An engineering firm working for the historic Belle-view Biltmore's owners estimates that 25 percent of the former hotel would have to be demolished and a "significant portion" reinforced or repaired even if a financier stepped up at this late hour to renovate it.
Mike McCarthy of Clearwater-based McCarthy and Associates Inc. inspected the Biltmore in 2011 and 2012 at the behest of the town of Belleair. This year, his firm was hired by the hotel's current owners, the Ades brothers of Miami.
The Ades brothers want the Belleair Town Commission to change the zoning on the Biltmore property so they can build condos and townhomes where the hotel stands. The request was approved 4-2 by the planning and zoning board Monday and will come before commissioners in January.
While taking reporters plus Mayor Gary Katica and Ades attorney Ed Armstrong through the hotel last week, McCarthy pointed to black mold that so pervasively covers the ceilings and walls that he said several of McCarthy's engineers have fallen ill.
The engineer ran his feet over sloped floors that he said would endanger hotel guests who are disabled or use wheelchairs. Empty beer containers, mattresses, televisions, dead rodents and other debris fill the halls and rooms — evidence of decay and occasional squatters. Some rooms have holes that provide a glimpse of the floor above or below.
"The funny thing about structural engineering is you can do anything you want as long as you're willing to pay for it," McCarthy said. "The building is salvageable. It's just as time goes on, the cost of repairing the building is more and more."
He added, "There is a portion, I must say, that is in good shape and could remain as is." But he said his firm has seen the hotel ". . . progressively worsen to the point now where if a developer came in, a good portion of it would have to be torn down and replaced."
Just weeks ago, the Biltmore's owners announced that Coral Gables architect Richard Heisenbottle, who had pledged to renovate the historic landmark, missed his Oct. 31 deadline to raise $200,000 in earnest money to buy the hotel and save it from demolition.
On Dec. 13, Heisenbottle announced via an emailed news release that he has offered Belleair $3.5 million for the Belleview Biltmore Golf Club nearby on Indian Rocks Road. He also said he was in touch with the Ades brothers and was optimistic his group would successfully negotiate for the hotel.
"My firm has restored numerous historic structures that were in far worse physical condition than the Belleview Biltmore," Heisenbottle wrote.
Armstrong, the owners' attorney, said, "Mr. Heisenbottle does not have a contract to purchase the hotel, and while he has made efforts over the past two years, he has never evidenced an ability to close, and we have no reason to believe that anything has changed."
Heisenbottle did not respond to questions about why his original effort to purchase the hotel fell through. He did say that "funding for the purchase of both (the hotel and golf) properties is from the same source."
McCarthy said his firm's report on the hotel, which opened in 1897, analyzes its bones and load-bearing components, such as the columns, roof, floor joists, beams and foundation, based on visual observation. But Armstrong declined to share the report with the Tampa Bay Times, saying the owners want to first release it to the town ahead of their application to demolish the hotel.
However, he said the engineers' comments during the media tour last week summarized the report's findings.
Their first inspection, performed in 2011, only involved the fourth and fifth floors of the hotel because there was little, if any, damage present on lower levels, said McCarthy and his colleague Patrick Dunfield. The second report in 2012 cited damage to the third floor.
Last week, the engineers said damage from 10 years of exposure to the elements has seeped to all floors, mostly because a tarp that covered the damaged roof blew off and was never replaced, officials said.
"That's how the damage has progressed. It's come from the roof down," McCarthy said.
Engineers say the structure is similar to Wentworth by the Sea, a wood-frame waterfront hotel in New Castle, N.H., that's 20 years older. But that hotel was in much better condition to be restored because it didn't have leaks like the Biltmore, they said.
However, Rae Claire Johnson, president of Friends of the Belleview Biltmore, a group fighting to preserve the hotel, said she entered the hotel this month to remove Christmas decorations her group had stored there. According to Johnson, the hotel is in the same condition as when a previous owner, Legg Mason, bought it in 2007.
"I won't deny that there is damage," Johnson said. However, "the frame of the building and the trusses are still in good shape. That's all that matters because (if the hotel were renovated) the external and internal walls will be removed so they can take the weight off the building, jack it up easier and make the building level again with new support piers."
McCarthy disagreed with her assessment.
He said Johnson is correct about the renovation procedure — the first step would be removing plaster from the walls and ceilings to expose the structural system.
But "as an engineer, I am very hesitant to jack up an existing wood building like this because the wood develops a permanent set. When you jack against that permanent set, you can cause peripheral damage to the building structure," he said.
Katica, the Belleair mayor, said he would love to see someone swoop in to save the landmark, but he's doubtful.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see what needs to be done here," Katica said. "It's time to move on."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.