BELLEAIR — The owners of the Belleview Biltmore said they were taking steps to protect the historic hotel from deterioration.
But a recent report by a town consultant says that many parts of the shuttered hotel are in worse shape than they were a year ago. The consultant says "demolition by neglect" has occurred and continues to at the 115-year-old structure and its historic cottages.
Vincent Marchetti, a Tampa lawyer who represents the Miami investors who own the hotel, took issue with the report. He said the owners were surprised by the findings and are "far from being neglectful."
"The client has been paying about a half-million dollars a year to maintain the structures," Marchetti said. "It's very disappointing that a report like that would come out and say there is anything like demolition by neglect."
He also questioned whether the town has properly defined neglect in its code.
Meanwhile, Coral Gables architect Richard Heisenbottle, who hopes to buy and restore the hotel, said his team from South Florida was not discouraged.
"We knew going into this there was a tremendous amount of restoration work that had to be done," said Heisenbottle, whose group has a contract on the hotel.
The 820,000-square-foot structure, which is protected by town code, has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979. The town's consultant, McCarthy and Associates, inspected the Biltmore a little over a year ago and reinspected the landmark in March.
The consultant found that much of the damage documented in its first report "has gotten worse, and newly damaged areas of the roof and exterior walls have become apparent." It also found that the Magnolia and Palm cottages "should be condemned." The cottages were not surveyed last year.
The town hasn't ruled that there is demolition by neglect at the hotel, a violation of town code that could result in fines or even litigation. City leaders plan to discuss the report Tuesday.
Commissioner Kevin Piccarreto entertained the possibility of penalizing the owners, Raphael and Daniel Ades. "It probably meets the elements of demolition by neglect that's defined by the code, and I think the town definitely needs to pursue any remedies available to stop the deterioration or to remedy the problems," said Piccarreto, who added that he hopes the prospective buyers' deal goes through.
Town leaders who want to preserve the hotel are walking a tightrope of sorts because pushing enforcement to protect the hotel may actually have the opposite effect. The owners are already being fined $250 a day for failing to fix the hotel's dilapidated roof. To date they owe more than $226,000. Any additional fines or liens may complicate the prospective buyers' plans.
"I think that may muddy the waters more than they are as far as the potential new owners securing financing," said Deputy Mayor Stephen Fowler.
McCarthy and Associates' investigation relied completely on visual observations. It reviewed previous areas of damage and identified new ones to determine if rainwater is harming the Biltmore's structural system. The investigation was not "intended to be a comprehensive inspection or structural analysis of the entire building or cottages," the report said.
Last fall, a representative for the owners, Matthew Cummings, provided the Times with a pamphlet that described what the owners were doing to protect the structure from mold and water damage. It included various efforts to ventilate the rooms and the use of industrial dehumidifiers if security personnel observed "moisture penetration." The information also described the use of a "canopy and trough system" to funnel rainwater leaking in from the roof out of the windows.
Apparently those efforts aren't working too well. The report includes about 200 photos that show worsening conditions in at least 20 locations. Some of the photos reveal sagging valleys in the roof and overhangs. Others show mold, rotting wood and spans of ceilings and walls that have peeled away.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155. Go to tampabay.com/letters to write a letter to the editor.