By Tim O’Meilia
A rainy late afternoon in mid-October on East Ocean Avenue in Lantana. The orange valet parking cones are out in front of Bar Italia, but it’s early and little need for them yet.
Down the street cars are beginning to pull into the Old Key Lime House lot. Along the south side of the street, the parking spaces are beginning to fill. On the north side, not so much.
See Bicentennial Park with 33 mostly empty parking spaces. Look at Sportsman’s Park with a few more of the 32 car spaces filled.
This is Ocean Avenue B.S. and B.C.: Before the Season and Before Construction.
Fast forward to mid-January. The eastern half or two-thirds of Sportsman’s Park, on the south side of the avenue, will be filled with a mountain of machinery: cranes, bulldozers and dump trucks.
Gone will be more than half of the 29 elongated parking spaces for boat trailers, perhaps as many as 18. A few of the 32 spaces for cars will be swallowed up as well.
“Our intent is to keep the boat ramp open,” said Lantana Town Manager Mike Bornstein. But he concedes that the entrances to both parks may be closed occasionally. But the parking spaces used by patrons the Kona Bay Café, Sushi Bon and other small shops should remain untouched.
Alan Cushman, who runs the Bar Jack Fishing charter out of Sportsman’s Park, isn’t worried about the parking. “When they put signs up down the road that says the bridge is closed, that’s what kills business. No one will come down here.”
In Bicentennial Park, on the north side of the street, more equipment will be readied for the demolition of the bridge spanning the Intracoastal Waterway, set to begin in mid-March. It’s uncertain how many spaces will be lost. Forget the picnic tables and the playground.
Both parks have two outlets onto Ocean Avenue: one entrance and one exit. During construction only the western will be open for both incoming and outgoing vehicles, promising confusion and congestion, at least temporarily. A handful of the 50 on-street parking spaces between U.S. 1 and the bridge will be lost.
Palm Beach County has allotted $654,000 for bridge contractor GLF Construction of Miami to lease the eastern section of both parks from Lantana for the staging of equipment for the two-year project.
Bornstein said the town will use the money to renovate the parks once the new bridge opens in October or November 2013. Merchants, shoppers and diners have long groused about the lack of parking along the street.
“The short answer is: No one has enough parking,” said Wayne Cordero, co-owner of the Old Key Lime House, the linchpin of businesses on Ocean Avenue.
But there isn’t a parking shortage now, nor is there likely to be until the bridge re-opens in 2013. That’s because the north side of the street, most of the bungalow shops are decorated with “For Rent” signs and the bottom floor of the new condominium in the 300 block has a “For Lease” sign in the window.
“The parking issue has sort of died down,” said Bornstein, temporarily for the better, long-term for the worse.
The only exception is University of Florida football Saturdays when Gator fans flood the street looking for parking for game watches at Cordero’s restaurant.
“It’s a double-edge sword,” said Cordero. Current businesses have plenty of parking since many north side shops are vacant. But, if the shops were rented, parking would be scarce.
That’s not likely to happen until after the bridge is completed as the tourist season begins in 2013. “It’s the No. 1 problem for a business owner. Where’s the parking?” Cordero said.
Cordero believes the area could be revitalized and become a tourism magnet if the town would obtain some property by eminent domain and build a parking garage. Metered parking could help pay for the project, he said.
If parking isn’t scarce now, other problems remain. Several longtime shop owners have complained that employees of other businesses take up the on-street parking meant for customers.
“All I ask for is to leave spaces for shoppers from 9:30 or 10 in the morning til 5 in the afternoon,” said Alan Ross, who has operated a sunglass shop, Shades of Time, for 17 years on Ocean Avenue.
Ross thinks the town made a bad decision in allowing the nearby Bar Italia to operate its valet parking from public spaces on the avenue.
“All I ask is fair play to allow people who make an effort to come to shop here a place to park,” Ross said.
Bornstein thinks shoppers and diners will adapt. “People will figure it out. They’ll get into a rhythm,” he said.
Kevin Shepherd, who has operated Kevin’s Barber/Styling Shop in the 200 block since 1992, believes the parking issue during the bridge construction will work itself out.
“It’ll be what it’ll be,” he said. “The bridge has been closed before. Somehow or other, if you’re doing the
right thing, you’ll muddle