Bal Harbour gives preliminary OK to $1 billion hotel project
By Charlotte Libov
The $1 billion St. Regis-Bal Harbour Hotel and Residences, which one of its proponents touted will be "absolutely the highest-class hotel in South Florida," has gained tentative approval of a zoning change from the Bal Harbour Village Council.
The 511 luxury condominium hotel rooms and residential units are to replace the Sheraton-Bal Harbour hotel. The new hotel would compete with the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc, both to be refurbished.
The council's 4-1 vote Jan. 5, following a sometimes contentious public hearing, means the proposal will be brought to a final vote, tentatively set for Feb. 21. The Sheraton, 9701 Collins Ave., would be demolished to make way for 240 luxury condominium hotel rooms and 271 residences on the 7.32-acre parcel.
In addition, the proposal includes St. Regis' offer to pay the town $12.2 million to compensate for loss of taxes during the three years the new buildings are under construction.
Mayor Seymour Roth cast the lone dissenting vote. During the hearing, he called for an independent consultant to review conflicting figures over how much open space is in town. Several residents had voiced concern about the plan, saying it could further erode the town's amount of open space.
The project requires a zone change from Ocean Front to Planned Development District to enable the towers to be constructed perpendicular to the neighboring residences, the Balmoral Condominiums and the Majestic Tower Condominiums.
"If we were developing on the OF, we would have been forced to put the buildings along Collins Avenue, and that would have blocked the view of our neighbors," said Carter N. McDowell, a lawyer with Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod representing the joint venture of Starwood Hotels and The Related Group.
"This will absolutely be the highest-class hotel in South Florida," he said.
George Giebel, managing director of developer Related, said the council vote opens the way for sales. Reservations are being taken for the units, which range from 800 square feet for a condo hotel to up to 4,000 for some residences. He declined to quote prices but said costs range from $1,400 to $1,600 per square foot.
"Interest is very, very good. We opened up a temporary sales center at the Sheraton and they are very, very busy," he said.
Although there is some investor interest, he said, most inquiries have come from people who plan to live at the St. Regis. "There are a lot of people who are looking at either a permanent home or, for many, a second, third, and even fourth home," he said.
About 100 residents flocked to the standing-room-only hearing and spilled out from council chambers into the hallway. Attendance was so high that some townspeople reportedly were turned away.
This is the second design for the St. Regis. The first was rejected after the Architectural Review Board and residents objected to the plan.
Charles M. Sieger of Sieger Suarez Architectural Partnership in Miami was brought in as architect. "The St. Regis is not your average hotel. It is high-end, so high-end that it initially frightened us as architects," Mr. Sieger said
The design calls for three 26-floor towers, constructed primarily of glass. The hotel would have a 40-foot-high glass lobby. The towers would appear to rise above a reflecting pool and, Mr. Sieger said, "when you look across 20 feet, you will see the sky and the open space. It will be unlike anything in Florida."
There also would be an underground garage as well as separate pools and recreational facilities for each tower.
At the hearing, the village council's staff spoke in favor of the project, saying the density is less than the existing 645-room Sheraton's and would decrease traffic congestion.
Merrett Stierheim, a former county and Miami city manager hired by the village government to consult on the project, recommended approval. "I really tried to find problems and negative aspects but I could find none. This is a very, very high-end, upscale project," he said.
The town, he said, would benefit greatly from the plan. "When it is completed, this will generate 800% to 1,000% more (tax revenue) than the existing hotel, but that is not the whole story," he said. "Fifty percent of what you are collecting today will come from this single project."
Among the residents favoring the plan was Bal Harbour Shops owner Stanley Whitman, who, as he told the audience, "first lived here in a POW barracks after World War II" and went on to build one of the nation's premier shopping malls.
"Communities die for five-star hotels," he said. "They are the generators of the people who will come in and buy your condos and homes.
"This process has drawn on and on. If you drag this out, it will cost the developers millions of dollars and you will sit here with a vacant hotel and we won't get customers for our stores," he said.
Although most residents spoke in favor of the plan, it was not without opposition.
Marjorie Schell, who lives in the Balmoral, said she was "concerned about what will happen to the beachfront."
"I'm sure a 40-foot building of glass is beautiful, but the ocean will go right through it," she said. "If they don't protect the ocean, none of us will be here."
Several residents decried what they called the town's lack of open space. In the original reports, village staff said the project would use up 1.4 acres of green space. But, at the hearing, Michael J. Miller, the consultant village planner, said the original figures were in error and the project does meet the town's requirements.
Dina Celina, vice president of the Bal Harbour Citizens Coalition, said, "I don't think the residents of Bal Harbour have adequate open space, and if we're going to sell it, we need to be adequately compensated."
"Bal Harbour Village was considered public space," said resident Mitra Raheb, who said she has been stopped by security officers from taking her children to the park there. If that land is considered open space, she said, "does that mean that I can now schlep to Bal Harbour Village and no one will stop me?"
Babak Raheb said if the town tries to count his property as open space, "I will go to court for an injunction to stop it."
Mayor Roth took issue with figures calculating open space and said he would not be swayed by the developer's offer to compensate the village for missed tax revenue during construction.
"We don't want your money. We don't need your money," he said. "We are very affluent, and we are not asking for your money. We're asking for park land."
Other residents took issue with the town's plan that enables private land to be counted as part of the town's open space.