to lose if we don't follow the laws on the books."

And, yes, it was that simple: Sony's site plan met the standards set in the city's Code of Ordinances, and unless the project's opponents could prove otherwise, their complaints and objections meant nothing.

It didn't matter that their complaints and objections had real-life merit, or that the city's complex formula for determining how many parking spaces are needed to accommodate a 2,685-square-foot restaurant works only in theory.

It didn't matter that board members felt compelled to do what was legal, instead of doing what they believed was right – and what they believed was best for the city.

"If you don't like the code," McGarry told the board, "you need to go to the City Council and change it."

The code, though, isn't the problem. Nor is the proposed restaurant project, which, even under the best of circumstances, will increase the demand for parking spaces along Ocean Drive.

The problem is the city's ongoing refusal to make parking in the Central Beach business district a priority.

"Let's face it," McGarry said after the P&Z board meeting, "if there was ample parking over there, we wouldn't be here."

For the past decade, at least partially because the city failed to require the Vero Beach Hotel & Spa and Costa d'Este Resort & Spa to provide sufficient parking facilities, the situation along Ocean Drive – as well as on Cardinal Drive – has become more congested than anyone ever expected.

The past five years, as the Vero Beach barrier island became an increasingly hot destination, have been especially challenging with more seasonal residents and visitors arriving each winter.

Still, the city leaders do nothing, paying only lip service to complaints from beachside merchants who say the parking shortage is hurting their businesses.

GoLine, with local funding provided by the Vero Beach Hotel, tried to help by creating a free, park-and-ride shuttle that utilized the lot at Riverside Park as a parking alternative for beachside hotel and restaurant workers.

But the effort failed – and the route was discontinued – because the workers refused to ride the bus, preferring the convenience of parking on Ocean Drive, where their vehicles continue to occupy precious spaces during the business day.

As for what's next, nobody knows.

City leaders are embarking on an update to their "vision plan," which, by the way, encourages the addition of more restaurants and entertainment establishments in the Central Beach business district, especially along Ocean Drive.

Sony's proposed restaurant, which includes an outdoor dining area, is exactly the type of business the city wants to attract to the area. That the planned tenant is The Tides, one of Vero Beach's most successful and highly-regarded fine-dining restaurants, should be cause for celebration.

And it would be ... if parking weren't so scarce.

"Parking is a problem all over the beach," said Leanne Kelleher, The Tides' owner and chef. "I understand the parking issues there, because I deal with them where I am now, and I completely understand the concerns of the other tenants.

"I'm going to do my best not to be part of the problem," she added. "I want to be part of the solution. If I move my restaurant there, I will make it my business to help figure out how to make it work for all of us. That's why we're successful business people. We can figure things out.

"We just have to work together."

Everyone does need to do that – and that includes city leaders who no longer have the luxury of kicking the can down Ocean Drive.

They must make parking a priority, commit themselves to finding a viable solution and make the hard decisions that need to be made to prevent a repeat of what happened at last week's P&Z board meeting.

Maybe it's impractical to expect the city to spend what it would cost to purchase the beachside land needed for a parking lot or on which to build a parking garage. Maybe the added number of spaces created by installing center-median, angled parking on Cardinal Drive wouldn't be enough.

But what about some form of metered parking?

For years, city leaders have refused to even consider parking meters, saying paid parking in the Central Beach business district would go against efforts to keep Vero "Vero."

P&Z board chairman Honey Minuse, a longtime leader of the Indian River Neighborhood Association, went so far as to say, "I consider meters unfriendly, and we're a friendly community."

We weren't so friendly at that P&Z board meeting, where the Vero on display wasn't the Vero most of us want and expect our hometown to be. And that's far more disheartening and distasteful than seeing parking meters on Ocean Drive.

McGarry did his part: He had the authority to approve the Sony plan without putting it before the P&Z board, but he knew parking was a volatile issue and he wanted the public to have its say.

Now, having seen how much is at stake, it's time for our city leaders to step up and tackle a problem that threatens our way of life.

"Give us some hope," said Melinda Cooper, owner of the Cooper & Company boutique, immediately north of the restaurant site.
What happened across those four hours at that meeting last week should put the beachside parking situation high on the City Council's to-do list. They need to do something, and they need to start now.