Funky pub in path of townhomes

Century-old oaks also would fall if the developer executes its Safety Harbor plans.

Published May 29, 2007

SAFETY HARBOR - Hildegard's Art House and Beer Garden is a funky little place that screams Old Florida.

The yellow and green hangout is decorated with multicolored Christmas lights and neon ale signs. It sits in the shade of century-old oak trees at Second Street S and Third Avenue.

Outside lavender chairs sit under a fake purple coconut palm. On some nights there is live music.

Inside, carved elephants and giraffes and polka-dot fish are offered for sale.

But eventually this relaxed, eclectic pub could give way to townhouse development, if the company that owns the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa has its way.

Olympia Development has a contract to buy Hildegard's, which is on a 100- by 140-foot lot just behind Olympia's new $30-million Harbour Pointe complex.

"We are in the due diligence-investigative stage," said Olympia's chief financial officer, Edward Entreken. "We have it under contract and are evaluating it."

He said this is at least the second time the company has looked at the property. Should the sale happen, he said, townhouses likely will be constructed there. Under Safety Harbor's community redevelopment plan, the structures could rise up to three stories tall.

Olympia also plans to develop what it calls the "resort triangle," a parking lot between the spa and Philippe Parkway.

In a meeting last week with city planning director Matt McLachlan, Entreken laid out several conceptual plans for the triangle. One included what could be a three-story parking garage combined with a mixed-use project with retail, office and residential components. It could also have a public plaza. The city could partner with Olympia so it can use the parking space.

"The city has expressed interest in having some type of covered parking," Entreken said. "It would be a joint effort. This was a conceptual conversation to share some kind of structured covered parking. If it's a public-private partnership, the city's going to share some of the cost."

He said he envisions public discussion and brainstorming sessions on the issue.

"I'm really glad they've come up with a plan," said City Commissioner Nadine Nickeson. "We need parking. The (property) has zoning so it can be a couple of stories."

As for Hildegard's, it is owned by Hildegard McCarthy. According to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office, she and her then-husband Robert McCarthy, bought the place in 2000 for $225,000. Public records show that the couple divorced, and Hildegard McCarthy took ownership of the property as part of a settlement in 2005.

She could not be reached for comment last week.

Entreken would not say what the contract price was. The property is assessed for tax purposes at $325,000, according to the Property Appraiser's Office.

When she heard about the plan for townhomes on the site, Vice Mayor Kathleen Earle was not pleased.

"To the best of my knowledge, that is absolutely not the will of the citizens of the south side of Safety Harbor," she said, though she acknowledges that Olympia has the right to build them.

Although the company has not yet submitted a site plan to the city, Earle is concerned about the huge oaks that dot the Hildegard property.

"They are absolutely irreplaceable in our lifetimes," she said. "Saplings won't do it, 10-year-old trees won't do it, 30-year-old trees won't do it."

She and other commissioners are trying to come up with a tree ordinance to help save the city's sprawling tree canopy, which they fear is slowly disappearing.

As for the fate of the trees on the resort triangle property, McLachlan said he discussed the issue with Entreken and told him it would be "a concern" for the commission and the community.

"I look forward to working with them to preserve the two 100-year-old-plus oaks on the property," said Mayor Andy Steingold.

Olympia also plans to build at least eight townhomes south of Hildegard's and two five-story condo towers next to Harbour Pointe.

Sometime in the future, luxury townhouses and condos could be built on 10 acres, most likely on the northeast part of the spa grounds. The spa has the right to construct buildings up to six stories high on that property, Entreken said.

"Certainly I am anxiously awaiting any ideas that Olympia Development may have in regard to future land use," Steingold said.

"What is done with the spa property will impact the whole downtown. This is one of the largest land interests in Safety Harbor."

Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or schulte@sptimes.com.