BELLEAIR — Facing pressure from many who reside near the dilapidated Belleview Biltmore Hotel, town officials voted Tuesday to consider a new type of zoning - and to put a previously deferred zoning proposal back on the table.
Both votes were unanimous, and both could set the table for the old building’s demolition, but all hope is not lost for the preservation advocates who been fighting for years to keep the bulldozers at bay. The commission will now look into adopting a mixed-use zoning category that would allow a developer to put up residential units while preserving part of the hotel as a tourist accomodation.
For years, the small north Pinellas town has been torn over whether to allow the old hotel, which has been closed since 2009, to be demolished, or to wait for an investor with tens of millions on hand to finance its full restoration.
To preservation advocates, the hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places and considered by many to be the coastal town’s “heart and soul.” For proponents of redeveloping the property, though, the old building, with its roof covered by tarps in places, is driving down property values and depriving the town of significant tax revenue - some say as much as $800,000 annually.
It’s a divide that has grown increasingly bitter in recent months.
Although the details of the new zoning category are as yet lacking in details, it was presented as something of a compromise.
Developer Michael Cheezem, who is behind such well-known projects as the Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach and Ovation, a high-rise condominium tower in Downtown St. Petersburg, is under contract to purchase the property from Daniel and Raphael Ades of Miami-based firm KAWA Capital Management. Cheezem said Tuesday he would like to preserve some of the historic hotel but conceded that much of it would be destroyed under his plan.
“Such a plan in our view would preserve a small portion of the hotel,” Cheezem said. “This would be in the form of an inn or boutique hotel that could serve the community much like the original hotel but on a much smaller scale. This will celebrate Belleair’s rich past while being a relevant part of its future.”
While many appeared to leave town hall satisfied with the compromise, not everyone was happy.
Rae Claire Johnson, a staunch advocate of preserving the hotel, urged the commission to maintain the structure no matter what because of the town’s preservation ordinance. She said the county’s booming tourism industry would justify keeping the land as a hotel.
“The market is coming back,” she said. “Tourism in Pinellas County is breaking records.”
Discussion at the two-hour meeting was often heated, with public testmony punctuated by booing and laughter when audience members disagreed with the speaker.
In January, a majority of town commissioners voted to delay weighing a change in the property’s zoning that would make it permissible to develop residential condominiums on the site. The designation would allow 10 units per acre. The commission is slated to take up discussion of that zoning next month.
“You can’t have everything,” said Belleair Mayor Gary Katica. “Life is a series of adjustments. If the hotel could be restored, it’d be the greatest thing in the world... Let’s be realistic, folks. If we can save a part of the hotel and make it better for everybody, isn’t that the way to go?”