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Unlike past, Dunedin neighbors support latest Fenway plan

DUNEDIN — After years of pushback from neighbors and city officials, it appears that the latest plan to refurbish the Fenway Hotel just might sail straight to City Hall approval.

The Taoist Tai Chi Society of the United States of America received a round of applause from neighbors this month after presenting its $14 million plan to renovate the 5.2-acre waterfront property at 453 Edgewater Drive into its new international headquarters and also add townhomes.

And several supporters from the society — but no critics — showed up at City Hall at a hearing last week before the Local Planning Agency, a citizen advisory board that also lauded the project.

The next step is City Commission hearings set for Jan. 8 and Jan. 22.

"I really like the idea of saving the Fenway and you all are giving us the opportunity to do that," LPA member Dan Massaro said. "And I think that is appreciated by an awful lot of people that have roots here in Dunedin."

The praise starkly contrasts with the opposition faced by previous owner George Rahdert, who bought the Fenway in 2006 from Schiller International University intending to remodel the space into a 132-room high-end resort and spa.

But Rahdert, a preservationist and lawyer who represents the Tampa Bay Times on First Amendment issues, said the project was derailed in part because of neighbors who protested hotel expansion, city officials who delayed redevelopment and the poor economy.

After multiple purchase attempts by various entities, the Taoist Tai Chi Society bought the hotel out of foreclosure in June.

About 150 people attended the society's Dec. 2 neighborhood meeting at Church of the Good Shepherd.

Most audience questions surrounded concerns about traffic, parking, appearance, funding and ability to sell the residential units.

After explaining the tai chi group's health and wellness focus against the backdrop of a live demonstration of the centuries-old form of Chinese exercise, leaders laid out plans to begin a yearlong renovation of the 1920s era hotel into a 102-room lodging for conference attendees upon city approval. Typically, as many as 600 members from around the world attend events and the overflow would be directed to nearby hotels and entertainment venues.

While not envisioned as a wedding venue, the Fenway — which would retain its name — would include space the public could use for group meetings.

No exterior changes are planned except the addition of a rear deck not visible from the road, said land development consultant Bill Sweetnam.

After a two-year break to secure financing and presales, the society would raze a former school, administration building and single-family home behind the Fenway to make way for 27 townhomes featuring Florida cracker architecture. The roughly 1,500-square-foot units — a goodwill gesture aimed at funneling tax revenue into city coffers — would go for market price and be regulated by a homeowners association.

"Do we have all the money in place (for the townhomes) today? No, because we don't need it," Sweetnam said. "We have absolute confidence between the public at large and our membership frankly that they'll sell. . . . We're a healthy organization financially and we'll see it all the way through."

The city and society are sorting out ownership and possible redevelopment of a dock on the west side of Edgewater.

Responding to questions, the group also distanced itself from Scientologists, saying it has no affiliation and is inclusive rather than exclusive.

A handful of detractors sharply questioned officials. But after the meeting, several neighbors said they welcomed the development.

"It's about time something good happens to that property," said Isabelle Leibrecht, 53, of Aberdeen Street.

Hoda Radwan, 46, who lives across the street on Lyndhurst, said she worried about the townhomes' appearance and potential effect on surrounding property values. But, she said, the group of mostly older adults appeared respectful.

"They seem really sensitive to the neighbors. They're not coming in to take over. They're trying to maintain as much as possible and really fit in with the neighborhood and really make it accessible," Radwan said, adding: "It could be really cool having people come from all over the world to Dunedin."

The LPA's seven members unanimously recommended that the City Commission approve the design plan.

But once told that it's indeed possible the townhome plan could morph into single-family homes or undergo other changes based on future market conditions, the board recommended that commissioners also send the second phase to them for review.

LPA member Matthew Wielinski said he feared the smaller setbacks negotiated under the development agreement meant the townhomes might dwarf neighboring single-family homes.

Dunedin planning director Greg Rice said the city staff supports the proposed use, which won't generate a high volume of traffic or deliveries.

"Perhaps 50 percent of the time — it might even be more — the building's not even going to be used, so we do not look at this as a negative," he said. "And with the people they're going to bring from around the world, we . . . view it as a positive."

Contact Keyonna Summers at ksummers@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4153. Follow @KeyonnaSummers.

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