A Longboat Key resort’s parking plan is no longer up in the air
A St. Regis developer hits the brakes on lifts and a garage to focus on a ground-level idea.
One of the largest condominium and hotel-resort projects under construction on Florida’s west coast will likely open next year, and without miscalculated hotel parking, without a scraped up-Maserati or two in the garage or even a proposed multi-deck parking structure in its front yard.
The Residences at The St. Regis Longboat Key Resort is on track to open in 2024 with nothing but surface parking. And, if a Town Commission meeting earlier this month is any indication, it will receive approval to move in that direction Oct. 2 with happier neighbors and a sense their government listened to them.
It’s been almost two years of on-again, off-again discussions to reach accord about where vehicles will stay while their owners relax in the tony hotel’s bars, sleep in its rooms, dine in its restaurants, celebrate in its ballrooms, or float in its lazy-river swimming pool or on its white-sand beach. And those two years followed nearly a decade of previous wrangling over public space on the property’s 17.3 acres, the number of hotel rooms to be built, height of the buildings and more.
“You have a love for what you’re doing, we have a love of our island,’’ Mayor Ken Schneier told developer Chuck Whittall, the CEO of Unicorp National Developments. “I think all of that has come together to make something that’s going to be very special.”
The tumult over parking began in fall 2021 with the discovery of a mis-matched solution for spaces that added up to the correct grand total on the property to satisfy town rules, but the wrong split between the residential side and the hotel side.
Too many on the residential side, too few on the hotel side.
That was the miscalculation of Plan A.
In order to account for the required minimum number of hotel parking spaces, Unicorp quickly moved ahead with plans to add mechanical lifts to its hotel garage to add enough capacity. Call that Plan B ...
... which lasted until winter 2023, when lifts began looking impractical, largely because of concerns over the time it might take for valets to retrieve cars. Also, as it turns out, potential maintenance issues, concerns about future needs and worries about damage to low-slung cars.
So, the company sought town permission to build a multi-level garage in the northeast corner of the property to not only satisfy town rules, but also future-proof itself with additional parking space. Call that Plan C.
Town reaction was swift. And nearly entirely in opposition.
“Almost all opponents here praised the project, but protested the garage as too much, too close and too late,” Schneier said in June, just before the commission rejected the plan.
Now, three months later, Unicorp CEO Chuck Whittall said he agrees as the company proposes the latest plan to build more surface parking.
“This is a better solution moving forward than what we have proposed before,’’ he said.
Now, as fall 2023 begins and the $800 million resort crosses its two-thirds finished line, the company is a vote away from approval.
“Almost all opponents here praised the project, but protested the garage as too much, too close and too late.”Mayor Ken Schneier
Concerns arose originally in 2021 when as part of the routine approval process, Unicorp discovered that while the project’s total number of parking spaces (405) was within the town’s rules, the split between the residential and hotel sides was off and hadn’t been initially caught.
There were too many spaces for the condos, while the hotel’s side came up 62 short. Town regulations required 107 residential spaces and 298 for the hotel. Unicorp’s mix was 169 residential spaces and 236 in the hotel.
To solve the discrepancy expeditiously, Unicorp in the fall of 2021 asked to install vehicle lifts to double enough capacity to eliminate the hotel shortage.
Reacting to criticism that the company should have called a time out in the project and sorted the parking plan with a more robust solution, Whittall in recently explained with a long-held truism.
“A saying we have in our business is ‘time kills deals,’ ’’ he said. “This deal would have been killed. If you added another seven or eight million dollars of project costs, another two or three percent in interest rate costs, and another 20 or 30 million dollars in inflation costs, this project wouldn’t be under construction.’’
Resort General Manager Winfred Van Workum, who told commissioners he has experience with such lifts at the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort in Miami and now is in place on Longboat Key, said the lifts are often troublesome and more suited to long-term storage, not frequent daily use.
Damage to client vehicles, and frequent maintenance in salt-air environments, were also gripe-worthy, Van Workum said.
“We do have a very fortunate clientele that either drives very low cars if you can imagine, and they have to go on the lift -- that causes damage,’’ he said. “Or they have very large cars, and the very large cars very often we cannot use the top part of the lift because it’s too high.’’
Whittall in early 2023 said the garage plan was a hedge against future success.
“As we are building the resort, we feel it’s going to be so tremendously successful that we don’t want to have a parking problem,” Whittall said then.
Not so fast, residents countered.
“If they don’t want to see this massive concrete structure every time they walk out their door or look out their window, I would say that’s expert testimony.”Commissioner Debra Williams
Letters to the editor, speakers in public meetings and town commissioners opposed the plan, saying they worried about the character of the island and the precedent such a structure might set.
“If they don’t want to see this massive concrete structure every time they walk out their door or look out their window, I would say that’s expert testimony,” Commissioner Debra Williams said at the time.
The garage would have held 156 vehicles on the ground level and a rooftop level.
As commissioners worked their way through a formal letter of denial, following a unanimous vote to deny the garage, Unicorp returned to the town and sought more time. It was granted, leading to the proposal for the expansion of surface parking now one vote away.
Laying out the new parking plan relied on an expanded footprint near the northeast corner of the property, built of a pervious surface with, tighter spacing suitable for valet drivers and a few more spaces on the property’s driveway from Gulf of Mexico Drive.
All told, the St. Regis hotel side will offer a dozen driveway spaces, 93 spaces in the parking lot and 195 spaces inside the hotel building. Condo spaces will remain the same at 169. With Unicorp’s future concerns considered, that’s a total of 469 spots, up from 407 before any changes were considered.
Whittall said the resort pools have been finished, landscaping is expected to begin in about 60 days and the buildings should be substantially complete by November – air conditioned by October. He said the goal is to build to Forbes magazine’s five-star standards.
He said Van Workum is already getting calls inquiring about wedding reservations..
Residents who appeared at a recent public hearing generally said they were pleased with the changes and the final outcome, no matter how long it took.
“In this day and age, we rarely get to see a government entity that really sincerely works on behalf of its constituents,’’ said resident Jeff Ray. ”As someone new to actually seeing how government works up front and personal, I want to thank each and every one of you for sincere interest in doing this right.’’
Eric Garwood is the executive editor of the Community News Collaborative. Reach him at email@example.com