TREASURE ISLAND — Redevelopment of the city's northern entrance took a major step forward last week with the site plan approval of the Rock House Grille and Cabanas project at John's Pass.
"I am absolutely pleased to see development moving forward at the north end of our island. This shows we can get something going in our city," Mayor Bob Minning said Tuesday.
The beachfront project is not all that is happening on the 9.5 acres flanking both sides of Gulf Boulevard on the south side of John's Pass.
Perhaps most significant is that several hotel groups are interested in building a major hotel on the site.
"We are working on getting a major hotel there and redoing the marina in its entirety," project architect Jack Bodziak said Tuesday. "We are pretty close with a couple of deals right now."
He hopes to have a 200- to 250-room hotel signed up by the end of the year.
By that time, construction of the Rock House project just off Sunshine Lane on the south side of the pass should be virtually completed.
A site plan and special exception for the $1.5 million beachfront project was approved by the city's Planning and Zoning Board last week.
Bodziak said he is working on final drawings needed for a building permit. Construction would take about four months, he said.
When completed, the site at the southwest foot of the new John's Pass bridge will include a family-oriented beach restaurant and bar, a wading pool, water fountain and 17 cabanas for sunbathers on the beach.
The property's zoning would have allowed a hotel with about 50 rooms. A conditional use as a stand-alone restaurant or bar required a special exception.
In giving its nearly unanimous approval Thursday, the planning board did impose a few restrictions, including a special liquor license tied to the amount of food sold, limited hours of operation to ensure the restaurant would not become a late-night destination, a ban on outside music and a traffic flow that would both minimize intrusion into the nearby Sunshine Beach neighborhood and force exiting cars to turn south onto Gulf Boulevard.
Bodziak said the existing, mostly vacant buildings on the site will be torn down.
The project was first considered by the planning board in March, which delayed approval pending review of a traffic study of a possible site redesign.
The approved site plan is the original design, calling for mostly on-site parking.
Despite strong praise for the Rock House project during the planning board hearing, some residents, particularly those living along Sunshine Lane just to the south of the project, believe traffic will disrupt their neighborhoods and present safety issues for southbound drivers on Gulf Boulevard.
The 1-acre waterfront project is part of an "initial $15 million" redevelopment of 9.5 acres flanking both sides of Gulf Boulevard and marking the city's northern entrance.
The property, owned by Rice Family Holdings, is in the process of a major redevelopment as a tourist, family entertainment and marina complex.
Most recently, the first floor of the nearly 20-year-old Gators Cafe & Saloon was renovated, including new flooring and a granite-topped bar.
After demolition of the old Kingfish restaurant building, much of the site along the east side of Gulf Boulevard will become a 500-space parking lot.
Eventually, the complex is expected to include an amusement arcade and tourist attraction, as well as updated docks and marina.
Dr. Robert A. Baker, 67, a dentist from Kalamazoo, Mich., is investing $15 million in the project and will become the controlling partner in a new holding company overseeing the entire redevelopment, according to Bodziak.
As for a future hotel, Bodziak said he hopes to have a decision by the end of the year. Actual construction of a hotel could take two years or more.