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Residents aghast over Fenway plans

The new owner of the historic Schiller property plans to convert it into an upscale hotel with 250 suites, its own cocktail lounge, fine dining and a day spa.

Two four-story wings would be added at the front of the landmark Fenway on the Bay building. It overlooks Edgewater Drive, which would be widened. And a 300-car garage would be constructed.

Neighbors are aghast.

The town buzz started in November. Word spread that George Rahdert, an attorney and developer known for preserving historic buildings in St. Petersburg, was negotiating to buy the property from Schiller International University.

"We were excited," said Jo Golson, 63, who lives across the street from the Schiller campus. "I was absolutely in seventh heaven."

Rahdert, who represents the St. Petersburg Times on First Amendment issues, paid $8-million for the property. He announced plans to put the 1920s Fenway on the National Register of Historic Places, with a vision to transform the building into a four-star destination hotel. Suites would rent for about $310 per night.

After seeing preliminary plans, Dunedin officials asked the developer to meet with residents who live near Schiller.

"People always hate change and I can understand that," said Bob Ironsmith, city economic development director.

That was in January.

Tuesday night, about 35 angry residents convened at the Church of the Good Shepherd to organize themselves against Rahdert's plans. Some of them pushed for a Fenway on the Bay Homeowners Association. They discussed hiring an attorney to represent them before the City Commission, and said that traffic on Edgewater Drive is already horrendous.

And now this big hotel? That would suffocate them.

"Once you start with one, I promise you have two, then three. And your children are playing around big buildings," said Golson, a psychotherapist.

"Rahdert lives in St. Petersburg, has his office in St. Petersburg, does his business in St. Petersburg," said her husband, Bill Golson, a real estate attorney. Rahdert is "not part of this community."

Some in the group cheered; some scribbled notes. They also mocked the Mediterranean Revival style and got affirmation from Vivian Grant, a Dunedin matriarch and former city commissioner, who said the two boxy additions in the plans look like warehouses.

"An aesthetic horror," she declared.

Rahdert did not attend that meeting. However, in an interview last week, he described the backlash as mostly involving "one or two neighbors who were particularly outspoken and negative toward the project," including its parking garage.

The plan shows three levels of 100 parking spaces each, with matching parapets on the exterior, faux windows, and the same canary yellow paint and architecture of the original Fenway on the Bay. Rahdert said the garage would blend in with the hotel, and like other planned additions, would be no taller than the highest point on the property, estimated at 38 feet.

"It's certainly not going to be monstrous," he said, adding that a parking garage should ease concerns over congestion on residential streets. "Really, you need a parking garage to keep it self-contained and keep it from spilling into the neighborhood."

Dunedin planning officials say the city position on Rahdert's plans will hinge on this major tenet: saving the old Fenway.

"The only reason we would go forward with this concept is for the historical preservation of the property," said community services director Kevin Campbell. Redevelopment on the 6.4 acres will be considered after that initial step.

Matters can get complicated in a hurry, because current zoning in that neighborhood is for single-family homes. The Schiller campus, where about 200 students attend classes, has a special-use exemption.

The proposed additions could mean rezoning and land-use amendments, or rewriting existing codes if the hotel is granted an historical designation, Campbell said. But until a site plan is submitted to the city, he added it is merely speculation.

"They need to show us how they're going to preserve the old quality of the Fenway, and how they're going to integrate it with the neighborhood," said Ironsmith, the economic development director.

"If they can do that, that can have a lot of potential," he said. "But they have to work hard at it."

Rahdert said forming the site plan is an "organic process" that keeps changing, based on resident outcry and demands from interested hotel companies. So far his planners have spoken with three, the latest being Sheraton.

Neighbors at the protest meeting said they would do everything in their power to block the project.

Since the grand plans call for renovating the pier across Edgewater Drive and offering canoe rentals, some of those speaking Tuesday night worried it might become a late-night party spot. Others were outraged by proposals to widen the two-lane road and create a landscaped island in the center, as well as a crosswalk, a turn lane and a bus stop.

Jo Golson still thinks Rahdert can "do a beautiful job."

"He can't do any worse than Schiller," Golson said. "But it's not landscaping, it's the traffic."

The architect for the project, Jim Graham, said several changes have been made to the conceptual drawing in recent weeks:

+ The parking garage would be limited to valet access.

+ The destination restaurant has been scaled back. Merchants worried that it might detract from Main Street dining.

+ The number of suites may be reduced to 200.

Rahdert, who lives near the Don CeSar Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach, said he envisions the future of Fenway on the Bay as a premier tourist spot - one that would benefit Dunedin and help revitalize the county's top industry.

"I know firsthand if a hotel is done properly, it's a really nice amenity," Rahdert said. "We very much hope that even the naysayers will come to see that, and see it as adding value to the community and their property."

Some critics, such as Bill Golson, have even suggested that Rahdert's motives are suspicious.

"Because he paid $8-million for all these hurdles," Golson told others Tuesday. "The numbers aren't right."

Rahdert says his overriding intent is to preserve and restore Fenway on the Bay, but that the project must also be economically viable and have enough mass to support a luxury hotel.

Rahdert conceded that new construction might block residential views of the waterfront "for one or two people."

"And this is not meant as a threat at all, but so would another development coming down the pike.

"If, theoretically, the building was torn down and the property was sold off as a housing site, you think the next developer would not build intensely on the waterfront? That's the way the world works."

Vanessa de la Torre can be reached at 445-4167 or vdelatorre@spttmes.com.

COMING UP NEXT

Neighbors will discuss the new Fenway plans during an open meeting at 7:30 p.m. March 7 at the Church of the Good Shepherd, 639 Edgewater Drive, Dunedin.

Developer George Rahdert proposes adding two four-story wings at the front of the landmark Fenway on the Bay building in Dunedin. A former city commissioner said the additions would look like warehouses.

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