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Friday, Aug 17, 2018
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Different approaches hope to save Belleview Biltmore, Fenway Hotel

DUNEDIN — Many of its windows are boarded or broken and its interior walls are covered in graffiti, but the beauty of the Fenway Hotel’s Mediterranean-style architecture still shines through to drivers passing along Edgewater Drive.

While optimistic developers have tried in recent years to bring life to this fading waterfront lodge, like the grander and older Belleview Biltmore resort just down the coast, no one can make the numbers work.

City leaders in Dunedin and Belleair Bluffs have taken steps in recent weeks that could open the door for redevelopment at these vacant, historic sites, which deteriorate further with each passing year and leave a hole in their local tax base.

While preservationists in Belleair still hold out hope that a developer will secure the more than $100 million needed to restore the Biltmore, the town’s zoning board last week approved a change that would allow it to be razed and redeveloped.

Those who cherish the architectural flare of the Fenway have taken a different approach: compromise.

City commissioners unanimously voted in favor of a development code change that would allow for the 1920s-era hotel to be demolished provided the hotel that replaces it is built in the same architectural style.

“Nobody has been able to put together a pro forma package to make the building work in the condition it’s in right now,” city planning and development Director Greg Rice told commissioners at a meeting Thursday.

The move followed a proposal by a Pennsylvania hotelier who had hoped to build a new Fenway from the ground up with 88 hotel rooms and condos that city planners and preservationists welcomed.

That multimillion dollar plan was stymied when PNC Bank failed to respond to an offer to buy it earlier this month, but city leaders are hopeful a reworking of this project or that another will come along and follow the same path.

“It’s sad because I’d love to have the actual original building restored, but Belleair is having the same issue we are,” city Commissioner Julie Ward-Bujalski said. “We’ve got to find a good way of making that property possible to be developed.”

While there have been impressive success stories of preserving historic hotels in the Tampa Bay area over the past few decades, economic development officials say financing such expensive and complex projects has become harder since the recession.

A shining example for preservationists is St. Petersburg’s Renaissance Vinoy Resort. The 1923 Mediterranean-style resort had deteriorated into a boarding house by the 1970s, but residents voted to preserve it in 1984.

After it sat empty for 18 years, New York developer Fred Guest took on a $93 million restoration project in 1990 that expanded the property and added condo units.

“The developer of the Vinoy, he had a passion for preservation,” said Will Michaels, a historian and former St. Petersburg Preservation director.

“He had an interest in it and saw the potential for transforming the Vinoy back to its original glory and pumping the water out of the basement and evicting the alligators.”

Hopeful entrepreneurs also have stepped up to bring back the Fenway and the Biltmore, but none have prevailed.

Just as the recession began to take hold, developer George Radhert bought the Fenway with an eye to restore it, but disagreements with neighbors over the plans and financial difficulties stopped him.

“With all those delays, we got into the economic crisis and it all fell apart” said Dunedin Historical Society head Vinnie Luisi.

Numerous plans to save the Biltmore have been floated in the past decade only to falter.

The nonprofit groups Save the Biltmore and Friends of the Belleview Biltmore stopped a 2004 bid to level the 116-year-old property.

In 2009, developer Legg-Mason offered to restore the hotel, but a lawsuit brought by three residents over the plan’s layout stalled the proposal until time ran out on the project.

Preservationists thought victory was at hand last year when South Florida architect Richard Heisenbottle proposed buying and renovating the property.

But after a major investor backed out at the last minute, his development group, Belleview Biltmore Partners LLC, failed to gather the necessary funds to move forward with the project that could cost $130 to $150 million or even more to complete.

Heisenbottle says his group is working on a new deal to buy the property. If the town commission approves the proposed zoning changes, though, the property’s current owners could soon replace it with condos and single-family homes.

In Dunedin, Luisi and other preservationists concluded having a building that retains the look and spirit of the Fenway is better than the possibility of the site being completely transformed.

“When finally something happens with the Biltmore, it looks like it’s completely gone and whatever’s going to be there isn’t going be anything like what was there,” Luisi said.

“Sometimes in restoration there’s some compromise and this could be one of those compromises that works out well for everybody.”

Diane Hein, who heads the Save the Biltmore Preservationists in Belleair, said such a compromise would be unthinkable for the old resort nicknamed the White Queen of the Gulf, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“That is not historic preservation, that is Disney World fantasy and I would not support it,” she wrote in an email.

The reality of hard economic times appears to be the main factor driving the fate of these hotels, particularly when it comes to obtaining the necessary funds for restoration.

Banks have tightened lending for all kinds of development and have a high bar for expensive and risky ventures like preservation projects, Dunedin Economic Development Director Bob Ironsmith said.

“It’s much more difficult to borrow on soft costs, so developers have to come to the table with a lot more money in hand than in the past,” he said.

The restoration of the Biltmore could bring substantial state and federal tax credits, but the coordination of these incentives, combined with a lengthy construction time extending over 24 months, has made it very difficult to secure financing, Heisenbottle wrote in an email.

Even in a good financial climate, some properties are in such bad condition after years of neglect that cost-effective restoration becomes impossible.

“Obviously, for many buildings, it doesn’t’ make sense to try to preserve them because the cost would be disproportionate to the benefit,” said Michaels, the St. Petersburg historian.

Dunedin city leaders have concluded the Fenway fits that bill. In January, the Belleair town commission could decide the Biltmore’s fate if it approves the requested zoning change.

Heisenbottle maintains the grand hotel still has a future.

“My firm has restored numerous historic structures that were in far worse physical condition than the Belleview Biltmore,” he said recently.

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