CLEARWATER — Is a condo hotel under the JW Marriott name — one of the world's top luxury hotel brands — going up on Clearwater Beach?
On a visit to the Tampa Bay area last month, Marriott International chairman J.W. "Bill'' Marriott Jr. told the Tampa Bay Times that he had reviewed plans for such a hotel in Clearwater. And now, a developer says he has been in close contact with the company about building a 202-room, gulf-view hotel on the site of what is now the Wyndham Garden Clearwater Beach.
The Wyndham's owner, Uday Lele, discussed his plans this week following speculation about where a JW Marriott would go and who would build it. Lele said he and architect Oscar Benavides met with the 83-year-old Marriott in January for what was supposed to be a five-minute meeting but ran for nearly half an hour.
After looking at the plans, Lele recalled, "(Marriott) said, 'Thank you for trusting us with your property.'" Added the developer: "This is an American icon — I was so humbled to meet up with him.'"
In a statement this week, Marriott International said it sees "the Tampa-St. Petersburg area as a very desirable market and a great destination for our JW Marriott brand."
It added, though, that it did not have "specific plans to build a JW Marriott hotel there at this time." Lele also stressed that no deal has been finalized.
JW Marriott, ranked No. 3 in the luxury segment in J.D. Powers & Associates' 2015 North American Hotel Guest Satisfaction Study, has 76 hotels worldwide, including two in Miami and one in Orlando. Among its better known properties are the Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the Essex House in Manhattan.
Lele said the proposed hotel would have 166 regular rooms and 36 condos individually owned but rented through Marriott. Owners could spend up to a month at a time in their units and would split the rents with Marriott.
The condos, with one to three bedrooms, would serve as suites for the hotel, Lele said.
All rooms would have views of the hotel's 300-foot private beach that faces Sand Key, just across a nearby bridge, but that also looks toward the Gulf of Mexico. Because of a southwest jog the coastline takes in the area, guests could stand on the beach and watch the sun rise in the morning and set in the evening.
"What really attracted me to this property was its uniqueness," said Lele, who bought what was then a Best Western in 2005 for $25 million and originally planned a hotel tower called the Views. "I've had people say, 'I've never seen anything like it.' Because of the southwest turn, you have this little piece of paradise."
Architectural renderings for Lele's proposed hotel show a multi-level structure with a "cascade of terraces" to maximize views and avoid the blocky look of most existing beach hotels. Located on various levels would be a rooftop bar, an outdoor lounge with greenery and a glass, infinity-edge pool bar and seating.
If the Marriott deal is finalized, the 110-room hotel now on the site would cease its affiliation with Wyndham in the next few months and be knocked down by year's end, Lele said. In 2013, the Clearwater City Council approved the site for a 202-room hotel despite opposition from other developers who claimed it would crowd a neighboring site where they planned a hotel-condo project.
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A JW Marriott would be among a crop of new hotels helping Clearwater Beach attract a more upscale clientele in addition to the spring breakers and day-tripping hordes who have made it one of the state's most popular tourist destinations.
A high-end Wyndham Grand resort with two 15-story towers is rising next to the Hyatt Regency. The Opal Sands Resort is scheduled to open this year.
Thanks in good measure to Clearwater Beach, Tampa Bay's hotel market had the largest increases in occupancies and revenues per room last year, according to Smith Travel Research.
Lele said he realized he wanted to affiliate with Marriott, the world's largest hospitality company, after visiting more than 10 of its hotels in the United States and abroad. The loyalty of its employees — "they have general managers who've been there 25 years" — and its reputation as a family-oriented company impressed him, he said.
Born in India, Lele has an eclectic background that includes developing what he says remains that country's top-selling nonprescription contraceptive, called Today. He said he also invented the Juicee Gummee, "becoming the first person to add fruit juice to sugar confections (and) creating a whole new category in the industry."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.