REDINGTON SHORES — Just a month after spending $17.2 million to buy a major portion of John’s Pass Village, local real estate investor Ben Mallah now wants to build a $20 million hotel on the Gulf-front site of the severely storm-damaged Redington Long Pier.
In the process, Mallah’s company, Equity Management Partners, and his partner, Tony Utegaard of Symbetheri Inc., hope to “preserve” the pier, which is now court-authorized to be demolished.
Mallah, who is increasingly involved in real estate and hotel development in the Tampa Bay area, recently bought a Belleair Shore mansion for $16.5 million, rehabbed and sold the Pelican Walk Plaza shopping center on Clearwater Beach for $14.4 million, and has bought and sold several hotels throughout Florida.
He has also been a YouTube star.
According to Utegaard, Mallah plans to keep the proposed Redington pier’s hotel.
“Ben once owned the Hotel Sol just north of the pier. This is an opportunity to be back in Redington Shores for good,” said Utegaard.
To build the hotel, the 100-foot-wide property must be rezoned from its current category of recreation open space to commercial tourist facility. The town’s land use map must also be changed.
The proposed rezoning will be reviewed by the town’s planning and zoning board on Oct. 3, while town commissioners would make the final rezoning decision at a subsequent meeting.
As for the pier itself, Utegaard cautions that current environmental regulations would likely prevent the pier from ever being rebuilt if it is torn down.
However, if the town approves the property’s rezoning, it is Mallah and Utegaard’s intent to preserve the essence and purpose of the pier in accordance with current state regulations.
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Utegaard says although final designs have yet to be completed, the hotel project would include up to 100 standard hotel rooms atop a parking garage.
“Anything less would not be economically viable,” he said. “A long, skinny, taller hotel also would give wider than normal setbacks.”
Utegaard describes the pier as a major landmark that could be saved "if everyone plays ball.”
Mallah's $5 million contract to buy the pier property is contingent it being rezoned by the town.
"Without the rezoning, the property is basically junk,” Utegaard said.
The current zoning does not allow any commercial development. The pier itself is on state-owned submerged land and is regulated by the state.
Irma’s hurricane-force winds severely damaged the pier in 2017 and eventually forced its complete closure.
Nail-studded debris from the deteriorating pier has washed up on the beach as far south as Madeira Beach, prompting many residents to press for the pier to be torn down.
Yet, a year ago many residents packed a commission meeting to demand to no avail that the pier be saved by allowing the property to be rezoned for condos or a hotel.
As the 57-year-old pier continued to deteriorate, the town eventually enlisted the help of the county and state to force its demolition.
Both the county and the state filed court actions against Tony Antonious, whose company JERMC Ltd. owns the 1,200-foot long pier at 17490 Gulf Blvd., seeking demolition of the pier.
If the town rejects Mallah’s proposal, that may soon happen.
The state Department of Environmental Protection, which has final jurisdiction over the pier, plans to knock it down in about two months as the result of a final consent judgment granted in August by a bank that is foreclosing on the property.
Meanwhile, Antonious is suing the town, asking for $15 million in damages.
He claims the town has conducted a 15-year vendetta against him and the pier.
Antonious bought the pier in 2000 for $1.1 million. Several years ago, Antonious proposed building a condo on the property to provide revenue to maintain the pier, but was turned down by the town.
He says the town and its officials have “engaged in a conspiracy, pattern and practice to emotionally and financially injure” him.
His lawsuit says the town has “maliciously engaged” in selective code enforcement, extortion, “bad-faithed litigation,'' and attempted an unlawful taking of his property.
Antonious claims the town sabotaged his attempts to sell the property to developers, a practice he says is continuing with Mallah’s proposal.
“This project is one of the most difficult I have ever done in my career,” Utegaard said. “Because of the lawsuit, I can’t get any support or suggestions from the city. There has been no guidance at all.”