BELLEAIR — Every time it rains, water drips into the empty rooms and hallways of what was once referred to as the White Queen of the Gulf, the Belleview Biltmore.
The water warps the wood floor and feeds the mold and mildew accumulating on the walls and fixtures once kept immaculate to please the dignitaries and celebrities who stayed there.
Aside from gradual wear and overgrowth on the property, which some are calling “demolition by neglect,” little has changed in the nearly five years since the old hotel closed.
Some say the 117-year-old building has outlived its use; even if someone were willing to pay for a $200 million rehab on the building it would not transform it into a viable accommodation. And demolishing and then redeveloping the site would stop the town from losing tax revenues due to declining property values in the surrounding area.
Others say the hotel’s importance goes beyond the nostalgia the historic structure brings, and that it can and should be repaired for the sake of the town of Belleair’s identity and economic vibrancy.
On Tuesday, the town commission postponed for six months a decision on a land-use change that would allow redevelopment of the hotel site with condominiums that have a density averaging 10 units per acre.
Some town officials are considering their legal options to keep the bulldozers away. Others think allowing the land-use change is an essential compromise because it could prevent denser development if someone were to redevelop the site. Yet the delayed decision doesn’t mean there won’t be any forward movement on the property if the owner wished.
“Someone could, in theory, bring forth an application to demolish,” Town Manager Micah Maxwell said. “All of the options that existed before now will still exist.”
With or without the new zoning, a developer who wants to make changes to the property would have to apply for a special certificate of appropriateness because the hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The town historic preservation board would have to approve the plan. That would involve a public hearing likely to attract the ire of impassioned preservation advocates, who say the town is obligated legally to preserve the hotel, which many call the “heart and soul” of the Belleair.
In the meantime, the hotel property is under contract to be sold. Local developer Mike Cheezem, founder of JMC Communities, said he wants to purchase the property from its current owner, the Ades brothers, South Florida-based investors. Cheezem’s firm has developed such properties as the Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach and Ovation, a towering condominium complex along the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront.
“Our hope was to really engage the community through a series of workshops and charrettes to come up with a plan that the community could get behind that would include redevelopment,” Cheezem said.
He added that if he were to redevelop the area, the aim would be to “find a way to help preserve the cultural heritage.” Cheezem has said he wouldn’t have made an offer on the property if he thought it could be economically viable as a revived hotel in the way that other historic Tampa Bay hotels are because condos have cropped up around it and the golf course is no longer part of the property.
“You don’t have the key ingredients there anymore,” he said. “You don’t have the destination amenities that attract people to places like this ... It’s not on the edge of a walkable downtown like the Vinoy, and it’s not on the beach like the Don (Cesar).”
Those who believe the hotel can come back to life say it can be transformed into a boutique hotel that in and of itself would be the main attraction, and that while it may not be directly on or across the street from the beach, it’s still just a short way away.
So far, the only known hope for saving the Belleview Biltmore rests with South Florida architect Rich Heisenbottle, but it may be a long shot. Heisenbottle has tried more than once to foot the bill for a renovation project at the Biltmore, but the recession foiled one attempt and an investor backed out at the last minute to halt another. He said he has an investor on deck now.
“There’s no question in my mind that this building is not in the state of deterioration where you can truly say that this building cannot be restored,” Heisenbottle said. “It definitely can be restored.”
Ed Armstrong, an attorney for the Ades brothers, has said the Biltmore’s owners aren’t interested in Heisenbottle’s proposal, given the number of times his offers have fallen through.
But the architect, who specializes in renovations of historic structures, said he’s seen similar dramas carry out over similarly iconic buildings across the state that end up going in favor of preservation. That, he said, gives him hope.
“None of those battles has been as important as the nature of this structure,” he said. “We need the cooperation of the town, and we need the cooperation of the seller.”