TARPON SPRINGS – This city on the Anclote River is known worldwide for its historic Sponge Docks,
a scenic stretch of restaurants, shops and waterfront attractions that runs the length of Dodecanese Boulevard.
And while there is no question the docks are the main economic driver for the community, officials see room for growth.
On Oct. 17, Planning and Zoning Director Heather Urwiller presented an ordinance to the City Commission calling for an amendment to the city code. The proposed changes, which gained preliminary approval last week, are intended to encourage commercial redevelopment in certain areas, or “Special District transects,” of town, including the eastern entrance and the western end of the Sponge Docks.
The amendment would change three aspects of the “transect code,” Urwiller said.
“In the first one, the staff is looking to change the number of seats allowed for neighborhood retail food service from 40 to 49,” Urwiller said. “This is basically to calibrate the transect code to the Florida building code.”
Urwiller noted the other two changes related to the different functions of a building.
“In this special district area, we’re looking to change the limitation under the retail function from Limited use to Open use,” she said.
After receiving approval from the Technical Review Committee and the Planning Board, the proposal went before the Planning Board, where Urwiller explained the reason behind the moves.
“The area seems to be transitioning, and we’re having requests come in for new restaurants and in the area,” she said. “So, in order to encourage any type of redevelopment, we need to open up and have a little bit more flexibility with the uses and the functions of the buildings that are allowed.”
The reactions from the commissioners were primarily positive. The four commissioners at the meeting said they want to encourage redevelopment in that area of the docks while also raising concerns about parking, boat docking and keeping the character of the historic district intact.
“It has been our goal to attract more businesses down to the area, and I think by modifying the special district down there we’re accomplishing that,” Mayor Chris Alahouzos said, adding, “I think it’s very important that we keep the character of the area because that’s going to help the businesses grow.”
During the public comments, Julie Ann Russell of the restaurant Rusty Bellies said she supported the proposed code amendments.
“I encourage additional business to come into the area,” Russell said. “I just want to make sure that we don’t lose the fishing portion, the crab traps and the ability to unload boats. That is something that has been our heritage, and Tarpon Springs’ heritage, for many, many years.”
Russell, whose popular seafood restaurant is at the westernmost tip of the public portion of the docks, cautioned any redevelopment in the area would create a need for additional parking while adding, “I’m all for changes to make things better. I look at it as a positive.”
Ed Spaeth, who owns the Turtle Cove Marina and several lots in area, said he also supports the proposal.
“I’m all for bringing more people to the town … and I’m just for the amendment,” Spaeth said, noting 90 percent of the boaters who use his marina visit other restaurants in the area.
Following the public comments, Urwiller said that to ensure certain elements remain in place during redevelopment talks, she would like to see the business owners “come together and kind of talk about what they want that area to look like, what is it that they are trying to maintain.
“Because I agree part of the draw of that waterfront isn’t just the waterfront, it’s the history that’s there, and what does that history look like?”
The ordinance passed on first reading by a vote of 4-0. Commissioner David Banther was absent from the meeting. The item is scheduled for a second reading on Tuesday, Nov. 6.
After the meeting Commissioner Rea Sieber, who owns two shops on the west end of the docks, spoke about the plan to revitalize the area.
“I think that whole area is a beautiful area on the river,” she said, “and we want to keep the feel of a fishing town, maybe have a boardwalk like John’s Pass and boat slips for people to pull up in their boats.”
Sieber, a former president of the Sponge Docks Merchants Association, said she has long fought for boosting the visibility of that section of the docks, and she said she is encouraged by the current collaboration between merchants and the city.
“This has been discussed with business owners and there will be further discussions,” she said. “We want to enhance what’s down there. I think this is going to be positive for the merchants on the west end of the docks and unite us with the other end of Dodecanese.”