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Application to tear down Belleview Biltmore lacks required details, on hold

BELLEAIR — The owner's request to raze most of the historic Belleview Biltmore is in limbo.

The demolition permit application, filed Jan. 6, lacks nearly 30 required elements, according to a consultant for the town of Belleair.

Chief among them: The application doesn't contain plans for redeveloping the property or "adequate information" so the town's historic preservation board can visualize the effect the demolition would have on the hotel, the 23.5-acre site and nearby structures, Cardno TBE's report stated.

Local residents passionate about the Biltmore's preservation showed up in droves at the last Town Commission meeting. But for now, town leaders aren't planning a formal discussion of the demolition request, said Town Manager Micah Maxwell.

"There's not really much for us to talk about at this point because the application was incomplete," he said.

To move forward, the owner must resubmit the application with all of the necessary items and an explanation of how it has addressed all of the requirements. And before that can happen, the hotel's owner must come up with a specific plan for the site.

That's what's it's doing right now, said Matthew Cummings, a consultant for the owner, BB Hotel LLC. It could take weeks to resubmit an application, he said.

So far, development plans for the site include a mix of townhomes and condominiums, with 156 to 208 units.

"We're just finishing up our thoughts on it," said Cummings, who has a 3 percent interest in the Biltmore. The owner needs to do more analysis of the costs, he said.

Original plans for 80 townhomes wouldn't make financial sense, Cummings said, because the owner wants to save a small portion of the hotel, including its original porch and lobby. To do so would cost about $5.5 million.

The owner didn't apply for an economic hardship. However, the application included economic obstacles in making a request to remove the hotel's historic designation.

If the owner wants to claim economic hardship, it must also submit detailed financial evidence, including all estimates or reports relating to the rehabilitation or restoration of the property, the report said.

Cummings disagrees.

"We don't have to prove economic hardship. The town has created an economic hardship," he said.

He blames the town for the $250-a-day fine it has imposed for failure to repair damage to the hotel's roof. The owner owes more than $200,000.

A group of Miami investors bought the hotel, its golf club and Cabana Club on Sand Key for around $8 million in December 2010 and knew of the fines then.

The narrative seeking to remove the historic designation provides a dramatic account, claiming the "slow but inevitable death of the hotel" was caused by the sale of land surrounding it.

It includes quotes from two individuals involved in developing hotels. And it quotes an executive whose company managed the hotel under the previous owner:

"There is no way the hotel, renovated at that enormous cost, in that small town could possibly survive even in good economic times," said Andrew Tod, executive vice president of GF Management, which oversaw the hotel when it was owned by Legg Mason Real Estate Investors.

Interestingly, Cummings and Tod had a previous business relationship. They both worked as consultants for the same developer, Cummings said. And the Tampa Bay Times found that Cummings listed Tod as a member of his "team of experts" on his consulting website in 2010.

The narrative also cites an outdated news clip and a quote extracted from a Facebook posting, with no reference to Facebook. A section quotes Oliver Kugler, vice president of marketing for the Biltmore in the 1990s. In it, he emphasized the challenges of booking the hotel and remarked that he didn't think $100 million would be enough to restore it.

"I was not aware they were using any quotes," Kugler told the Times, a few days after the application was submitted.

He said he had spoken with Cummings about his thoughts and did make the comments to other people on Facebook.

Cummings said he met with Kugler and got his permission to use his comments someday.

The narrative mentions iconic historic hotels like the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in downtown St. Petersburg, saying they're not examples of successes for developers who spent huge amounts of money to restore them.

And it refers to an October 2010 story in the Palm Beach Post, which said the city of Coral Gables, which owns another historic resort called the Biltmore Hotel, "is seeking" millions of dollars in back rent. It was. But the Post reported in November that the city and hotel operator had reached a deal, which was settled in December.

Cummings said it didn't matter whether that problem or other financial issues involving historic hotels have been resolved.

"The point is these things have caused major financial troubles," Cummings said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4155. Visit tampabay.com/letters to write a letter to the editor.

Application to tear down Belleview Biltmore lacks required details, on hold 02/02/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 2, 2012 8:02pm]
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