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Longboat Key Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018 1 week ago

Vacancy at the site of former Colony resort depends on courts, calendar

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After demolition of the final building, timing of what comes next isn't certain.
by: Suzanne Elliott Staff Writer

From the day Chuck Whittall presided over the largely ceremonial tearing down of a wooden balcony in July to the morning of the last whack of a wrecking ball on the last building standing at 1620 Gulf of Mexico Drive, everyone on Longboat Key knew what was in store for the property.

And so, on Nov. 21, the site of the once-iconic and thriving Colony Beach & Tennis Resort became Longboat Key’s largest vacant lot — 17.6 acres or so. What Whittall, president of Unicorp National Developments Inc., has in store for the beachfront property depends on the timeframe you’re considering.

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By the end of 2021, he expects to finish construction on a five-star resort, complete with hotel amenities, multimillion condominiums, restaurants, public spaces and, he hopes, a reputation in keeping with the business that came before him.

It was not lost on Whittall that the driving force behind the Colony — Dr. Murray “Murf” Klauber — died a day after demolition was complete. He was 91. 

Whittall said  the St. Regis Hotel and Residences would someday fit the same mold in the community.

 “The Colony used to be a great place where people got together and hung out,” Whittall said. “We plan on having the same kind of place.”

Construction could begin in 2019, Whittall said of the 166 rooms and 78 condo units. The project is worth $600 million.

“It was quite ironic the last building came down on a Wednesday and he died on a Thursday,” said Whittall, adding he likes to dress just as colorfully as Klauber.

“We’re kind of eccentric in that regard,” Whittall said.

Relief to see it go

Longboat Key Police Chief Pete Cumming sees the soon-to-be-pristine piece of property as a load off his mind.

For more than eight years, the property sat vacant and fenced-off. Still, it was a magnet for trespassers, vandals and the generally curious.

Chuck Whittall presided over the first day of demolition in July.

In September, for example, town firefighters responded twice to reports of a fire in the Colony’s six-story mid-rise building. Firefighters found debris and clothes on the sixth floor of the condemned building.

“Toward the end, it was a pretty dangerous place,” Cumming said. “Now, we don’t have to watch it as closely.”

Likewise, the neighbors are happy to see a change. In addition to being promised access to the new resort’s amenities, similar to the same access neighbors had at the former Colony, residents of Aquarius and Tencon said they liked seeing progress toward the ultimate goal.

David Marsh, president of the Aquarius Club condominium association, has lived next door to the former Colony for more than a decade.

“It was really nice at first,” he said. “We had access to the restaurant and the Monkey Bar. …Usually, it was very pretty. It wasn’t noisy, but occasionally it would be.”

Having the resort buildings sit empty for years hurt property value at the Aquarius, he said.

“It was difficult to sell units here,” he said. “But, we have embraced Unicorp’s concept. We are happy to see the buildings demolished. We know something is around the corner. We trust the developer and we’re excited.”

Progress coming

In the days to come, work will continue on the site, clearing off the last of the demolition debris. The town has set a Dec. 20 deadline for that work to be completed.

From there, the property is required to be graded smooth and planted with grass. The potential for public events on the land begins in mid-January.

The Longboat Key Kiwanis Lawn Party — one of the Key’s largest social events of the year — is scheduled for March 9 at the former Colony site. The event typically takes place at The Resort at Longboat Key, but because of road work at that property, the party will move up Gulf of Mexico Drive to the former Colony site.

Progress beyond that will be more complicated.

Legal solutions

The bigger question looming for Whittall and the St. Regis project is full ownership of the property. Construction cannot begin until Unicorp owns the entire site.

The mid-rise building was taken down the week of Thanksgiving.

Unicorp is close. In July, Unicorp’s bid of $29.51 million for 2.3 acres of recreational property — the restaurant, delicatessen, swimming pool and tennis courts — was successful in an all-or-nothing, court-ordered partition sale. Because the Orlando company had already owned 95% of the property, the company paid investor and unit owner Andy Adams for his 5%, or $1.48 million.

That accounted for the land. Now, even though all the residential units are gone, dozens of owners retain their ownership rights as part of the community’s condominium association. Though Unicorp has purchased units from some owners, Adams and others have refused deals.

On Jan. 10, in front of Circuit Court Judge Hunter Carroll, a hearing to dissolve the association will be heard. Fighting the legal move are many of the owners who refused to sell to Whittall, though one of their key claims — that the buildings could have been rehabbed — is moot.

“We will get a good indication on Jan. 10,” Whittall said.

The Colony’s condo association has unanimously endorsed Whittall’s plans, said Jay Yablon, Colony Condominium Association board president. Blake Fleetwood, one of the key opponents of the plan, resigned from the board earlier this year and sold two beachfront condos to Unicorp.

“The board voted to accept the development agreement with Unicorp,” Yablon said.

If the condominium association can be dissolved, then Unicorp can buy out the remaining owners. When Whittall accomplishes this, building permits can be issued.

One last look

Work to demolish the Colony buildings was largely low key until the week of Thanksgiving. Until then, earth movers and other machines worked their way through the wooden buildings, hauling away several units’ worth each week. But on Nov. 19, the mid-rise building was the last one standing.

The building that housed Klauber’s penthouse home, still with potted plants on the balcony, fell to a wrecking crew that repeatedly dropped a heavy ball from a crane. By the end of the day Nov. 20, the building had the half-demolished look of a war or disaster zone.

Chris Hoglund, who spends several weeks on Longboat Key each year escaping the cold of his native Stockholm, stopped his walk on the beach to watch something he’s never seen before on the beach — a wrecking ball in full work. He’d visited the Colony years ago and frequented the famous Monkey Bar.

“Fascinating,” he said, before continuing on with his walk.

 

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