BELLEAIR — Conceding that options for restoring the historic Belleview Biltmore hotel look bleak, the Belleair Town Commission on Tuesday directed city staffers to explore zoning changes that would allow other types of development on the property.
The hotel's owners want to tear down the landmark, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and erect 32 townhomes and 136 condominiums. But first, they wanted to know if commissioners would be receptive.
Under BB Hotel LLC's proposal, the project would feature two-story townhomes with rear parking garages and seven floors of condos over ground-floor parking, architect Jim Graham said.
Units would range from 1,000 to 2,600 square feet and have up to four bedrooms. A fountain, pool, playground and tennis courts would be built, plus either a clubhouse or recreation center with a room for Biltmore photographs and other memorabilia.
The proposed buildings would mimic the Biltmore's Queen Anne-style architecture and white and green colors, Graham said. Developers would save the site's old oaks.
One by one, commissioners questioned the plan. And they wondered if a new zoning category needed to accommodate the project would have negative implications elsewhere.
But they ultimately sided with Town Manager Micah Maxwell and City Attorney David Ottinger, who said the property's current land use and zoning designations and height restrictions as well as the town's comprehensive plan prohibit BB Hotel — or any other developers — from proposing anything other than hotels or single-family homes.
"As you folks can see," Mayor Gary Katica told the roughly 50 residents in attendance, "we feel the passions of both sides. But we cannot sit up here and do nothing. We have to prepare for the future."
The decision disappointed audience members, six of whom stood up to criticize the plan.
Hadn't other hotels been rehabbed into multimillion dollar successes, one woman asked. Couldn't the developers renovate the hotel's interior into homes, or retain part of the original structure for conversion into a small boutique hotel, others asked?
Resident Mary Lou White said officials' mere consideration of zoning changes sent "the message that the town isn't standing behind the renovation of the hotel" anymore.
"I believe firmly that a concept plan gives them a foot in the door that we can't remove later," added resident Bonnie-Sue Brandvik.
Commissioner Stephen Fowler, who cast the lone vote against allowing staffers to look at zoning changes, said BB Hotel purchased the Biltmore as-is in 2010 with the intention of renovating it and the town shouldn't have to spend legal fees drafting new codes for a different project.
"They are proposing to tear down a great old Victorian structure and replace it with something similar (in architecture and colors) to what's already there, and to me that's kind of a slap in the face. Here's a reminder of what we tore down every time you drive" by, he said.
But attorney Ed Armstrong said the owners are "of the genuine belief … that, simply put, the hotel is too far gone to be rehabilitated."
The hotel, known as the "White Queen of the Gulf," housed presidents, celebrities and generations of Pinellas County residents and guests. It closed in 2009.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or email@example.com.