BELLEAIR — If the Belleview Biltmore were still open, this would be its time to shine. Rows of elaborate gingerbread houses would line common areas. A massive Christmas tree with Victorian era-inspired ornaments would stand in the lobby, and Santa Claus would drop in for Sunday brunch in a round room with panoramic views of the town.
Instead, the ceiling is caving in on the round room. The lively seasonal decor for which the resort was known has been replaced by mold, dead wires and bug carcasses. Amid cries for saving the 116-year-old wooden structure, town leaders are ruefully on their way to allowing the property owners to demolish it and replace it with condos and single-family homes.
“We have to move along,” Belleair Mayor Gary Katica said recently.
Despite word that Belleview Biltmore Partners LLC is offering to buy and renovate the building, and has bid on the adjacent town-owned golf course, the town’s zoning board on Monday endorsed land-use changes that would allow the site to be redeveloped.
Those who support tearing it down say it is dilapidated beyond repair, that it has a negative impact on property values and that it is costing hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars each year. Those who favor restoration say saving the hotel would not only preserve a beloved historical structure that makes the small, affluent North Pinellas town unique, but it would also yield the highest return on the investment by generating jobs, tax revenue and tourism dollars.
“There’s no building that we can put there that would have better economic benefit,” said Belleair resident and preservation advocate Rae Claire Johnson. “They should be doing all they can to protect it.”
The Belleview Biltmore Partners, headed by South Florida architect Richard Heisenbottle, tried to buy the hotel in 2012, and again this year, but both times plans fell through due to lack of financing. This time, Heisenbottle said, the proposal has the backing it needs to be successful.
“Last October, Belleview Biltmore Partners came close to closing a deal for acquisition of the hotel, however at the last moment our primary investor backed out of the deal,” he said Tuesday in an email. “Since that time, the deal has been completely restructured with new partners and new sources of financing.”
Proponents of restoring the hotel, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, said they remain optimistic a deal can be reached before the demolition permits go through.
“Belleview Biltmore Partners is working with the current owners to find a satisfactory agreement for both of them to purchase the hotel,” preservationist Diane Hein, a spokeswoman for the group, said in an email Monday. “They are optimistic that no matter what the town council does with the zoning issue, they will be able to work out a deal with the current owners to save the hotel. BBP will then be able to restore and renovate the hotel despite it being closed for a number of years.”
The problem, said planning and zoning board member Rogers Haydon, is that Belleview Biltmore Partners has yet to “demonstrate the financial capability (is) firmly on-hand” to follow through with a restoration project that could run into the hundreds of millions. They have, however, bid on the golf course that once was part of the resort.
The hotel, which closed in 2007, is owned by the Ades Brothers, developers based in South Florida, though it has changed hands several times in recent years. They are requesting a change in zoning that would allow them to redevelop the site, likely into condominiums and single-family homes, and say there are no restoration plans to speak of.
“There is no contract to sell the property, there is no letter of intent,” Ed Armstrong, an attorney for the Ades Brothers, said Monday. “History tells us there’s no reason to be optimistic.”
Heisenbottle disagreed, and said Belleview Biltmore Partners is working to “negotiate the terms of the sale with the hotel’s owner,” but did not go into any details.
The zoning change that would pave the way for a new development still has to clear the Belleair town commission and, because of the hotel’s historic status, the developer also will need a certificate of appropriateness before it can knock it down. The town commission is expected to vote on the planning and zoning board’s recommendation in January.