BELLEAIR — The Belleview Biltmore just got another life extension.
About 200 people packed town hall Tuesday night to weigh in a proposed change to development rules that could pave the way for the historic hotel to be razed. After hours of discussion, three of the five town commissioners voted to postpone a vote on the land use change for another six months.
The nearly 117-year-old hotel has been in limbo since well before its May 2009 closure as city officials and residents have debated its fate. The hearing came just as a potential buyer has offered to purchase and redevelop the property, which is owned by South Florida-based developers the Ades Brothers.
Advocates for the hotel’s restoration accuse the owners of letting the hotel building fall into disrepair as a means of “demolition by neglect.” Mayor Gary Katica and some city officials have come out in support of the zoning change to allow condominiuims to be built on the site, saying the hotel is beyond repair and is costing the city hundreds of thousands in lost property tax revenue.
But Katica was at odds with the majority of his colleagues Tuesday as well as the more than 50 people who spoke, most of whom were against the ordinance.
“My issue with the ordinance is the timing of its presentation,” said Belleair resident Mary Lou White. “How come it comes up just when the hotel is on everybody’s mind? It doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s a game of smoke and mirrors. Keep your election promise to preserve the hotel.’’
Peter Belmont, vice president of St. Petersburg Preservation, said “People go to those places because they’re different. They create a sense of place because they’re special.”
Those in favor of the land use change said the hotel’s nostalgic value is a given but that that no one in support of the project has the kind of deep pockets that would allow for preservation.
“This is not about if the hotel can be preserved or restored, it’s about the fact that no one has stepped up to do it,” said Richard Ware, who sits on the town’s planning and zoning board. “We dredged in that land, we built condos there, the character of the property is not the same. That property is no longer a treasure.”
Developer Michael Cheezem, CEO of JMC Communities, has offered to buy and redevelop the property. He said if he thought the hotel could be restored, he wouldn’t be proposing the project, and that he would work with all involved to come up with a development plan acceptable to everyone.
“Our plan will include building townhomes and condos that would involve removing the hotel,” Cheezem said. “If you give us the opportunity, we will work with the stakeholders.”
South Florida architect Rich Heisenbottle, who specializes in such restorations, has for years maintained that the hotel can be restored. He has tried to recruit help from investors. That effort has fallen short but he said the project might be able to get backing from Sarasota-based hotelier Gary Rosenberg.
“We don’t subscribe to the notion that has been proferred by some of the media in town that the building is too far gone,” he said. “I have personally restored many many buildings that were in much worse condition than this.’’
Last fall, Heisenbottle missed the Ades Brothers’ deadline for putting money down on the project, a failure he attributed to another investor backing out at the last minute.
Mayor Katica and Town Commissioner Kevin Piccarreto voted against the delay.