Investors pitch converting office bldg to 120-key boutique hotel in Winter Park

A group of local investors, led by Winter Park-based attorney Mike Maher, are proposing to convert a 16-year-old office building near downtown Winter Park into a 120-room boutique hotel with new construction. 

The development plan faces challenges over the next month to earning city approval, with a first hearing on Tuesday at the Planning and Zoning Board. Planning staff are recommending denial due to the proposed three-story height next to single-family homes, and a land use change that strays from the Comprehensive Plan.

But the group is confident it will find common ground in November with city planners and commissioners for a project that aspires to meet the standard of Winter Park's renowned The Alfond Inn, Maher told GrowthSpotter on Friday. 

"We've been working very hard with the city to get something that meets their approval," he said. "We've done a lot of due diligence in relation to what scale would make a successful (hotel) there, we anticipate a significant need for rooms in Winter Park. It may be that we go on to a final commission hearing asking for more than staff wants to encourage." 

The 3.5-acre property is located at 655 W. Morse Blvd., covering the majority of a city block bounded by N. Pennsylvania Avenue to the east, W. Morse to the south, N. Capen Avenue to the west, and Symonds Avenue to the north. 

The site is now anchored by a two-story office building at the corner of W. Morse and N. Pennsylvania, built in 2000 after Maher affiliate W.F.G., Ltd. acquired the land through an assemblage the year prior, coordinated by Dan Bellows, a local developer and friend of Maher. 

W.F.G. built the office building and a three-story parking garage on the property, which Bellows' Sydgan Corporation manages. Maher's law firm is a main tenant. 

The owner is now asking the city for conditional use approval to build a three-story, 70,000-square-foot building that would house most of the 120-room hotel, including 4,000 square feet of restaurant space, 4,900 square feet of meeting space, with an outdoor swimming pool and landscaped gardens. It would cover the southwest corner of Symonds and N. Pennsylvania avenues. 

The plan would also convert the existing two-story office building on site to hotel space, and utilize the existing parking garage on site. 

The project currently has a placeholder name of "MDM Hotel," but Maher said his group will likely seek a soft brand collection to partner. He hopes construction on the project could start in the first half of 2017, and had no project cost estimate to share on Friday.

Pickett Engineering is civil engineer on the project, Joe Knight is the landscape architect, and Finfrock Design, Inc., is the architect and prospective builder. Jim Meyer of Charlotte-based Meyer Greeson Paullin Benson, who designed the office building, is contributing to the design with Finfrock. 

Maher said he established a relationship with Bill Finfrock after the company built the W.F.G. parking garage, and was impressed by Finfrock's rapid construction schedule this year for its first precast concrete hotel, a Hyatt House in Naples

To achieve the desired size of that new three-story building, Maher's group is asking  to amend the Comprehensive Plan's Future Land Use map for a 28,500-square-foot portion of the property that fronts on Symonds Avenue, next to home lots, from Low Density Residential to Commercial. It also wants to amend the zoning map for that site to C-3. 

In its favor, the hotel plans are compliant with the maximum floor area ratios of C-2 and C-3 zoning that the new and existing buildings would occupy. 

The parking would also be compliant, with the project requiring 270 spaces, the exact number within the existing three-level garage. 

But Winter Park's Comp Plan discourages changes to the future land use element, as Maher's group is requesting. The city wants to maintain residential neighborhoods, and not sacrifice that land for expanded commercial development.

Planning staff have recommended denial of the FLUM change from Residential to Commercial, and claim the proposed three-story height of the hotel would be incompatible with the neighboring homes along Symonds Avenue. 

"There is no question that a quality boutique hotel on this site would be a wonderful addition to the city," staff wrote in their report to the board. "If this hotel project were proposed on the land currently zoned commercial today, the planning staff would be enthusiastically supporting the conditional use request." 

Maher's group has told staff that 120 rooms with a restaurant and meeting space is the only financially viable model for this development to work. 

But changing the FLU designation on residential land is against the city's established Comp Plan policies.

Staff are recommending approval for changes to the Comp Plan FLU and zoning on the eastern 50 feet of Lot 2 on Symonds Avenue, where an existing surface parking lot and buffer to homes is located.

And they're recommending approval of preliminary conditional use for the hotel project, with requirements that Maher's group resubmit for final approval with a hotel design that's scaled back to the eastern 50 feet of Lot 2.  

A new hotel in Winter Park would be considered by analysts in the competitive pool of the Downtown Orlando submarket.

Key data from hotel entries in that submarket shows demand for new rooms has consistently exceeded supply additions in recent years, making the area a solid bet for hotel investment. 

When the 112-room Alfond Inn in Winter Park was opened in August 2013, followed by the 118-room Aloft Orlando Downtown opening in October 2013, available rooms for the broader submarket increased 6.5 percent while demand increased 10.3 percent from the year prior, according to HVS Consulting & Valuation in Orlando. 

When the Residence Inn opened on N. Orange Avenue in July 2015, demand increased 4.7 percent from 2014, and was up 12.9 percent through April of this year, compared to the same period in 2015, per HVS. 

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at bmoser@growthspotter.com, (407) 420-5685 or @bobmoser333. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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