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It's a 'yea' for the tall, sprawling Madeira Bay

Five variances are granted to turn two downscale blocks upscale. And, yes, Dockside Dave's, at least in concept, looks to be spared.

By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 5, 2003

MADEIRA BEACH -- A strip of derelict buildings will soon be replaced by a megaproject called Madeira Bay, with condominiums, townhomes, businesses and a restaurant, plus the largest new hotel planned for the south Pinellas beaches in more than a decade.

The project will occupy two city blocks and be built 40 feet higher than current rules allow in Madeira Beach. The plans received a mostly rosy reception from the public, probably because of what the large-scale redevelopment will replace.

Slated for the wrecking ball are all the buildings between 131st and 133rd avenues, from the Kingfish Cottages to John's Pass Marina. The hearts of Madeira Beach are attached to only one of those buildings, the home of Dockside Dave's, and developer Sam Lewis has promised a new, bigger home for the popular spot to buy a grouper sandwich.

"We've got to keep Dockside's," said Dennis Reynolds, a member of the Board of Adjustment, which voted 3-2 Monday to approve five variances that make the project possible. Board Chairman Joe Jorgensen, who may be hired to handle sales and marketing for Madeira Bay, recused himself from the vote.

Two board members -- Judy Alloway and Sharon Derry -- voted against the project, saying they wanted more information.

"This is the first of what will hopefully be many wonderful things happening in Madeira Beach," said Derry, who led the meeting in Jorgensen's absence. "And we have to make sure this first one is really right."

Given the current state of the property, the Mediterranean-style project that tries to allow views of Boca Ciega Bay from Gulf Boulevard wasn't a hard sell. Madeira Bay -- at least in its conceptual drawings -- includes lush landscaping, and about 40 percent of the site will be green space.

The only "green space" on the two blighted blocks now, developers point out, is the grass peeking through cracks in the sidewalk. About 96 percent of the site is now covered in asphalt and concrete.

The project will include a condominium hotel with up to 90 rooms; 14 townhomes, 30 condominiums and 10,000 square feet of commercial space. In a condominium hotel, investors own the rooms, which are rented out for them.

The Board of Adjustment nod was the only government approval required. Lewis said he hopes to start construction on the townhomes, the first phase of the project, as soon as possible.

Before the Board of Adjustment met to consider Lewis' request, the developer, along with his contractor, architect and owner's representative, met with neighborhood residents.

At the meeting, the charismatic Lewis presented himself not as an out-of-town developer but as a local man trying to improve his neighborhood. He gave attendees his home address on Boca Ciega Drive, then pointed out that he usually doesn't wear a coat and tie when he visits Madeira Beach.

"When you see me around town, I've usually got on shorts, flip flops and a T-shirt," Lewis, 59, said.

Lewis is chief executive officer of Ameris Health Services of Nashville, Tenn., which primarily builds hospitals. He hasn't tried a residential development in 15 years or more, he said.

Some of the 130 people who attended the meeting greeted him suspiciously. They asked for his background, and Lewis pointed out that he had circulated his resume around the room.

When one of his architects, Jack Bodziak, kept referring to the condominium hotel as being a five-story building over two levels of parking, someone in the audience asked him to call it a seven-story building.

"Okay. If that will make you feel better, I'll do that," Bodziak said.

The project's toughest critics live across the water from the hotel, the biggest building in the plan. "It doesn't even look like the area can support the building," resident Deby Weinstein said.

The questions the developers' team received ran the gamut: How can residents be sure that the pretty drawings on paper are really what Lewis plans to build? Why can't he build within the current height restrictions? How long will Dockside Dave's be closed?

One question -- will Lewis include a Gators-style restaurant in the project? -- received a definitive "no" from the developer. The question was prompted by the fact that Lewis is buying the property from a company called Hondur Inc., which is headed by Treasure Island businessman Sid Rice, who owns Gators on the Pass.

The purchase price for the two blocks is about $6-million, Lewis said after the meetings Monday.

In front of the Board of Adjustment, Lewis got a different kind of question from board member Brian Bornemann, who asked Lewis: "Why are you so accommodating?"

"We're trying to maintain some of what I bought in Madeira Beach for," Lewis said, "and update some of what I didn't buy in Madeira Beach for."

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