Historic St. Petersburg hotel nearing its rebirth
ST. PETERSBURG - Downtown's popular stretch of real estate along Beach Drive may have no vacancies left by the time renovations are complete this spring on a historic boutique hotel. Getting into one of the hottest locations in a growing downtown was one reason Chuck and KathyPrather believe they got a good deal buying the old Grayl's Hotel for about $1.8 million in 2011. Crews have gutted the interior of the three-story building at 340 Beach Drive N.E., built in 1922, leaving only the original walls and its historic Spanish-style façade intact. The renamed Birchwood Inn will have two more stories with a ballroom, rooftop lounge, locally sourced restaurant and 18 guest rooms. While he is maintaining the building's exterior and has gained a historic designation by the city, Prather said he is expanding the room sizes to accommodate contemporary travelers. He said he hasn't set room rates yet.Retail availability has nearly vanished in recent years as restaurants, shops and lodgings have filled out every block from the Vinoy resort down to First Avenue South. "My wife and I and our family love Beach Drive. It's just a fantastic destination," Chuck Prather said. "It was such a perfect location. It just needed to be reborn again, that structure." The crews drilling and hammering on the now five-story structure, which looms over the Moon Under Water restaurant next door, is the only construction in sight for people strolling through this busy commercial district. Kilwins gourmet fudge shop has a "coming soon" sign in a storefront window just to the south in the 200 block, and the Hampton Inn has one vacant retail space. "Every other retail or storefront location is completely full," said Tami Simms, president of the Downtown Business Association. In the four years her real estate office has been open on Beach Drive, Simms said she's seen prices jump and inventory fall for retail spaces. With the concentration of people walking along the bay, seeking out Beach Drive's restaurants, parks and museums, space here is in high demand. "You are taking far less of a risk if you open business on Beach Drive that relies on foot traffic, and, therefore, that's why it's more popular and more expensive," Simms said. The Birchwood Inn will be one of the few hotel openings downtown in recent years. Another downtown boutique property, the Hollander Hotel, had been closed for several years before reopening last year with a tap room and coffee shop. Several other lodgings have been proposed in the city, but developers haven't moved forward with their plans. People tend to think of the beaches as the prime location for tourists to stay; but in recent years St. Petersburg has seen a growing number of travelers interested in staying downtown rather than at the beach. "We have that local business flavor that attracts the crossover traveler," said Rick Smith, the city's community redevelopment coordinator. Prather says his Birchwood Inn will fill a niche for weekend visitors from Florida and the region who want to enjoy downtown and also groups that are looking for a venue for special events, including weddings. The property will have 18 rooms on the second and third floors, a restaurant on the ground floor that can seat more than 200 people, serving global cuisine with locally sourced ingredients, and a ballroom upstairs that can seat more than 200 people. The old Grayl's Hotel was always full during big events and festivals before he closed it for renovations, Prather said. "It's exciting," he said. "There's always large crowds. There's always festivals. It's just an enjoyable place to see and be seen."
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