ST. PETE BEACH — It was after midnight when the city commission finally approved two variances allowing a new luxury boutique hotel on Gulf Boulevard.
In a beach city locked for years in legal battles about development codes, a commission of relative newcomers — and Mayor Maria Lowe, especially — wanted to ensure the first hotel it approved followed the letter of the law to the smallest detail.
The owner of the 1950s-era Plaza Beach Resort hopes to see his family’s aging property transformed into a chic, “sexy,” 66-room hotel with sprawling two-bedroom, two-bath units that will track with current tourism trends.
St. Pete Beach’s hard-fought comprehensive plan, which still is being contested with a lone appeal, allows for 750 square feet per unit, but offers room for more if that size restriction presents a legitimate hardship for redevelopment.
“That is where the trend is going and that’s what people are looking for now is a more-spacious, more-luxurious unit,” said hotel owner Robert Czyszczon.
“We can’t be building old models anymore because the new demand is for bigger rooms.”
After more than two hours of clarifying public hearing rules, questioning the city attorney and parsing finer points of the comprehensive plan, the commission last week voted in favor of the larger rooms, provided the final project remains within the code’s broader size limits for the property as a whole.
The board also approved Czyszczon’s request for 66 rooms, rather than the 50 per acre normally allowed on his small parcel at 4506 Gulf Blvd. The additional rooms are available through a hotel density pool established to encourage redevelopment.
The proposed redevelopment still has a long way to go in terms of planning and permitting, though Czyszczon says his design will comply with all land development codes that apply to this section of the beach, which is designated for smaller boutique hotels.
His resort could be the first new hotel approved on the beach in many years.
The boutique Hotel Zamora opened down Gulf Boulevard on Boca Ciega Bay this spring, but years passed between the initial approval and completion.
In permitting new hotels, the city commission must walk a fine line between encouraging construction at obsolete properties while making sure those projects aren’t left open to challenges by some residents who want to see land regulations applied as strictly as possible on the beach.
In fact, city leaders have said a final legal appeal that seeks to invalidate the existing comprehensive plan likely has kept many investors away from St. Pete Beach for fear that the code followed in their designs later would be overturned.
Toward the end of a six-hour meeting Tuesday night, the attorney behind the comprehensive plan lawsuit, Ken Weiss, emailed City Attorney Susan Churuti, maintaining the public hearing was not being conducted properly.
Resident Deborah Schechner also spoke up at the meeting, saying the comprehensive plan allows for no variances in room size.
“I’m not objecting to two bedrooms, two bathrooms; but to protect yourselves, it was always very clear there would be no variances. They were prohibited in that comp plan,” she said.
Attorney David Healey, the city’s planning consultant, disputed her contention, saying the plan states there should be no variances to the maximum floor area ratio of a property as a whole, but property owners and developers may ask for flexibility on individual room sizes if they prove the code creates a hardship.
The only way redeveloping Plaza Beach Resort makes financial sense is if the new hotel offers a product that is unavailable elsewhere in the city, said Czyszczon, whose family has owned the Plaza since the 1980s.
He points to Sunset Vistas Beachfront Suites in Treasure Island, which has gained some of the highest occupancy rates in Pinellas County by offering larger units.
Visitors routinely call the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce looking for spacious rooms and often go elsewhere when they find none are available in St. Pete Beach, said Robin Sollie, the chamber’s CEO.
“They definitely are seeking the two-bedroom experience, the bigger experience,” she said.
It could be a year or more before the new hotel project breaks ground, assuming final designs satisfy the code, and Czyszczon said he is taking a cautious approach toward financing the project to avoid the pitfalls of Hotel Zamora, which stalled during the economic downturn.
He plans to sell some of the units to people who will be allowed to live in them a certain number of days each year while renting them for most of the season as hotel rooms.
Rising flood insurance rates that will be especially painful for old hotel properties pushed Czyszczon to begin pursuing a redevelopment plan.
Without the variances, the number of units and room size only would make sense for building a small condominium, he said.
“I love the hotel business. I plan to continue to run this hotel,” he said.