Naples City Council heard concerns from city residents Thursday night about the redevelopment plans for the iconic Naples Beach Hotel – and especially its cherished golf course.
City Council held a four-hour public meeting on those plans after residents complained the plans now include an “amusement park” that will disrupt the neighborhood.
The council held the meeting to understand what is going on and give the developer a chance to share its side of the story, particularly plans for its recreational offerings that have triggered a new round of opposition.
No vote or decision came out of the meeting, as there’s nothing formal for the council to consider at this point.
A previous council made most of the critical decisions, approving the multimillion-dollar project in 2019 and granting entitlements to the developer with conditions.
Representatives for The Athens Group continue to argue their vision has been misconstrued – and that the project’s potential impact on the surrounding neighborhood has been greatly exaggerated – by a small group of vocal opponents.
Kim Richards, the founder and CEO of The Athens Group, said Thursday night that the organization was as “optimistic and excited” about the plans for the hotel today as when they were first brought to the city three years ago.
Richards, addressing the community’s concerns on the golf course, said Athens contemplated maintaining an 18-hole course in the conceptual plan first submitted to the city but that now the organization is exploring industry trends.
“We are studying a 10-hole non-traditional golf experience, which we consider to be innovative, multi-generational and fun,” Richards said. “We’re excited about the plan, and we strongly feel that it is right, consistent with our goal of developing the finest luxury resort.”
City residents at Thursday’s meeting expressed frustrations at what they described as The Athens Group’s changing plans for the hotel property. They raised concerns for the placement of “noisy” recreational activities near homes and the possible plans to reduce the number of holes for the golf course.
“So, my recommendation to you, if Athens submits a site plan for anything less than the current 104.6-acre Jack Nicklaus championship golf course, is reject it,” said city resident Robert Burns.
City resident Francis Fee said he was concerned about the quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“Suffice it to say that what’s being proposed and where it’s being proposed is going to increase traffic, increase noise and nighttime light, and it’s going to destroy the South Golf Drive, Third Street North and Seventh Avenue North neighborhood,” he said.
Joe Migliara of the Old Naples Association said the group supports including a third-party protection for the conservation easement that would preserve the golf course.
Naples in 2020 hired Ausley McMullen, a Tallahassee-based law firm, to look into strengthening the preservation easement.
“Words matter. Trust is fragile and evaporating very fast. Athens, to restore some level of trust, should affirmatively agree to a conservation easement with third-party protections, and that you will indeed preserve the 18-hole golf course,” Migliara said.
City council members Thursday night thanked the public and The Athens Group for their participation.
“I think moving back to what was versus kind of where this is going might be what the residents are asking, and for The Athens Group to take that into consideration to maybe look at and say, we’ve had some ideas, we’ve floated them and the community has given its thoughts on it and maybe take a look at it again,” said Councilman Mike McCabe.
“We need to have that movement towards and understanding and reestablishment of the trust in the community so that the project that will be there will be embraced and embraced wholeheartedly by all,” McCabe said.
Jay Newman, chief operating officer of The Athens Group, said plans are still in place for the developer to acquire the hotel property at the end of May. Demolition is scheduled to commence in July, he told the City Council on Thursday evening.
Newman, given the opportunity to respond to community comments, said it was “disappointing” to hear confusion about The Athens Group’s plans.
Newman said the recreation plan has not been formally filed to the city.
“We’ve never had an experience like this, so it’s a new frontier, but it’s in our best interest, in the community’s best interest to work together,” Newman said.
The developer plans to raze the beach hotel and build a five-star, 220-room resort along with “best-in-class” residential condos on both sides of Gulf Shore Boulevard. The recreational amenities still at issue would serve the condo owners and hotel guests and would be open to the community and other visitors.
With the project’s approval, the developer promised to preserve the open green space and existing golf course on 104 of the 125 acres it has under contract. Opponents fear it won’t hold to that promise after seeing the recreational uses and changes it’s contemplating.
Ahead of the special meeting City Attorney Jim Fox warned city councilors to watch what they said during Thursday’s open forum to avoid appearing as if they’d already made up their minds about parts of the redevelopment project that might still require their approval.
New concerns about the recreational aspects of the ambitious project ignited a few months ago after the developer began circulating a sales brochure for its luxury condominiums, showing plans to reduce the championship golf course from 18 to 10 holes and to add a sports park that opponents have dubbed the “Athens Amusement Park.”
Members of the resort’s quaint tennis center are also upset about the plans to demolish it.
Plans for HB’s
Some neighbors also have become uneasy about the Watkins family’s decision to revive plans to remodel, rebuild and expand HB’s, the beach resort’s popular waterfront restaurant, which The Athens Group also promised to preserve from the get-go for the community – and history.
On Wednesday, several anxious residents asked the city’s Design Review Board to postpone its vote on the restaurant rebuild at least until the property changes hands in May.
Beth Petrunoff, who lives near the resort, held up an oversized drawing of a donut, pointing at the hole, to make her point.
She said the hole represented HB’s, and the donut depicted the larger redevelopment, which to her appears too uncertain with what she described as too many unanswered questions and loopholes.
“It’s like approving a roundabout without knowing what the road looks like,” Petrunoff told the board.
Ultimately, the Design Review Board approved the remodeling and expansion project 4-1 after delaying a vote at its February meeting to allow the architect time to address the board’s list of questions and concerns, including pedestrian access.
One of the arguments made in the project’s favor is that a permit the Watkins family obtained from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for the project years ago is about to expire, so time is of the essence to get the city’s final approvals on it.
If the permit expired, HB’s could never get rebuilt or expand at its current location steps from the Gulf of Mexico.
A new permit might require HB’s to move another 50 feet back from the Gulf of Mexico and be elevated by 10 feet for flood protection to comply with today’s building requirements, eliminating its toes-in-the-sand vibe and Old Florida character, said Tim McCarthy with Hart Howerton, the architect for The Athens Group’s redevelopment project.
The Athens Group supported the Watkins family’s request. The project, originally planned for 2011, is the last piece of the last major renovation project undertaken by the family, which has owned the property for decades. It will reduce the size of the Sunset Terrace meeting room and expand HB’s by 3,500 square feet. The plans include a new kitchen, where diners can see chefs at work, and more room for indoor and outdoor dining with an overall design that’s more in line with a five-star dining experience on the Gulf, said project architect Daniel Summers, with BSSW Architects.
After seeing a more detailed presentation than the first one last month, Stephen Hruby, the Design Review Board’s chairman, said it went “well beyond what would have been necessary to convince us that this was the right thing to do.”
He described it as a use it or lose it situation.
Opponents left the meeting disappointed. “What Athens/Watkins are proposing is yet again bigger and in a location that doesn’t follow the current law,” Petrunoff said.
The Athens Group will ensure HB’s and its traditions remain a focal point of the new development, McCarthy told the Design Review Board.
“We really look forward to extending that hospitality tradition here at the Gulf side,” he said.
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