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TALLER HOTELS ON BEACH RESENTED BY LITTLE GUYS

By allowing taller hotels on the beach, Clearwater hopes to boost tourism, but the smaller hotels say the newcomers are too big.

Despite the worst economy in decades, a growing number of developers are quietly getting their ducks in a row to build new hotels on Clearwater Beach.

They're assembling land, drawing up plans and seeking permits. The beach needs more hotels, but not everyone is happy with what's being proposed.

Developers are being lured by Clearwater's willingness to allow taller hotels on smaller parcels. Some 1,200 beach hotel rooms were dynamited and bulldozed during the condo boom a few years back. In order to replace them and boost tourism, the city is letting hoteliers build more rooms per acre than would normally be allowed.

The first two hotel projects that are to get extra rooms from what's called the "density pool" have run into opposition from their neighbors, who complain that the hotels will be far too big for their lots.

One proposed hotel's large size has prompted a couple of City Council members to wonder if the city should tweak its approach. But other Clearwater officials and hoteliers think this strategy is necessary to attract the midpriced hotels that the beach is lacking.

Because of the cost of assembling land on the barrier island, midrange hotels with rates at $100-$200 a night need a certain number of rooms per acre to be financially viable, said assistant city manager Rod Irwin.

"We're trying to bring in the Hampton Inns of the world and the Courtyard by Marriotts, so the midpriced customer will have a future on Clearwater Beach as well as the upscale luxury resort customer," Irwin said.

'Looking up at a wall'

Walking around his two-story Sea Captain Resort near the beach marina, Don Eifert shot a worried look at the little four-story motel next door.

It's going to be replaced by a 10-story Holiday Inn Express that Eifert worries will dwarf his hotel and hide it from tourists on Coronado Drive.

"The way it's designed, we'll be looking up at a wall five stories high right on our lot line," he said. "You're opening up a can of worms for anyone else who wants to develop on Clearwater Beach. Coronado Drive will be a canyon if the city gives everyone else the same thing."

The Holiday Inn Express' owner, Jeff Keierleber, notes that the building will follow all the city's rules regarding its height and its nearness to the property line. "We didn't ask for the maximum of anything," he said.

He intends to begin construction by December, and he also hopes to eventually build another hotel next to his other Holiday Inn farther south on Clearwater Pass.

"We need more hotel brands on the beach," Keierleber said. "We don't have a Ramada down here or a Radisson or a Renaissance. All those brands have different followers."

It remains to be seen whether the size of other proposed hotels will become an issue. The city is allowing developers to draw units from a pool of 1,385 rooms if they meet certain parking and design guidelines.

"I don't anticipate we're ever going to get to the 1,385," said Mayor Frank Hibbard. "If we could add another 600 rooms or so, I'd be happy."

What's coming

Here's a rundown of Clearwater Beach hotel projects that are in the pipeline:

Holiday Inn Express, 101 Coronado Drive: Nearly 90 feet high, it will replace the small, yellow-colored Port Vue Motel next to where a pirate cruise ship docks at the marina. Of its 108 rooms, 72 will come from the density pool.

Ambiance Hotel, 20 Kendall St.: Developer Uday Lele plans an eight-story hotel just north of the Palm Pavilion restaurant and inn. It would have 88 rooms, including 58 extra rooms from the pool. The city's Community Development Board okayed this in June over the objections of neighbors who said it would be too big for a small lot. But Lele and the city say it meets building codes. The City Council hasn't yet approved this.

DiGiovanni Project, 300 and 316 Hamden Drive: Developer Gus DiGiovanni recently filed an application with the city seeking approval to build two midpriced hotels on a couple of acres between Hamden and Coronado drives south of Third Street. They'd replace a handful of small buildings such as the Sandman Resort, Sea Cove Motel and Alex Family Restaurant. The northernmost hotel would be a 142-room, overnight-stay accommodation, possibly a Hampton Inn, while just to the south would be a 118-room extended-stay hotel. The developer is asking for 162 rooms from the pool.

Shephard's Beach Resort, 601-619 S Gulfview Blvd.: The well-known waterfront resort and entertainment complex intends to expand, and has been talking with the city about what it's allowed to do. It has 96 rooms now and has proposed growing to 226, planning officials say. But the city won't approve that many.

Frenchy's, 423 E Shore Drive: Mike "Frenchy" Preston, whose restaurant chain is a local institution, plans to renovate the Olympia Motel, a two-story building with 15 efficiency units next to Frenchy's Seafood Co.

Mainstream America, 325 S Gulfview Blvd.: This developer owns about 3 acres flanking S Gulfview Boulevard and extending east across Coronado Drive. That includes the Clearwater Beachview Resort, formerly the Howard Johnson. Mainstream's development consultant, Ed Hooper, says it intends to eventually replace the existing hotel with a new beachfront resort.

And that list doesn't even include two proposed resorts that won approval earlier. Ocean Properties got a green light last year to build a crescent-shaped 15-story hotel where the Adam's Mark once stood at 430 S Gulfview Blvd. And Tampa entrepreneur Kiran Patel has been trying to get financing for a landmark beachfront resort just southeast of Pier 60 where a parking lot now sits.

The beach's newest hotel, a high-end Hyatt resort, is to open in December.

"We're all looking toward the future. We're going to see redevelopment on this beach," said Sheila Cole of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce. "If these people are ready and have their plans in place, when the economy turns around they will be in position to take advantage of that."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

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