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Owners' plans for Belleview Biltmore are taking shape

BELLEAIR — The owners' plans for the Belleview Biltmore are taking shape. And, while many details are still up in the air, it seems those plans are getting bigger.

A rep for the owners has been pitching plans to raze most of the 115-year-old hotel to build just over 80 townhomes. Now, he says plans for the property may involve as many as 180 townhomes or more.

As for the earlier plans, the rep, Matthew Cummings said, "It kind of looks like it won't make any money. We've talked to experts in pricing around the country."

The owners may seek a zoning change allowing as many as 300 townhomes on the site, which is about 20 acres. But Cummings thinks final plans will include fewer units. They're currently exploring how many homes should be built, how large they should be and how much they should cost, he said.

No plans have been submitted to the town of Belleair. But Cummings has floated the townhome plan at various local presentations over the past few months.

In November, Cummings said homes would sell for around $450,000 to $750,000 and would span from 2,100 to 3,000 square feet.

Now, after receiving feedback from a marketing specialist, he thinks they'll likely range from around $300,000 to $600,000 and from 1,600 to 2,100 square feet.

Reaction to renderings of the Queen Anne-style townhomes has been overwhelmingly positive, Cummings said. But a couple of town commissioners say residents have been questioning the practicality of building townhomes on the property.

Commissioner Tom Shelly said he's hearing a lot of people say "townhomes wouldn't work and seniors won't deal with stairs."

Deputy Mayor Stephen Fowler said some residents are worried what will happen if the project gets approved but fails.

"Those I've talked to are concerned that if the hotel is demolished or drastically remodeled to the point it's no longer a hotel and the townhomes don't sell, then what do you do?" Fowler said.

Cummings said the owners are still exploring the possibility of saving a small part of the Biltmore, including the hotel's original lobby and the floor above it, to build a museum to honor its history. The hotel's ice cream shop may be re-created as part of that plan. According to one bid, it would cost about $3.5 million to do that.

Meanwhile, Cummings said, the Biltmore is still for sale. He thinks the owners would be willing to sell all of the hotel's assets, including its golf course and Cabana Club on Sand Key, for around $20 million.

Miami investor Raphael Ades and his partners bought them for about $8 million about a year ago.

But Cummings insists that the prospects for a hotel at the site are bleak because of the condition of the Biltmore and its location.

"We've entertained a bunch of hotel guys," said Cummings, who has a small ownership interest in the Biltmore. "Every time we do, they leave shaking their heads."

Within a month or two, the owners plan to submit their proposal to the town, Cummings said. A request to demolish most of the hotel will likely precede a formal presentation, Cummings said.

The onus will be on the owners to prove they have little choice but to raze it. Five years ago, when the Biltmore was at risk of being destroyed, the town adopted a historic preservation ordinance to protect the hotel, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

The ordinance "puts a pretty strong burden on the owner seeking to demolish a historic structure to show that all alternatives have been exhausted and that it's truly a substantial hardship to save it," said Town Attorney David Ottinger.

Since they've only owned the property a year, Shelly doesn't think the owners "can begin to prove an economic hardship."

Cummings said he expects some resistance from the town's historic preservation board, which will make a recommendation to town leaders. But he thinks most residents trust the owners' opinion of the hotel.

"The majority of people that live in the town believe that what we're saying is true," Cummings said. "It's just impossible to save."

It remains to be seen how the Town Commission will respond. Their opinions will likely be shaped by feedback from residents.

Years ago, when the Biltmore was at risk, many pushed to save it. But, as the economy continues to slump and the hotel continues to decay, more seem ready or willing to say goodbye.

Mayor Gary Katica, who frequently takes morning walks through town, said, "Nobody talks about saving it."

But Shelly said residents talk to him about the Biltmore almost every day and say it's a "shame it hasn't been restored."

Fowler said he thinks the majority of residents, like himself, are still hopeful the hotel, or at least a major portion of it, can be saved.

"I believe it can be salvaged. It can be restored. I keep looking at the Vinoy and the Don Cesar and the Biltmore in Coral Gables and the other properties around the country that have fallen on hard times but have been like the phoenix coming out of the ashes," said Fowler, who heads Fowler Associates Architects Inc. "I think with the proper management and the proper flag, it can happen."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4155.

Owners' plans for Belleview Biltmore are taking shape 12/29/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 29, 2011 6:48pm]
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