Belleair wasn't so in dark on Biltmore plans
A Jan. 7 memo reveals discussions with a developer over the historic hotel.
By AARON SHAROCKMAN and LORRI HELFAND
Published April 30, 2005
BELLEAIR - Days after a first round of talks to flatten the Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa broke down, developers returned to the town with a new concept to demolish the historic hotel and build 600 condominiums.
The president of DeBartolo Development also talked about a 100-room boutique hotel, maybe a Ritz-Carlton, as part of a project on the site, according to a Jan. 7 memo written by the town's attorney and obtained this week by the St. Petersburg Times. The resort's offsite 18-hole golf course could be leveled for 310 estate-sized homes, the memo says.
It is the first indication of what the Tampa firm, which again has a contract to purchase the landmark hotel, may be planning now.
DeBartolo officials have refused comment.
The resort's current owners, who this month filed plans to demolish the 244-unit hotel, also have been quiet.
Just the thought of the hotel's demise, however, has sparked the passions of scores of preservationists from far outside the town's borders. An unidentified individual has blindly pledged $40-million to save the Biltmore, its sinuous roof and 19th century charm.
In public, town officials have maintained that they, like everyone else, have been left in the dark.
But behind the scenes, the Times has learned, Mayor George Mariani Jr. and town attorney Joel Tew each met with developers and discussed redevelopment concepts. Tew, a prominent development attorney, revealed Friday to town commissioners that he has worked for DeBartolo in the past.
Also, members of the town's exclusive country club last year debated a multimillion dollar land swap with developers.
In Belleair, a no-stoplight town where there hasn't been a murder since 1993, the Biltmore is the cause celebre for residents. Everyone talks. Everyone theorizes.
And secrets are hard to keep.
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Tew privately met with DeBartolo president Ed Kobel Jan. 6, days after the company's contract to buy the resort had expired and just before a town hall meeting to discuss the landmark's potential redevelopment.
Tew told a reporter Friday he called Kobel because he wanted to hear the developer's thoughts before the town hall meeting.
But he never cleared that with the Town Commission, said Commissioner Gary Katica.
"I prefer things are straight out. If there was a meeting like that I would have liked to have been privy to it," Katica said. "Why would they not tell the commissioners?"
During their talk, Kobel told Tew his company was still interested in the property. DeBartolo would not save the Biltmore because it wasn't structurally sound, according to Tew's memo. The developer did plan to save certain interior components and artifacts from the stately resort, incorporating them into a new project, the memo says.
Besides the 600 condominiums, Kobel said, the hotel site would include a spa and possibly a small hotel, perhaps to be managed by Ritz-Carlton, according to the memo. Ritz-Carlton officials declined to comment this week, but told a reporter they are constantly discussing potential hotel additions.
On Jan. 18, 12 days after Tew's meeting with Kobel, town commissioners received a report from a consultant about what could be built on the Biltmore site. If the commission changed its zoning laws, the report said, up to 603 condo units could be built there.
Tew spoke to the consultant, but DeBartolo was never mentioned in the report.
Tew's memo, which he sent to an associate in his law firm, indicates that town manager Steve Cottrell and Mariani were provided copies. Cottrell said he saw no such memo. Mariani said he does not remember seeing the memo. He and Tew did discuss Tew's meeting with Kobel, the mayor said.
And Mariani, whose father had been mayor in the 1980s, said he has met with Kobel himself.
About six months ago, Mariani said, he had lunch with Kobel at Malios Steak House in Tampa. The talks centered around the developer's first plan for the resort, which eventually unravelled.
Mariani said he has been open with residents because he knew no details of any formal plans. G. Michael Harris, who lost to Mariani in this year's mayoral race, said the mayor is splitting hairs.
"If you knew something you should have said it," Harris said. "And if you don't know something you should be asking a lot more questions."
The mayor discussed his meeting with Kobel during his campaign for the March 8 election - after the deal had fallen apart. "One thing that grates on my nerves is the accusation and innuendos that any of us have done anything illegal," said Mariani.
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DeBartolo was part of a development triumvirate that last year said it had a contract to purchase the 20-acre hotel property, its 136-acre golf course and its Clearwater Beach cabana club.
Frank Maggio, president of First Dartmouth Homes, another company in that group, said Kobel's most recent ideas were not part of the group's earlier program.
But the original development group did approach members of the adjacent Belleair Country Club to discuss redevelopment opportunities, club executives said this week.
Developers inquired about purchasing two waterfront fairways on the club's West Course, an idea the club flatly rejected, said general manager Ed Shaughnessy.
Later, developers suggested a land swap, where in exchange for a new clubhouse, developers would build high-rise condominiums on 10 acres of club property.
That idea fell through after the first contract expired, Shaughnessy said.
Club members haven't heard from DeBartolo since, they say.
Neither has Mariani, he said.
Preservationists, convinced the historic hotel may be in its final days, are pressing ahead.
Residents have pleaded with local officials to find ways to fight the impending demolition through legislation. Four Belleair commissioners have asked the town attorney to find ways to protect town landmarks.
And since word spread of a new contract, one preservationist said she has a financial backer willing to make a $40-million offer to save the hotel.
The Belleair commission will meet Tuesday to discuss the hotel. The town's historic preservation board will review the request to demolish the Biltmore Thursday.
Times staff writer Michael Sandler contributed to this report.
[Last modified April 30, 2005, 00:50:14]
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