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Q&A: Developer Mike Cheezem discusses Belleview Biltmore, other projects



Development came to a virtual halt in north Pinellas County during the long years of the economic downturn, but with spring has come a resurgence. Projects that lay fallow during the recession are being resuscitated and new ones are being launched.

One name has been especially prominent in the resurgence: St. Petersburg's Mike Cheezem, a second-generation developer who has been churning out successful projects since the 1970s and today has major projects under way or planned in three North Pinellas cities. Cheezem and his JMC Communities are working on a hotel at Clearwater Beach, a mixed-use development for Dunedin's Main Street, and the purchase and redevelopment of the historic Belleview Biltmore property in Belleair.

Cheezem agreed to answer some questions submitted by the Tampa Bay Times.

Your quest to redevelop the former Belleview Biltmore hotel in Belleair is probably your most visible and most controversial project in North Pinellas right now. What feedback have you received from residents and other stakeholders and how have you incorporated it into your proposal?

In our meetings with Belleair residents, members of the Residential Planned Development (500-plus condominium homes surrounding the hotel property) and the Belleair Country Club, we have heard the following: The hotel has been closed for years, it is in a terrible state of disrepair and is falling apart, and it has become a real blight and eyesore in the neighborhood with a resulting negative impact in property values, quality of life and financial impact on the town of Belleair.

At the same time, many of these same constituents have a deep appreciation and fondness for what the Belleview Biltmore Hotel represented: a social center, a slower pace of life, the enjoyment of leisure activities and a grand structure with a beautiful architectural presence.

Most of the residents understand that a 400-room hotel (or, for that matter, a hotel of any significant size) is not viable on this site due to the fact that all the underpinnings to support such a hotel are just not there anymore. You have to remember that this was built in 1898 by Henry Plant with a railroad spur that delivered guests directly to the hotel. So not only have travel habits changed, and water and beach access been removed, there is no longer access to the golf course, (the hotel) is not located on a major road, and it is not within walking distance to a town or city with other cultural or recreational attractions. It has become a residential neighborhood surrounded by 36 holes of golf.

Our plan is to place this valuable and important component of our cultural heritage front and center in the redevelopment of this site by creating a new inn at the terminus of a grand boulevard coming into the site. This inn would replicate the architecture of the original hotel, it would have a gracious lobby and meeting room space that would share the history, stories, and people of the hotel and its operation through the years. In addition, four relatively small mid-rise condominium buildings (30 homes per building) plus 30 townhomes, for a total of 150 residences, would be built on the site and would be organized utilizing the more formal planning and design principles of the time even though the individual condominiums and townhomes would have a fresh and progressive feel to them while subtly utilizing many of the architectural elements of that time and of the hotel itself.

Do you have a background in historic preservation and/or do you plan to bring an expert(s) on board to assist you?

We do not, but we will be hiring an architectural firm that does have experience in historical renovations.

What's your commitment level to preserving a portion of the original hotel? Which part(s) are you considering saving?

When we originally got involved with the project and began looking at it, it was our hope to be able to physically move the original lobby and the original restaurant wing up to the front of the property and build rooms above this portion of the structure to create an inn.

However, after reviewing this with a number of experts (including Ed Parker of Biltmore Construction, Mike McCarthy of McCarthy and Associates engineers, Steve Klar of Klar and Klar Architects, and Phil Graham of Phil Graham Landscape Architecture), we have come to realize that moving the original structure and building was just not going to be viable for a variety of reasons. These reasons include cost, the structural ability of making the move, the difficulty of trying to bring this structure up to current code requirements (wind, fire, life safety, ADA). We will, however, replicate the architecture of the hotel in the new structure, we will salvage and reuse as many items from the old hotel as we can (including some of the Tiffany glass in the ballroom, wood floors, bricks, some moldings, doors, etc.)

In Clearwater, you've teamed with Ocean Properties on the Marquesas condo-hotel project on S Gulfview Boulevard. The property sat vacant for a long time. Why resurrect it now?

We feel that the market is improving for second homes in our area and that the tourism market, particularly in Clearwater Beach, has rebounded strongly from the downturn.

Your latest proposed project is Victoria Place, an office-condo-retail complex at 200 Main St. in Dunedin. Details?

Victoria Place is a mixed use, pedestrian-friendly project at the corner of Main Street and Edgewater Drive/Victoria Lane in downtown Dunedin along the waterfront. It will be a three- and four-story building with 30 condominium homes and 10,000 square feet of office or retail space. The condominium homes will range in size from approximately 1,450 to 2,300 square feet and will be priced in a range from about $450,000 to $750,000.

What was the impetus behind Victoria Place and what will set it apart from others you have done?

This is a similar project to our Rowland Place development in downtown St. Petersburg, which sold out shortly after the start of construction. Dunedin has become a wonderful, walkable, entertaining and vibrant downtown where many people will enjoy living. The site is at a very prominent intersection on Main Street that will serve as a focal point and anchor for the downtown. Part of the project fronts on Victoria Lane, which is home to some of the oldest and most beautiful historical homes in the entire area, thus the name Victoria Place.

You've weathered the recession and managed to thrive when other developers have fallen flat. What's the secret to your success?

We work very hard in each one of our communities to create a unique and special sense of place by utilizing historic precedence and timeless architecture. We like to feel like we are not only giving our owners a spectacular home but that we are giving back to our communities in important ways, be it through the architecture, the use of sustainable design, incorporating environmental planning, or creating an inviting and engaging streetscape that all residents can enjoy, and/or putting up beautiful buildings that add to the richness of the skyline.

Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report. Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153, or on Twitter at @KeyonnaSummers.

Q&A: Developer Mike Cheezem discusses Belleview Biltmore, other projects 05/08/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 8, 2014 5:54pm]
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