Whittall fields tough questions on Colony resort plan
STEVE REID Editor & Publisher firstname.lastname@example.org
Unicorp President Chuck Whittall has spent the last two weeks presenting his company’s Colony redevelopment plan to hundreds of Longboat Key residents.
This effort is critical on many levels for Whittall because the success of his proposal is contingent on gaining voter approval in March to add 180 residential units to the already allowed 237 tourism units on the historic 17.3-acre Colony site.
Whittall points out in his presentation that his contract with the Colony Association of Unit Owners can only be fulfilled with the money generated through what he refers to as a five-star resort with a residential component.
Much of the discussion and presentation centers on how Unicorp will both address the traffic it generates from its project as well as how critical dollars generated through the redevelopment will directly fund several traffic “fixes” that have been suggested by the Town of Longboat Key as well as community organizations.
At a community meeting held Wednesday night at the Temple Beth Israel, the presentation opens with a video that features Whittall talking about the Colony and what it meant to Longboat Key in the past and presents his vision for the future. This is depicted through renderings and a virtual drone which flies around the property showing three residential towers 10 stories high, a hotel also 11 stories high and a fifth fractionally owned building, which is proposed at five stories.
The conversation then talks about what constitutes a five-star resort, and essentially it comes down to the level of build quality, landscaping and the mandates required by a luxury brand such as the Four Seasons and St. Regis hotels.
Whittall then stressed that the Longboat Key public can go anywhere on the site including the spa, restaurants as well as the remade Monkey Bar.
The 180 residential units, says Whittall, would start at 2,500 square feet and be priced between $2.5 and $8 million.
Whittall said that voters should not underestimate the investment and cost involved in bringing existing unit owners on board and accepting his contract and that if he succeeds in gaining voter approval in March, it will allow him to bring the only five-star resort on the West Coast of Florida with the exception of the Naples Ritz-Carlton which was built 31 years ago.
“There is a void for a five-star resort in this market and it will allow us to bring a type of guest currently not coming,” said Whittall.
Whittall then detailed the traffic “fixes” that he says he “adopted” because he can help pay for them. These include adding a lane in Cortez at the 119th Street light so eastbound traffic does not back up to the Bradenton Beach traffic circle and ultimately Longboat Key.
Another fix he hopes to fund are pedestrian crossing signals at St. Armands Circle. Yet another solution involves light synchronization at the congested intersections between the Ringling Bridge and Fruitville Road.
Whittall said that the Colony Association of Unit Owners considered seven other developers and none were successful because the “numbers would not work.”
Residents had concerns and voiced support.
Resident and Planning and Zoning Board member BJ Bishop asked if the current Zoning Code would allow his plan to be built.
Whittall replied that the town is currently developing a Planned Unit Development (PUD) process. He added that, “In 98 percent of the United States, the Planned Unit Development Process is an open negotiation.”
Whittall said that the town commission’s consideration of the PUD ordinance will not occur until after the March vote.
The hotel that is proposed will be set back 500 feet from Gulf of Mexico Drive and the closest building to the thoroughfare, the five-story fractional, will be set back 90 feet.
“Our setbacks are 1.5 times what the current code allows,” said Whittall.
Next Whittall said his traffic study, which was conducted by Kimley-Horn, showed that Whittall’s strategy to manage traffic through the proposed improvements as well as an island-wide trolley will offset the traffic his development generates and improve travel times to and from Longboat Key.
“To fix traffic costs money and the things that can be fixed have not because the dollars have not been spent,” said Whittall. Whittall said he cannot all of the regional traffic problems, but the proposals are realistic and will more than offset what his development plan will generate. Whittall said that the rooms in the proposed resort will rent for between $1,000 and $1,500 per night. He said that the cost to build the hotel will be about $150 million and that the residential component makes that possible.
It is the Town Charter of Longboat Key that requires voters to approve any additional density on the property. The existing 237 tourism units were grandfathered by the town commission to preserve the historic Colony use and prevent the site from reverting to the underlying zoning of six units per acre.
Even though the resort has been closed for nearly seven years, the town has failed to either rezone the property, or set up land development rules to allow or encourage the kind of resort or redevelopment it wishes to see on the site.
That is why the PUD process is being considered, but such an ordinance is not legally supposed to be site-specific in its application.
Whittall said he will continue his effort to present his plan to the voters and he hopes his traffic strategies offset the concern residents have for a redevelopment plan.
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