The economy may be in the doldrums, but plans for the restoration and expansion of the historic Fenway by the Bay Hotel in Dunedin are moving forward in a way that has excited some residents and apparently comforted some others who worried that the hotel would have a negative impact on the surrounding neighborhood.
At two meetings last month, the City Commission approved a land use change on the property at 453 Edgewater Drive, a historic overlay on the property, a site plan for the proposed restoration project, and a development agreement with developer George Rahdert of St. Petersburg. (Rahdert, an attorney, and his firm represent the St. Petersburg Times on First Amendment issues.)
"I'm here as a developer, but also as a historic preservationist," Rahdert told commissioners, adding that he has been involved in 20 historic restorations and has done all he could over the past two years to involve the public in his plans for Dunedin's most historically valuable structure. "It's important to share the historic resource with the people who share the history."
The Fenway operated as a hotel from 1924 into the late 1950s. It later was Trinity College, then a campus of Schiller International University. It is Rahdert's plan to return the property to its historic use as a hotel, restoring the existing structure and adding two independent wings for a total of 52,000 square feet. The plan calls for a hotel with 132 rooms, a spa, a ballroom and a 150-seat restaurant, all surrounded by lush landscaping and a 6-foot-tall masonry wall.
Because of the economy, the project will be built in phases.
When Rahdert first revealed plans to buy and restore the property, there was alarm from many in the residential neighborhood that surrounds the property on three sides. Over time, the developer has modified plans in an attempt to allay residents' concerns. However, some residents and city officials remained worried that on the hotel's busy days, guests and employees might park on the narrow streets in the neighborhood.
Rahdert attempted to satisfy that concern at the City Commission's last meeting in March. He presented a lease agreement with the owners of a vacant property nearby on the northeast corner of S Douglas Avenue and Lyndhurst Street. The agreement will allow the hotel to use the lot for overflow parking of up to 90 vehicles, and Rahdert said he would make it a "terminate-able offense" if hotel employees parked on neighborhood streets.
After seeing the lease, and hearing little objection from people attending the March 26 public hearing, commissioners unanimously approved the development agreement with Rahdert. The development agreement will now be forwarded to the state Department of Community Affairs, the Pinellas Planning Council and the Pinellas County Commission for their comments. The Dunedin commission then will vote a final time on the agreement, probably several months from now.
The city's approvals do not mean that everyone embraces the hotel project. Some residents remain opposed to the size of the hotel and its looming presence in their neighborhood and are dismayed by the prospect of increased traffic in an already busy area just south of downtown. However, supporters said the historic building should be saved and needed to become a viable business in order to survive. City commissioners didn't hesitate to embrace the project and praised the developer for listening to neighbors and modifying plans where possible.
While the state of the economy means there are no guarantees that any development project on the table today will be completed, Rahdert's continued efforts and the city's approvals improve the chances that the Fenway by the Bay Hotel may one day join the Belleview Biltmore, the Vinoy and the Don Cesar as hotel properties successfully fulfilling their historic function.