JMC Communities will spend $130 million to revive a storied inn, turning it into the showpiece of a new luxury residential development. Will the end result satisfy historic preservationists who fought the project?
Its rooms have hosted presidents and prime ministers, and stars of sport and music ranging from Babe Ruth to Bob Dylan. Vanderbilt, Ford, Edison and Edsel? All stayed there.
The Belleview Biltmore Hotel dates back to 1896, when railroad tycoon Henry Plant began its construction on the coastal bluffs towering over Clearwater, in what today is the Town of Belleair. The 400,000-square-foot resort, built from heart pine and dubbed the White Queen of the Gulf, would enjoy a century of notoriety as one of the largest wood-frame buildings in the world before it was shuttered in 2009 due to lack of maintenance and modern upgrades.
St. Petersburg-based JMC Communities, however, is giving the hotel a new life as the communal centerpiece of its ambitious, $130 million Belleview Place development. For years, Belleair's historic preservation board had opposed developers' ideas for the property — insisting on a full restoration. But JMC CEO Mike Cheezem won over the group with a plan to preserve a portion of the hotel as a boutique inn and events space, surrounded by a new community of condos and townhomes called Belleview Place.
“It had become an eyesore, a real problem for the community, which was stuck with a difficult decision,” says Cheezem, 64, who has developed nearly a dozen other luxury residential communities in Pinellas County and beyond since founding JMC in 1978. “You have this incredible heritage property that the town's identity is built around, but nobody was willing to fully refurbish and reopen the hotel, because economically you just could not do it.”
JMC plans to open the Belleview Inn, as it will henceforth be known, in mid-2018, following $13 million worth of upgrades and renovations. The building's original lobby, grand staircase and Tiffany glass ceiling will be preserved, but it will have only 35 guest rooms as opposed to 380 at the height of its glory.
Cheezem considered building a full-blown replica of the original Belleview Hotel, or what it was before it was sold in 1919 to the Biltmore Corp., which enlarged it. He believes he can make the numbers work with the current hotel renovation plans, unlike other developers, because scaling the Belleview down to a boutique inn will help reduce costs. JMC's investment includes buying the hotel and surrounding property for $6.2 million. Financing for the project comes from USAmeribank and Regions.
The Belleview Inn will feature many amenities, including a history room suitable for corporate meetings, weddings and other events; resort-style pool; fitness center; and a shop named Maisie's Market in honor of Plant's daughter-in-law, whose ghost was rumored to have haunted the Belleview.
Even with unanimous official approvals, a group of preservationists continued to oppose the project and filed a lawsuit that brought work to a halt for about a year. The suit was eventually dropped. “We hope that even they will be pleased once they see the final result,” Cheezem says.
Belleview Place, on 11 acres, includes four midrise condo buildings and a group of townhomes, for a total of 130 residences. Condos will run $600,000 and above, while townhouses will start at $709,000. Membership in the nearby Belleair Country Club, which normally costs around $10,000, is included with the purchase of a condo or townhouse.
The residences have drawn the eye of buyers such as Tom duPont, chairman and publisher of St. Petersburg-based duPont Publishing Inc., which publishes the renowned luxury lifestyle magazine duPont Registry. He became one of Belleview Place's first would-be homeowners when he purchased a condo soon after sales opened last year.
“My first job in Delaware was renovating old row houses, so I'm not unfamiliar with the trials and tribulations of renovating old buildings and adding modern amenities,” he says. “This is a great merger of ideas and concepts. I'm glad to be a part of it.”